Case Study: Virtual Microbes, Part 1

The challenges of translating a complex scientific process into a creative, engaging, and accessible museum experience.

Header photo courtesy of Liberty Science Center.

I recently had the opportunity to work with Liberty Science Center‘s Exhibition Development and Design team to develop Virtual Microbial Art Lab (VMAL), or as it’s more colloquially known, “Paint with Microbes.” This digital experience is part of Microbes Rule!, a new exhibition focused on the beauty of microbes, featuring vibrant, colorful microbe art created in laboratories.

Cell to Cell by Mehmet Berkmen and Maria PeƱil Cobo. American Society for Microbiology Agar Art Contest 2015, People’s Choice

LSC’s team conceived of VMAL as a way to let visitors create and share their own virtual microbial art. The real-world lab processes for doing so are fairly complex, requiring a sterile environment and a lot of patience, as the artworks themselves must be ‘grown’ over time in an incubator before becoming visible. VMAL was intended to give visitors an opportunity to respond to the artworks on display with their own creativity, and in the process, garner some basic understanding of both the microbes themselves and the lab processes used in handling them.

When I joined the project last summer, the brief was a bit intimidating; some challenges were immediately apparent, while others emerged later on in the development process. Here’s a look at some of the design choices and challenges that went into making VMAL a reality.

UX Design

After kicking off the project and spending a few weeks poring over the content, we went about plotting out the user experience. As with many similar projects, I began by sketching wireframe images that mapped out the proposed application flow and interface layout.

From the onset we planned the experience around a multi-touch table from Ideum. In reviewing issues of scale and visitor comfort, we decided to split the table up into multiple stations, allowing four visitors (or small groups) to create artwork simultaneously. As VMAL is the primary hands-on interactive in the gallery, and we were presenting a ‘slow’ experience, we knew that this throughput would be necessary.

First draft UX wireframe
First draft UX wireframe

Our first challenge came when trying to replicate the processes that go into creating microbial art. In the real world, sterilization of all tools is crucial – otherwise microbes will become contaminated and produce unexpected results. Our virtual station integrated a butane flame, prompting visitors to sterilize their brush tools before choosing new microbes – but this was counterintuitive to those who’ve used other painting and drawing applications. Should visitors be given the opportunity to experiment freely and mess things up, or should they be guided through a rigid, realistic process? How restrictive did we want to be?

Ultimately, after prototyping a variety of options, we found a compromise. If visitors try to select a microbe without sterilizing, a warning appears, directing their attention to the flame. If they persist in contaminating microbes… we let them. The virtual contamination itself ended up a happy accident, with the blended microbes growing into a colorful combination of the two patterns.

Second draft UX wireframe
Second draft UX wireframe

The other significant challenge lay in the nature of microbial art itself. In the real world, when artists paint with microbes, they’re working blind, adding microscopic, invisible cells to an agar dish. Only after incubating the artwork over days or weeks does the colorful artwork begin to emerge. How could we replicate this process without frustrating visitors?

We considered a few options – including making the microbes grow automatically, or removing this part of the process entirely, but ended up taking a risk and mirroring the real-world process. A virtual incubator at each station, with a simple on-off switch, puts the agar dish into an accelerated growth spurt, allowing the microbes to blossom in seconds. Because the process is sped up, but not immediate, there’s an element of suspense and surprise as visitors watch their artwork emerge.

Visual Design

Early in our process, we opted to take a skeuomorphic design approach – that is, our tabletop interface would resemble a real-world lab table. I worked closely with LSC’s Senior Environmental Graphic Designer, Naomi Pearson, who specified type, color, and shapes throughout the exhibition. For text, we worked with a handwritten font, suggesting chalk notes made by a lab technician. The tabletop was kept dark, to help the microbes pop, and the incubator was modeled after a bright blue real-world device, to make sure it caught the attention of users. It’s a busy interface to begin with, so I spent a lot of time adjusting the scale and location of each element, to fade out when not needed, and to pull focus when in active use.

VMAL Gallery Layouts
Gallery layout options, with the selected design direction at bottom-right

We briefly considered putting a shared palette of microbes in the center of the table; this evolved into a virtual gallery, a blend of visitor-created artwork and winning works from the American Society for Microbiology’s annual Agar Art Contest. We explored a variety of layout options, from grids to diamonds, and ultimately settled on a circular layout that itself mimics the shape of a petri dish.


While the user experience challenges were shared with the whole team, the challenge of simulating microbe growth fell solely on me. Lauren Aaronson, LSC’s Exhibit Developer and the primary content strategist for the project, consulted with experts and combed through reference books to find an appealing palette of microbes that would not only provide us with an assortment of colors, but with a variety of fungi and bacteria types, from yeast to bathroom mold to anthrax. Using reference photos and the occasional stop-motion video, I strove to replicate each organism’s growth patterns with accuracy.

I started with a simple particle effect, not unlike a digital snowfall or fireworks simulation. Each microbe colony starts out as a simple point, then expands in size, shape, and color as the microbes mature. But the nuances and visual diversity of the microbes made this challenging; our blue microbe, Streptomyces coelicolor, starts off white and puffy, then develops blue ‘spores’ and bleeds out a blue tint into the agar dish. Our purple (Chromobacterium violaceum) and green (Pseudomonas aeruginosa) microbes grow to full size before their colors finally emerge and permeate the colony’s surface.

My solution involved a variety of workarounds; beyond the basic particle effect, the simulation uses blurs, bevels, tints, and randomization to affect a natural, three-dimensional appearance. It’s by no means perfect – the real-world process is massively complex – but I was surprised and relieved when our expert advisors visited the exhibit and approved.

In part two, I’ll reveal the final exhibit, take a look at its prototyping process and technical challenges, and share how we resolved the exhibit’s biggest usability issues – well after its opening date.

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