Physical Env. Setup
Oct - Dec 2022
A multi-sensory experience for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History grounded in experiential learning, participatory experiences, and spatial environments.
Breaking away from rigid narratives and outdated approaches, A Changing Arctic creates relatable, integrated experiences which illuminate our roles and relationships with the natural world.
Spatial projection, motion capture, and positional triangulation systems provide a layer of dynamic context to existing exhibit spaces. By enabling bodily interactions within large-scale environments, this facilitates collaborative, reflective activities grounded in shared alternate realities.
I led concept ideation, narrative design, creative direction, and research.
Improve the visitor experience of Pittsburgh museums, which have remained relatively static for the past decade.
Today, many museums are facing the challenge of transitioning from rigid institutions to experiential and flexible spaces. This is driven by factors such as expanding collections, increased competition for visitors, and visitor expectations for greater engagement. Museums are turning to virtual reality, apps, and interactive experiences to attract visitors. We explored emerging trends in technology to create multi-sensory, immersive, and responsive exhibits.
A Changing Arctic is an immersive, interactive exhibit experience comprised of four main interactions within the Wyckoff Hall: Polar World exhibit at CMNH.
Responsive spatial projection mapping creates an immersive experience that weaves stories across the exhibit into an interactive journey spanning past, present, and future. Visitor curiosity is encouraged, and they're given the flexibility to create their own narratives across content which is dispersed and integrated throughout the space, bridging the relationships between the environment, ecology, and culture. To engage visitors in participatory, reflective activities, a layer of dynamic context is added to existing physical infrastructure, the unique properties of which are honored and enhanced in an additive, non-destructive manner.
Our project resulted in a concept video, live demos and functioning prototypes, research and design documentation, and presentation to students and faculty within CMU's department of Design, Architecture and Human-Computer Interaction.
An illustrative journey in four parts
Four non-sequential main interactions enable visitors to explore personal areas of interest at their own pace, promoting a sense of discovery, self-initated curiosity, and sense of agency through flexibility. We focused on ways to facilitate social interaction through collaborative, shared experiences, rather than manufacturing it through reward systems or other artificial mechanisms.
Fate of the Arctic
Experiential Learning and Social Interaction
Visitors are welcomed by a spatial environment immersing them in an Arctic scene. Peripheral projections relate the fate of the Arctic to the rest of the natural world, and interactive digital projection mapping encourages participants to engage with others in the space. Participants collaborate to visualize the impact of collective behaviors on the world and reflect on the interconnectedness of man, ecology, and the environment.
Wayfinding and Delineation
Upon exiting the orientation space, visitors are greeted by responsive exhibit-wide projections extending into the main hall. As visitors step away and navigate through the exhibit, ice floes detach from the central ice sheet, allowing visitors to glide on top of personal ice islands.
Since the Arctic exhibit serves as the only entry point to an adjacent exhibit, visitors often confuse the two as a single exhibit, resulting in muddied takeaways and disconnected experiences. This interaction establishes continuity throughout the Arctic exhibit, reinforces boundaries and distinguishes the exhibit from the neighboring hall, and motivates visitors to explore the entirety of the Polar exhibit before leaving the space. By subtly relating Arctic content with spatial cues and assisting the compartmentalization of content, information browsing is improved.
Life Beneath the Ice
This interaction brings attention back down to a smaller-scale, tactile level. Making use of previously blank space surrounding the diorama platforms, digital screens couple with physical icebergs embedded with speakers. Visitors are invited to discover the diversity of Arctic wildlife, often hidden under the ice. By moving the icebergs aside to reveal what is underneath, visitors engage with the environment to hear narratives about the species that call the Arctic their home.
Iglu: A Disappearing Art
This full-body activity engages visitors in an immersive, interactive iglu building experience which aims to help document, preserve, and spread appreciation of this disappearing craft. Participants collaborate with nature to build an iglu and learn about the significance of this cultural practice. Trained models reference motion-capture inputs and make use of an existing life-size diorama, enhancing the experience with wall projections, audio effects, controlled temperature, and tactile wind stimuli. Visitors follow audio-visual guides to enact steps in the process and experience a multi-sensory environment. Upon completing the activity, the rest of the diorama is revealed, allowing visitors to learn more about life inside an iglu.
Research and Framing
State of the Museum
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) is a world class cultural institution and center for scientific inquiry, but like many of its peers, is experiencing pressure to become a more relevant, active participant in the community. Drawing from secondary literature and work in this space, we took on the challenge of transitioning the museum space from a historically formulaic, rigid approach–one that has remained relatively static at CMNH for the past decade–to evolving, flexible experiential alternatives.
Through participatory field research and secondary sources, we studied a variety of exhibits, installations, and activations to investigate how projection mapping, mixed reality, AI-powered exhibitions, data materialization, and physical computation have been utilized to engage participants. We gained a better understanding of feasible technology setups in museum contexts and evaluated what was effective in existing experiences.
Understanding current visitor experiences
To enrich our intuition and cross-examine our hypotheses, we conducted primary research focused on the Polar World exhibit. In relation to the scope of our project, we prepared research objectives and protocol to inform contextual interviews and field observation. We sought to understand visitor motivations before coming to the museum, experiences during the visit, and takeaways after, as well as observe trends in the volume of visitors, their movements, and their engagement with different sections of the exhibit.
Combined with participatory field immersion and examination, we mapped out current experiences with respect to the exhibit's physical layout and content.
Key insights and implications for design
Our approach and guiding principles
Based on research insights, we developed a problem statement and design principles that would frame the rest of our explorations:
Breaking away from outdated approaches, how might we design relatable, inspiring experiences that provoke reflection on our roles in the natural world and relationships with it?
We are one with nature– recognizing our place in the world to shift away from an anthropocentric mindset:
Exhibit system details
On exhibit design and conceptualization
Shared new worlds
We started this project by researching various technologies, including AR and VR, but decided as a group on spatial projection mapping as our main interaction medium. We found that the communal nature of it lends to inclusive, participatory dynamics which facilitate shared understanding and collective, simultaneous engagement– key characteristics that align with both our project vision and museum mission in general. An interest of mine that arose from this exploration asks how we might facilitate this in AR/VR experiences which operate on individual head-mounted displays.
Come as you are
We sought to use integrated props and affordances of the existing space to minimize the introduction of mundane digital assets and personal mobile phone usage for a more mindful, immersed experience. This placed constraints on what we were able to prototype and demonstrate, but it formed a fundamental part of our design values of inclusivity and presence in the moment.
Many of our interactions rely on position tracking and gesture recognition of multiple individuals in a space. We considered alternative scenarios and unexpected occurrences that would challenge our system (tracking multiple people across time, walking vs. running, integrating multiple actors), but had to acknowledge them without addressing each side case for the scope of this project.
On craft, production, and setup
An exercise in spatial storytelling
Regarding my role crafting the final concept video, thoroughly planning shot angles, frames, entry and exit points, and "stage directions" prior to filming played a crucial part in the continuity of the video, especially since it was a mix of museum footage and darkroom demo footage. Meticulous attention to detail in sourcing and editing background music, aligning it with key actions and cuts in the footage, and mixing/equalizing it with spoken audio added to the communication of our proposed designs. Interspersing live footage with darkroom footage of our designed interactions in a convincing way was a fun challenge, and we were delighted to hear feedback from seasoned museum-goers that they could not differentiate what was filmed in house vs. at the museum, attesting to the believability of the video.
When writing and narrating informational content, it's easy to misjudge the timing of a prepared script. Though we carefully considered the content, copy, and tone of narrated content for the Life Beneath the Ice and Iglu: A Disappearing Art interactions, we had to cut a majority of it from the video for the sake of timing and attention.
Creative vision vs. reality
When creating projection content and setting up spatial environments, there are several considerations that warrant special attention and testing:
- Scale: total projection area, projected content, human scale
- Placement: changes in visible content, relative position, and aspect ratios depending on total projection area
- Fidelity: (de)prioritizing certain details when viewed at different distances
- Contrast and color: effects of ambient light and blow out on projected images
- Motion: latency and rhythm of animations
Many issues and necessary adjustments didn't surface until we started working in the demo space and testing equipment. A whole slew of unanticipated environmental factors were only made known once physical set up began, resulting in rapid adjustments and tests made on the spot. In particular, projector placement required repeated trial and error to minimize participant shadowing and skewed images. Projection mapping is a situated conversation between physical and digital environments.
Getting scrappy with it
Though we were lucky to have access to a specialized space for the final exhibition, much of our setup required crafting together installations with items like wood dowels, zip ties, and good old fashioned tape, and we were often constrained by limited heights and surface area. For the interactions that were simulated, we experimented with various proportions of live prototypes and digital simulations, including using green-screens, projecting backgrounds, and playing animations with Wizard of Oz live acting.