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Wendy Richmond, Communication Arts' Design Culture columnist, discusses the impact of technology on the creative community. Her current columns can be found at the Communication Arts website


Physical + Virtual = Immersion

Whenever I write about technology, there is always an underlying message: a desire to combine the physical and virtual world so that they are mutually supportive. My thinking is often influenced by my husband, Fred Raab, whose work is, literally, combining the physical and virtual; juxtaposing reality and illusion to create an immersive learning experience.

Fred is a media technologist. He collaborates with designers to produce interactive, media-intensive exhibits in museums, visitor centers, and other public spaces. Like most spouses, I hear a lot of details but rarely get the big picture. So recently, when Fred gave a presentation at a design conference, I decided to attend. As I watched the reaction of the audience, I realized that the field of interactive, media-based exhibits is a magnet for designers. It offers a way to be involved in cutting-edge technology that goes beyond a pixels-only palette and a screen-only stage. Fred's presentation outlined the creative opportunities that interactive exhibit design offers for designers.

Collaboration of Expertise
Fred's experience is in video, theater and computers. His role is conceptualizing and developing the technology that will best deliver an engaging experience and message. He works with designers who develop the visual space, and together they create the exhibit's storyline. Other team members typically include a fabricator, video producer, writer and programmer.

A few years ago, Alabama Power Company decided to create a visitor center to show the full extent of the company's responsibilities as steward of the state's waterways and reservoirs. Fred collaborated with Michael Sand, an exhibit designer, to develop the 5,000 square foot floor space. In his talk, Fred summarized the exhibits, each of which required the unique expertise of each team member.

Waste Not, Want Not is a huge, free-standing wall of six-gallon water jugs with a touch screen that queries you about your use of water, and then shows the results by illuminating the appropriate (and often embarrassing!) number of jugs. In the Mitchell Dam Tour, visitors enter a workshed, then board a cart; with the aid of a wall sized video monitor and interactive steering wheel, you "drive" through a hydroelectric plant, meeting workers along the way. In the Helicopter Flyover ride film, you're in a simulated helicopter, and a daredevil pilot flies you over Alabama's 900 miles of waterways. The illusion of being in a helicopter is boosted by Thunder seats with sub-woofer speakers inside: you feel the chopper.

Water Whys, an interactive game show, has members of the audience compete to demonstrate their knowledge of Alabama waterways. The emcee appears as live and life-size, but is actually coming from a programmed videodisc.

Every exhibit combines an effective use of story telling, physical space, video, computer software, visual graphics and sound.

Immersive Experiences
A primary ambition of a designer is to deeply engage his or her audience. And that's the potential of interactive media - the ability to bring the viewer more profoundly into the content. The best interactive experiences are ones that are immersive, that is, where you are deeply involved in the subject matter. So how do you create an immersive experience? Here are three techniques:

1) Immersion in the Environment
Many exhibits are simply open spaces with panels, display cases and an occasional kiosk. That's a waste. It's much more effective to have an environment where every element of the space, whether physical or virtual, is employed to immerse the visitor in the learning process.

Another example Fred showed is the "Big Dig" exhibit at Boston's Museum of Science, also a collaboration with Michael Sand. Boston is undergoing a huge construction project to create a new tunnel under the harbor as well as a new Central Artery, and the exhibit highlights the science and engineering aspects.

The exhibit entrance pulls you into a new environment and sets you on a prescribed path; physical scenes and computer-based media teach you about the construction process and the effects of the Big Dig on everyday life. About halfway through the exhibit, you get on an elevator and "ride down" eight stories into an excavation pit. Before your eyes adjust to the darkness, you see the construction supervisor (actually a video column, which is triggered to start when the elevator doors open) and he beckons you to come look through the peepholes in the construction fence. Unbeknownst to you, the peepholes have two polarized filters, and you're watching a 3D film: a close-up view of workers constructing a section of a car tunnel, installing the necessary guts into a 325 feet long steel pipe.

Fred says it's funny watching visitors as they leave the exhibit and re-enter the museum: some are visibly shocked when they realize that they're actually on the same floor and only a few yards from where they first entered the exhibit.

2) Physical Involvement
Another exhibit that Fred highlighted was Sports Lab, designed by Krent Paffett, Associates. Personally, I learn best by doing, and the more physical, the better. So when Fred was putting the finishing touches on an exhibit for Sports Lab, I tagged along. Sports Lab is a traveling theme park housed in two inflatable structures, each the size of a football field. They're filled with sports activities that I loved because they're great combinations of physical and virtual. For example, I headed straight for the baseball cage, picked up a bat and got ready for the pitch, which came at 60 mph from Roger Clemens.

Actually, as Roger's video image pitched a virtual ball, a real ball came through a hole in the screen, straight over my plate. There was no learning time involved; I swung immediately, and slammed (well, sort of) the ball into virtual left field.

3) Immersion through Dialogue
While I was slugging, Fred was wiring his exhibit "You be the Judge," an interactive stadium. The audience learns how judges score an Olympic event, and then get their turn to judge. People like to see each other's choices, and how they compare to their own.

In his presentation, Fred noted that people become really involved when they have to reach a consensus. He learned this years ago, while working on an interactive drama for the National Scouting Museum. The audience watches a story about a moral dilemma, and is asked to vote: do you tell your Mom or protect your friend? The audience's vote determines which path the story will take.

Because of budgeting considerations, the design team wanted to streamline the video production. To limit the number of options, they decided that a tie vote would not be permitted. So whenever there was a tie, the audience was instructed to vote again. Guess what: people talked to each other! Because a consensus was necessary, they had to convince each other to change votes. The audiences were extremely vocal, and definitely engaged.

Group dialogue is a subtle but effective form of immersion. When you're an active participant in decision-making, you're absorbed in the content.

Recreating Authenticity
The most immersive experience is the real thing, when you're in an authentic environment or activity. On his busman's holidays, Fred always seeks out places that seem to have been frozen in time, like coal mines, mills, and one of his favorites, a blast furnace. The goal of these wonderful places is, above all, preservation; an effort to delay the decay.

But most of the time, the public doesn't have direct access to the things it wants to experience, either because they were moments in history, or they're too dangerous or too far away. So the exhibit team must develop an oxymoron: they must recreate authenticity. A well-chosen blend of physical structure and virtual simulation creates a feeling, a sense of a place or experience that no longer actually exists, or is occurring on the other side of the globe.

One of the liberating aspects of technology for designers is the ability to go beyond the physicality of print, and to explore the depth of an interactive screen. But it's even more liberating to come full circle, and add yet another dimension of physicality, as well as people, to the mix.

© 1996 W. Richmond

editor's note: More pictures can be found on Fred's web site at

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