Time machines and digital signage: 5 things the new History Colorado Center got right

A Colorado history museum is taking visitors on journeys into the past using digital signage and virtual reality throughout the facility.

The History Colorado Center opened in April in Denver and features a mosaic-tiled video wall in the museum entry hall, digital signage kiosk "time machines" that allow visitors to explore different periods in the state's history, and interactive digital displays scattered throughout the exhibits.

On a recent visit to the Center, it was immediately apparent how much digital signage is a key part of the still-growing museum's attractions. In nearly every exhibit, digital signage screens offer visitors an expanded look into the static exhibits, and the museum even uses digital signage displays behind its admissions and membership and information counters, as well as freestanding digital signage kiosks with exhibit and scheduling information.

"The History Colorado Center is more than a new museum — its development served as the impetus to transform the 132-year-old Colorado Historical Society into History Colorado and launch the organization into a new era," said History Colorado President and CEO Ed Nichols, in an announcement released prior to the Center's opening.

"The History Colorado Center will be a place for self-discovery, inspiration, scholarship and fun," Nichols said. "Our goal is to meet and then exceed the expectations of a savvy, modern, museum-going audience with original high-tech and hands-on interactive multimedia along with authentic artifacts and evocative stories of Colorado's diverse people."

After touring the museum, DST has five things the Center got right in deploying digital signage:

1. Making a statement. After getting past the admissions area, visitors to the museum are greeted by a 29½-foot-wide, 9-foot-tall video wall mosaic of 132 Christie MicroTiles. The video wall, designed to mimic both the skyline of the Rocky Mountains and the graphics of American Indian art, plays a loop of content ranging from significant moments in Colorado history to scenic views of the state.

It's a stunning introduction to the museum, one that immediately lets visitors know, "this is not your History Colorado Center atriumfather's history museum." Apparently the museum at one point considered using projection technology for the huge display in its atrium, but wisely chose to go the digital signage route in a sun-filled room that likely would have washed out any projection tech.

2. Time Machines? But the video wall is only the start in the atrium. The floor of the hall is covered by an aerial map of Colorado, as seen from 400 feet above. Steampunk-themed "time machines" with digital signage screens are set in the hall on casters that allow the informational kiosks to be moved around the state — and when one of the "time machines" lands on a historical marker, the multiple screens arrayed around the machines play video keyed to that location.

The "time machines" are an engaging and novel approach to integrating technology into the museum, with video histories ranging from the serious to the absurd (such as "The Texas-Colorado Tomato War"). Also? They're just fun. Museumgoers push, tug and shove the rolling machines across the floor to discover the history of the state, and the brassy exteriors make them seem like some Victorian-era technology that was itself recently unearthed.

3. Interactivity and engagement. In another exhibit, interactive touchscreens let viewers page through the contents of an old Montgomery Ward catalog, shopping for items their pioneer forebears might've purchased. In a mining exhibit, motion-sensitive screens play segments of video as visitors pass through the exhibit, with an old-time miner explaining the perils of digging and blasting for ore. There's even a section that allows visitors to place faux sticks of dynamite in a wall after a video tutorial on how miners had to carefully emplace the explosive. An onscreen miner then lets the visitors know whether their placement was successful — or brought down the mine on top of them.

4. Diversity of screens. Upstairs in the museum, each of the permanent exhibits includes at least one screen playing video that highlights information from a certain era in Colorado history, from the state's mining heritage to its American Indian history to the Japanese-American internment camp the state played host to during World War II. Some are touch sensitive, and some are not. Many of the screens just play looped content with onscreen text, repeated in several languages. This kind of diversity shows smart restraint on the part of planners. Not everything needs to be interactive.

5. Virtual reality, sort of. In an exhibit just off the atrium on the first floor, museumgoers can sit in what appears to be an antique Model T Ford set up before a large screen that lets them look ahead as view from a model tthough they're driving across the open prairie. It might not seem like much, but the reality of driving somewhere there were no roads is jarring. And upstairs in an exhibit on the state's skiing heritage was the piece de resistance for the day: A set of skis on a gimbal-mounted platform set before a large, curved screen lets visitors pretend they're attempting a huge ski jump on one of the Colorado's better-known slopes. The platform tilts as needed, and visitors have to crouch to gain speed, lean forward on the launch and kneel to stick the landing — just like a real ski jumper — as video flashes by onscreen showing the course down the jump, flight through the air and, depending on how well the visitor performed, a stuck landing or a tumbling crash.

Smithsonian Affiliations Director Harold Closter described the History Colorado Center, a recent Smithsonian Affiliate, as "the first great history museum of the twenty-first century" in an announcement of the museum's opening.

"This is a museum that will be known worldwide for setting a new standard of excellence in education and enjoyment," said Closter during the Center's ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 28. "Once you have been inside, you will never be the same."

While that could be a bit of hyperbole, it might not be far off the mark.

Watch a video about the "time machines" below:

Read more about digital signage installation and integration.

Photos courtesy of History Colorado, the Colorado Historical Society.

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