NASA visitors explore Space Shuttle Atlantis via digital signage

Oct. 31, 2013

The last NASA space shuttle to fly in space has landed in a $100 million tourist attraction that also features a full payload of digital signage.

The actual shuttle Atlantis is the centerpiece of "Space Shuttle Atlantis," a 90,000-square-foot exhibit at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida — but interactive digital signage screens and kiosks bring the titanic exhibit down to earth for visitors, according to Unified Field, the experiential agency behind the exhibit's interactive content.

Unified Field created interactive experiences for the Center's exhibits on both Atlantis and the International Space Station, and both presented significant challenges that digital signage technology was particularly well-suited to tackle, said Jason Bell, senior producer for New York City-based Unified Field.

The space shuttle, for instance, is "kind of old technology at this point," and the shuttle itself is out of physical reach for visitors, Bell said in a recent interview. So digital signage helps both bring old technology into the modern age and makes it accessible by giving visitors the chance to explore the shuttle workings via interactive touschscreens, he said.

But the shuttle and the space station also are immensely complex — from the theories of orbital mechanics that make space flight and planetary orbits possible to the systems that keep humans alive in space and then bring them back to Earth — and digital signage allows visitors to get a sense of the "depth and breadth" of the systems and get a broader understanding of them, Bell said.

"So on the one hand it's the take something that might be old and might be way out there at arm's length — because the artifact literally is — and bring it to somebody's attention and say, 'Here's stuff that's cool about it,'" he said. "And then the other piece is to take something that's massive and incredibly complex and give people a sense that they understand the story of it. ... And the digital technology is fantastic for that."

Some of the interactive digital signage kiosks at the exhibit offer information on themes such as satellites or spacewalks, with content about specific satellite missions or actual spacewalks. And another interactive digital signage video wall offers an interactive exploration of content on the International Space Station, featuring a data stream live from the ISS that shows in real time what is happening on board.

The interactive exhibits also feature links to Web apps or QR codes to access a mobile app to continue the experience, "so it gets people engaged with their programming even after they've left the space," Bell said.

And the capability of digital signage to transfer the experience to the mobile is key for both corporate and nonprofit clients, he said. "It's very important even for institutions like museums and science centers and that whole sort of educational nonprofit sector ... They really want people to continue to engage with their institution and their offerings even after they've left the exhibition. They want them to be aware that there's more stuff going on — and from an educational perspective they want them to go home and think about what they saw there and be excited enough to continue learning about it."

Display technologies provider Delta Displays deployed the 20-foot high, 110-foot wide LED display for the Atlantis exhibit. The LED display provides a backdrop for the shuttle and creates a visual simulation of the Atlantis orbiting Earth, Delta Displays said. The indoor LED display consists of more than 800 I-8 LED tiles for a total resolution of nearly 3 megapixels, the company said.

And MultiTouch Ltd. provided its MultiTaction Cells for some of the interactive display systems in the attraction at the Kennedy that delivers to guests more than 60 interactive touchscreen experiences and high-tech simulators.

"The Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction not only enables guests to come face to face with the actual space-flown orbiter, Atlantis, it also invites them to 'be the astronaut' with more than 60 interactive experiences," Doug Wohlert, project development manager at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, said in a news release. "STS Timeline and ISS media walls have proven extremely popular with guests, who have enjoyed having an unprecedented amount of information, images and videos about the space shuttle program and the ISS right at their fingertips that's easy to search and fun to use."

Digital signage that provides dynamic content in a museum-type setting adds something special to the experience, with each user essentially able to customize the experience, Bell said.

"I think that's the magic of it," he said. "I hate to use a buzzword here, but 'agency' of the person doing it. The person doing it having some agency is huge, I think, in terms of a person's experience being something that they enjoy."

That customization creates its own tension and challenges, though, according to Bell. People want to be involved in what they experience and to some extent able to control their experience, he said, but content developers still have to guide the viewer through the experience rather than overlaoding them with wave after wave of content.

"The challenge from the side of content developers like us is that you still want the experience to be curated ... to communicate thematically or tell a story or communicate in a way that makes more sense than simply flipping through random pages on your own," he said. "So there's this merging of these two opposite directions."

One is that "the experience wants to be curated," because then it will actually be more meaningful to visitors and they will get more out of it, he said. But at the same time and in the other direction, "there has to be some elbow room for the visitor" to go find the experiences that are more interesting or meaningful to them, he said.

"They want to feel that they've had a custom experience," Bell said. "And the people putting up the content — whether it's a museum or a company or a public space — they want to get across a bit of whatever their story is, their point of view, what they think is important at the moment."

And meeting and solving that challenge is as varied a process as there are varieties of deployments and varieties of clients, he said. Each solution to the challenge has to be developed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the client, their message, their audience, their content and what they want to communicate, he said.

"And there's more, but you take all those factors into account and then try to come up with great ideas to accomplish both of those seemingly disparate goals."

Watch a video showing some of the experiences and content in the exhibit from Unified Field below:

Learn more about interactive digital signage.

Photo courtesy of Unified Field.

Topics: Content , Content Design and Aesthetics , Customer Experience , Education / Schools , Interactive / Touchscreen

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