Mac-based kiosks work for Smithsonian

Mac-based kiosks work for Smithsonian – Company Business and Marketing

Erik Sherman

Remodeling is a painful business. Imagine, then, a project that takes close to a decade from conception to execution and then has to look fresh for the next 30 years. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., had such a project with its National Gem and Mineral Collection: to catch up with scientific advances while providing an updated look for its visitors.

“We knew we had a great collection of specimens, but we also were interested in doing more than just showing the objects,” said Jeffrey Post, curator of the collection. “We wanted people to understand the stories behind these objects.”

One way to make those stories more accessible was through a computer. The museum decided to use multimedia presentation kiosks to explain what makes natural phenomena interesting to scientists -but in a way that would connect to the average museum visitor.

Before freshening the exhibits, the museum had to find funding for the work. The Smithsonian’s substantial budget is spread over a wide range of activities, and this was to be the largest permanent hall renovation in the history of the institution. Along with the necessary custom programming and multimedia development, a wide use of computers would be an expensive addition to an already pricey project.

While the museum went to private donors first, Apple donated money for content development and all the hardware and software needed to create a series of 14 touchscreen kiosks: 180-MHz Power Mac 8600s with 2-Gbyte hard drives; 96 Mbytes of RAM; MPEG-2 decoder cards on each machine; and two 17-inch monitors, one for the user and another positioned overhead to mirror the on-screen activities.

Animating science

The Smithsonian had a clear view of what it wanted in the computer portions of the exhibit: professional animation and graphics with interactivity designed to let visitors become involved in the learning process. Because such production design was outside its experience, the Smithsonian contracted with the Washington office of Jack Morton Productions, which in turn brought in Engineering Animation Inc. of Ames, Iowa.

Experienced in technical animation of all sorts, EAI also had proprietary rendering technology that runs on workstations from Silicon Graphics Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. This sped the animation process, creating MPEG movies to run on the Mac kiosks. In August 1995 the programming project began.

The folks at EAI were happy with the donation of Apple systems for the museum kiosks. “A lot of times when you make a choice like that, it’s a problem. In this case, it’s a blessing,” said Adrian Sannier, EAI vice president of production and general manager. “One reason [Macs] are so good is that they are fantastic multimedia machines. They made that part of the construction no trouble at all.”

The project quickly proved to be anything but easy, however. The kiosks had to represent the finest of educational presentations while accurately conveying the cutting edge of scientific knowledge.

A team of three Smithsonian employees, including Post, developed a first approach to the kiosks, working with an extended internal group that included educators, scientists and designers. Specifications went to EAI to be translated into visual presentations, with MPEG animations embedded into Macromedia Director presentations.

The Smithsonian’s need for scientific accuracy led to a strenuous, iterative procedure. Each animation had to be reviewed and changed through 10 cycles, with enormous implications.

“Each kiosk has many animations,” said Carol Jacobson, senior director of business development at EAI. “We’re talking about 150 to 200 animations that were going through this interactive process.”

It was a learning experience for all parties involved. Animators discovered that an animation suitable for other types of presentations needed more concrete scientific detail to satisfy the Smithsonian. And Smithsonian scientists found that they had to provide sufficiently detailed specifications at the start and understand that changing a small detail for one kiosk could mean re-creating half a dozen or more animation sequences.

“As scientists, we have in our mind a very clear picture of what we want and the level of accuracy we want,” Post said. “Initially we’d say to the animators, ‘We want a volcano.’ It got very frustrating when they produced something that would have been perfect for the ABC [TV] special on volcanoes, and we’d see it and say, ‘You’ve only started.'”

EAI also felt frustrated at times. “We would have liked to have known how much effort it was going to take,” Sannier said.

Each kiosk design was based on several discussions, conducted either at the Smithsonian or through conference calls. Then EAI created storyboards indicating what would be shown, in what scale and how various aspects would be modeled. Once everyone agreed on the storyboards, the artists would create an “animatic” – an animated storyboard. EAI would lay out the animated sequence showing important points and transitions without generating all the frames.

“In this particular project, we knew we had to work with the Smithsonian. We wouldn’t rely on sign-off to protect us,” Sannier said. As new scientific information became available, EAI had to modify the animations to show those discoveries.

Deadline pressure

Early in the project, EAI would output new pieces of animation to videotape and send them overnight to the Smithsonian. The museum team would review the work, provide detailed comments and send them back, just in time for the next video to arrive. Eventually, EAI began devising new methods for dealing with the volatility of the project, such as a site on an extranet so Smithsonian personnel could view the videos online and provide instant feedback.

With complex technical details to iron out, time pressure started to build on everyone at both the Smithsonian and EAI. Originally, the museum anticipated that the renovation would be done by 1994, but it took three additional years.

Things looked bleak in the spring of 1996. A budget battle between Congress and the president had temporarily closed government offices just when the production schedule had to be finalized. “That was a real low point,” Post said. “Here you’re racing to meet all these deadlines and the government shutdown put everything into stop mode.”

The pressure started to weigh on the Smithsonian team. “If I had been as sure in the beginning that it would turn out as well as it has, it would have been a lot less stressful,” Post said.

At times, it seemed like a Grade B movie. One of the exhibits is the Hope Diamond, which legend says is cursed. “For a while during the renovation we started to believe it,” Post said.

After all the frustrations and challenges – and perhaps partly because of them – both parties are pleased with the results. Since most of EAI’s animation is the fleeting stuff of marketing, the Smithsonian kiosks will be a comparatively permanent display of its work. And other museums are already requesting the Smithsonian’s presentations for their visitors.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Mac Publishing

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