When the new Nature Research Center (NRC) wing of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences held its grand opening recently the SECU Daily Planet dazzled visitors with its immersive, three-story multimedia space. Smart Monkeys, Inc. was hired by Batwin + Robin Productions of New York City to provide system design, consulting and programming for extensive amounts of content it created for the Daily Planet and throughout the NRC wing.
The Raleigh-based North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is the largest museum of its kind in the southeast. The new 80,000 square foot NRC offers state-of-the-art labs, research opportunities, interactive exhibits and live presentations designed to make science a tangible and enjoyable experience and help visitors understand the practical applications of science in their everyday lives.
The SECU Daily Planet is a globe-shaped structure attached to the NRC that spans the three-story wing and serves up content illustrating the wonders of science. It operates in several modes to deliver pre-recorded and live content designed to turn visitors into active citizen scientists.
Smart Monkeys, Inc. was brought onboard the project by Batwin + Robin about two years ago to help provide the tools that would enable the content creators to deliver the captivating, immersive and entertaining content they’re known for.
“We specialize in show control, which allows production companies to take control of the display systems and not be dependant on technical specifications,” says Alan Anderson, one of the owners of Smart Monkeys, Inc. and a consultant on the project. “Batwin + Robin needed to get the right flow and feeling out of the system to help them tell the Daily Planet’s stories on the 40-foot HD screen in the dome-shaped structure.”
“Most people don’t bring in the show control programmer until the end of the process, but I was part of the master planning of the museum going back almost five years and wanted to ensure that the show control would make our vision a reality,” says Linda Batwin, partner/creative director at Batwin + Robin Productions.
“I brought in Alan as a consultant when we were producing content for the Daily Planet and the NRC exhibits. He was instrumental helping us achieve what we wanted to do and deal with the Daily Planet’s various operational modes.”
Anderson notes that Batwin + Robin’s role went beyond that of a typical content provider. “They design the whole emotional feel of the environment, and the control system is a key element of that. By working closely with them to give them control over the system and its implementation, we enabled Batwin + Robin to develop more complex narratives.”
Smart Monkeys, Inc. also teamed with Electrosonic, which handled the technical design and system integration for the Daily Planet. “Once we knew what functions Batwin + Robin needed, Electrosonic was able to design and engineer a system to accomplish those things,” Anderson says.
The Daily Planet’s primary operational mode is the Ambient mode, which displays content continually throughout the day. Batwin + Robin created 50 beautiful, poetic pieces and mini documentaries for the Ambient mode, giving a sense of the space and the wonders of science to museum visitors. Several times an hour these elements are punctuated by the Intro mode, a three-minute video about the museum’s vision. Fun interview segments with scientists – who discuss why do what they do – comprise “Windows Into the Scientist’s World,” which also play within the Ambient mode.
The Presentation mode is employed for live appearances by scientists in the Daily Planet. “We provided a GUI that allows them to choose from 25 backgrounds that we created and use up to 10 windows for their content,” explains Batwin. “The Presentation mode is very user-friendly: The scientist plugs in his or her computer, chooses a background and the windows they need, gets a mic and goes! Live camera feeds can stream the presentation to remote connections; scientists at other sites can Skype into the presentation in at least three of the input windows.”
Scientist presenters stand on a small stage on the ground floor of the Daily Planet; they can control the presentation from this position or an operator at a nearby kiosk can provide control. Visitor seating is available on all three floors.
“One of the challenges was to design an easy to use control system for these frequent Presentation modes,” says Anderson. “A touch interface allows the scientists and museum employees to run presentations without a crew of outsiders.”
Other content displayed in the Daily Planet includes video science bulletins shared by other museums nationwide and event footage recorded in the NRC’s new Science Café, which hosts scientific presentations over informal dinners.
Batwin + Robin also worked with scientists and curators to craft more than 50 media and interactive components for the NRC wing.
To deliver content for the Daily Planet, Smart Monkeys, Inc. harnesses the power of four Delta high-resolution uncompressed media servers from 7thSense Design. “We dynamically drop content onto the timeline using a fade technique, from one video to another, that we developed with Batwin + Robin and 7thSense Design,” Anderson reports. “The servers feed into each other to achieve the right transitions.”
A Medialon Manager show control system talks to the lighting array and powers a complement of Christie Roadster S+12K DLP projectors.
Medialon Manager also controls all the exhibit elements for the NRC, including interactive players and PCs, video players, audio equipment, lighting and projectors.
“Smart Monkeys is excellent at what they do,” says Batwin. “The testing they did early in the process was extremely helpful as was the preprogramming before they arrived on site. Even though they did a lot beforehand, it’s always a challenge to arrive on site where you have to get every piece of equipment talking to every other piece of equipment. But Smart Monkeys did a great job. I can’t say enough good things about Alan Anderson and his team.”
She notes that installations with the complexity of the Daily Planet and the NRC would do well “to have show control become part of the design process so everyone is on the same page from Day One.”
At Smart Monkeys, Inc. D.J. Cole was the programmer for the Daily Planet and the NRC. At Batwin + Robin Productions, Linda Batwin oversaw all aspects of the project, Elle Kamihira was the lead producer with Megan Gargagliano and Valerie Chin as project coordinators. Yannis Cabolis of Electrosonic’s Burbank office handled the Daily Planet system design.
Smart Monkeys' project team
Alan Anderson: Design, Programming & Project Management
Dennis "DJ" Cole: Project Engineer & Programming
Stephan Villet: Account Management