Wow vs. why — Our approach to exhibition technologies
Tech, whether high or low, has always been part of experience and exhibition design. Over the years, we’ve developed a unique approach to choosing and integrating technological means for our projects, using both custom and off-the-shelf solutions. Here is a look at our processes and an introduction to two projects with very different means, yet equally successful results.
The biggest technological challenges
We live in an era when technology is ever-present. Consumer-grade technology, such as AI assistants, or our ubiquitous smartphones are familiar to both our clients and their visitors. While these are often trendy and top of mind, they are rarely appropriate for integration into an exhibition.
“We can’t use consumer-grade technology when designing public exhibitions. It becomes outdated very quickly.”
Head of Design
The latest experience design technologies are prevalent in online design trade publications and social media. The challenge is in filtering through the buzz, and actually considering conveying to them all the work, people, and money necessary to build them. Whether it’s a giant video wall or a custom app, a mass-audience application that may be able to recoup its costs through millions of users is very different from building an app for a much more niche exhibit audience. The investment required is rarely worth it for smaller audiences. We always aim to find the most appropriate technology for the project in question. Any technology could be relevant, it’s a question matching needs to means.
From a production standpoint, once a technological application has been selected, our challenge is to integrate it so that it is as invisible and seamless as possible. You never want a visitor to be wondering how to use a certain technology, or frustrated due to a less-than-optimal user interface.
“We hide the technology so that visitors aren’t left pondering how it’s working, but can really experience the content intuitively in terms of interactivity, images and sound.”
Head of Audiovisual and IT
In working on a new project, our first goal is to understand the client’s objectives and content themes, and then find the appropriate technology for the application in question.
“If a client starts talking to us about a technological means before the content, then we have to bring them back to the story that we want to tell. We look for the means to fit the content and not the opposite.”
Head of Design
This means that sometimes we recommend technologies that are less trendy but that are a better fit for the subject at hand. If there is a request to build an app, or a giant video wall, we aim to bring things back to basics. What content will be put in this giant wall? What is the purpose of the app in the overall visitor experience? An example we like to bring up for some perspective is the CD-ROM. Remember those? If you’re under 30 years old, maybe not. Well in the 90s, this was the hot new trend that every museum wanted in their exhibitions. Although CD-ROMs were great for home use, in an exhibition context they didn’t work, they seemed cheap and boring. The temporal nature of trendy tech is a good reminder that the hottest new thing is rarely hot for long.
“If we haven't chosen the right technological elements, then the content won’t flow. And vice versa, if the content isn’t good, even if we have the greatest equipment in the world, it won’t be interesting for visitors. A great experience has to be a combination of both.”
Head of Audiovisual and IT
At the end of the day, sometimes the latest greatest tech is appropriate for our projects, but more often than not, the best solution is something that visitors are already familiar with, a means that can seamlessly blend into the experience rather than dominate it.
Once the technological applications have been selected, the next crucial phase is prototyping and testing. It’s not uncommon for there to be a gap of one to several years between an initial concept and a final installation, which can lead to changes along the way. In working on our most recent project at the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai for example, the creation of an interactive projection mapping experience in the lobby, the prototyping phase revealed some issues with the initial equipment that we had selected. Our tests showed that these projectors were not ideal in terms of projecting text, they weren’t sharp enough. The only option available was to at the time was using much bigger video projectors — but this would have impacted the design of the space. We ended up finding a brand new Panasonic projector that had just been put on the market, it was four times sharper and within the size and power specifications that we needed. We were able to get a demo, and tests in Montreal proved successful. Although this new equipment more expensive than the original proposal, in this case, the client wanted the best technology available and was willing to make an investment accordingly.
This brings up the question, when does exhibition equipment need to be updated? Technology evolves quickly and cannot be left unattended, whether for updates, or more extensive interventions. In most cases, we choose applications that can withstand the test of time, especially in our museum work, where permanent exhibitions are expected to withstand over a generation. If the framework responds to the communication or education needs of the institutions, then a full replacement is rarely needed. In tower observatories or other branded experiences where the landscape is competitive and visitors generally only visit once, however, there can be an added pressure to stand-out. In these projects, clients may have an added interest in using the most avant-garde technology available, requiring more frequent updates, or even replacements, as needed.
When high tech is the answer: the Burj Khalifa lobby
We have created a number of cohesive visitors experiences in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower since 2010, including the creation of observation decks on the 124th, 125th, and 148th floors. Our most recent collaboration involved the redesign of reception area — the idea was to create an interactive experience where visitors could learn statistics about the Burj Khalifa tower itself, and its surroundings, such as the desert, as well as themes particular to the Emirates. Our creative proposal involved an interactive video mapping projection onto a large-scale architectural model of the tower. In this case, as described above, the most high-end and new projectors were required to achieve the desired resolution and luminosity. Visitors can interact in real time with the projections intuitively, without even noticing the technology, it’s perfectly integrated into the architecture, creating a magical, sculptural effect.
“You don’t perceive the technology. You can’t see it. You don’t even feel like looking for it, it’s perfectly integrated into the environment.”
Head of Design
In order to create this seamless effect, our technology team coordinated with a team of seven suppliers, responsible for everything from audiovisuals, building the tower maquette and platform, media integration, to architecture, working towards a common goal. The backend and all the equipment is seamlessly built into the ceiling, hidden from the visitors. The result is an installation is that it looks just as beautiful off as it does on. You don’t see a blank screen or a machine, but rather a sculpture. While not obvious to the visitor, the integration of high-end technologies was the right fit for this project, achieving a design-forward, intuitive experience.
When low tech is the answer: Pointe-à-Callière
When Montreal’s Pointe-à-Callière archeological museum approached us to redesign their Building Montréal exhibition, we had to come up with a creative solution to highlight the 400-year old architectural remains below street level. As part of their permanent exhibitions since the museum opened in 1992, over the years, exhibition designers have tried many approaches to make sense of these ruins for visitors, such as graphic design, 3D video, or projections on the ruins themselves.
Our solution was not a new technology, but rather, a creative application of something that has been around for a while, LED strip lighting. These lights recreate the volume of the former buildings, creating a sort of “wireframe” allowing visitors to imagine what the buildings would have looked like originally, without having to completely reconstitute them. It’s a cost-effective, simple solution, yet successfully accomplished the goal at hand.
This wouldn’t be an article about technology without talking about future applications! Although we do try and dissociate innovation with being purely about new technologies, there are a few tools that we’re excited to put into action in the coming years.
Holograms are the most obvious area that will dramatically transform visitor experiences in the near future. While we have seen a lot of excitement about virtual reality (VR) in recent years, we believe that the isolating nature of VR today, and the prohibitive nature of all the equipment (headsets, controls) required to use it, make it a less than ideal solution. We are more excited about the possibility of holograms with VR that don’t require a headset. Of course, we can’t project into thin air, but when a commercially-viable version of augmenting an environment (projecting onto glass windows for example) becomes available without the use of a device, this is something that we could be relevant to many of our projects. While we have already worked in AR, such as with the Tellscope™, our custom-built AR digital telescope at Burj Khalifa (which was quite innovative for its time in 2010) we look forward to developing its next iterations, which we anticipate will be more immersive.
Another area of technological evolution that is dramatically transforming the way we work is the use of 3D real-time visualization tools, allowing us to design visitor experiences in real-time. Traditionally, exhibition designers will design a space, and then have to imagine what the result will look like in real life by rendering their drawings and models with 3D software. With real-time design software, like in a video game environment, designers can not only create a space with its interior architecture and detailed ambiance, but also include furniture and people interacting with the entire space. They can design interactions, try them in real-time, and improve them. This allows them to push their strategy and designs much further than is the case with design software available today. We’re keen to start integrating design tools into our processes in the coming years.
This quote from our Head of Exhibits and Scenography sums up our approach. While, like most humans, we get excited about technological evolution and change, we never let this direct our decision-making process when choosing the best solutions for our projects.
“Technology can be very attractive, but the goal always remains the visitor experience — the means must follow the message.”