Miami’s new science center offers a wide variety of digital media experiences.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Frost Museum of Science in Miami, Florida. Recently reopened in a new facility, the Frost incorporates a planetarium, aquarium, and variety of exhibitions into a multi-building campus on Museum Park near the Biscayne Bay.
In full disclosure, I was part of a team that bid (unsuccessfully!) on several media projects at the Frost, so not only did I have some background info on the exhibitions, I was curious to see how they turned out. Here’s a quick look at some of the digital interactives to be found at the Frost:
The largest of the Frost’s structures houses a half-million gallon aquarium that cuts through several stories of the building. Its galleries host a handful of digital exhibits; the original plan called for many more interactives, but the museum’s budget struggles seem to have sent these to the chopping block.
On the lower floor of exhibits, a large projection wall presents virtual sharks, jellyfish, and other denizens of the Gulf Stream. The animation is top-notch, but the interaction, with animals alternately flocking and scattering in response to visitors, reminded me of the less elegant interactive floor projections that became so uniquitous a decade or so ago. Because so much light spills into the space from the aquarium tanks, the media is largely washed-out, making it feel like an afterthought in spite of its 60-foot wide canvas. And while it features a different set of animals, it can’t compete with the view around the corner, where the aquarium’s largest window provides an expansive look at the real thing.
Below the aquarium, a large open space plays host to the MELAß gallery, which focuses on human health. Throughout the gallery, clusters of hands-on and digital interactives explore topics including diet, exercise, and relaxation.
I took a close look at two touch-table multi-user games. The first, a flu virus simulator, presents a birds-eye view of a small community, with wandering dots representing each citizen. When an influx of flu-infected visitors arrives, players hurry to vaccinate them, send them home for bedrest, or otherwise contain the outbreak. The game is quick and fun, a nice combination of action and system-level learning. The other game, a meal-selection challenge, was colorful and intuitive, but I was a bit frustrated by the auto-timed experience, which required me to wait idly for other players (who weren’t there) to make choices.
Indeed, it was hard to assess many of the experiences since they were designed for large groups. A central interactive dance floor, large enough to accommodate two dozen visitors, was empty, even with a facilitator providing a demonstration. I’d be curious to see how well this gallery’s activities work with large groups of students or families.
Just before leaving the space, I stumbled upon its tracking system: visitors use tablet stations to design avatars and connect them to physical cards via QR codes. As they complete each exhibit zone, they collect ink stamps, unlocking virtual bonuses for their avatar. I really liked the combination of stamps and QR as a low-tech, low-cost interactive device, though the system may be overkill given the gallery’s simple, mostly analog interactives.
Had I entered the room from another direction, the cards might have helped me understand the exhibition a little better, but as is, they just drew attention to the awkwardness of the gallery’s arrangement – a byproduct, I suspect, of the need to clear the floor for space rentals on a regular basis.
Across a skybridge, in one of the other structures, is Feathers to the Stars, an ambitious exhibition that connects dinosaurs, birds, human flight, and space exploration. There’s a lot to see here, including a Yutyrannus huali, a helicopter, and numerous rockets. Most of these objects float above our heads; interactives and interpretation take place on a series of linear counters below.
There are some nicely designed digital interactives here that present the basic science of flight, using a hand-drawn style to complement the hard surfaces of the hardware above us. A digital flight simulation was the only frustration here, as my colleague and I both found it to be confusing.
At the rear of the gallery, a large projection visualizes air currents as they’re disrupted by birds, aircraft, and the occasional thematic quotation. Much is made of the fact that this is a realtime simulation, procedurally generated with infinite possibilities, but the content might as well be a video loop; it’s not discernibly interactive, so the visitor’s experience is ultimately a linear one.
It’s all very nicely designed, but once again, the gallery lighting washes it out and kills its impact. This exhibition photographs well, but in person, it comes across as – in the words of my colleague – “dour.”
My final stop was a small gallery called River of Grass, designed for those 6 and under. Entering the dark space, I found myself in a virtual Everglades, projected across three walls and the floor. A variety of beautifully-illustrated creatures filled the space, including deer, gators, and otter.
In many ways, the exhibit is reminiscent of Connected Worlds at NYSCI – visitors can move ‘log’ cushions across the floor to divert water flow, and there are bits of interaction with the projected animals (e.g. wave your hand to disperse the birds). The experience’s initial concept was in fact developed by Design I/O, the creative team behind Connected Worlds.
The limited interaction in River of Grass is a bit disappointing – this is nowhere near as complex or surprising an experience as its predecessor – but I really enjoyed its use of real-world animals, in a visual style reminiscent of Charley Harper illustrations. While I like the abstract and fantastical animals of Connected Worlds, I was more empathetic to – and engaged with – the more familiar creatures in River of Grass.
I have mixed feelings about my visit to the Frost. As someone who visits a lot of science centers, I’m always on the lookout for media experiences with distinctive personality and a sense of wonder. There were glimmers of thwarted ambition throughout the Frost, but only Rivers of Grass really felt magical – and as noted above, it’s a bit derivative to begin with.
I’m sympathetic to the museum’s financial woes… but maybe I shouldn’t be. Its ambitious building plan has been value-engineered down to something that feels like a cinder-block high school. Had the project been more realistically designed, budgeted and financed, it might have had the resources to achieve excellence – in both its architecture, and its exhibitions.