Aquarium Exhibit Sound, Lighting and Special Effects – How Guests Benefit from Innovation

Via touch screens, whether double touch or single touch ELO, visitors to Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, Conn., explore the interactive animal habitat exhibit, Shark Smell, and alternately, Life of Inuits in Alaska and Canada, and macro or micro telescopic views inside a fish tank through an Omniscope, invented by an aquarium trustee. BrightSign/Roku processors drive the touch screens.
Two more 32-inch touch screen enhanced kiosks are being installed on the main floor of the aquarium, one to focus on sounds of the sea, utilizing a Brown Innovations sound dome, and another to focus on the interaction of ocean and human health. “We’re embracing technology throughout,” said Director of Exhibits John Scoones.
A variety of light sources are in use, including four hanging theatrical lighting fixtures to provide ambiance in a gallery and to light the live sea lion show in the marine theatre, viewed live or on hi definition projection screens. LEDs replace lighting in many aquariums and at Mystic they set a tone specific to each gallery, often using color change.
The Oceans Today exhibit utilizes a 40-inch screen and additional 40-inch slave screen accompanied by soundscapes and 12-inch Sony digital photo frames. Scoones is considering the viability of touch tables to use in another part of the aquarium to help tell stories.
The challenge is finding the balance between TV screens and showing live fish. Scoones noted, “Guests love the technology side. The younger high schoolers gravitate toward the screens and older folks too, for the information.”
That balancing act between technology and the real thing is only a subset of the one between maximum guest satisfaction and the care and comfort of the animals. “We always consider the health of the animals who cannot be impacted by lighting, using whatever fits the environment best.”
Sound too, depends on the venue, kept at a certain decimal level to avoid disturbing animals, setting the tone relative to the habitat, such as frogs and crickets in the Louisiana bayou fog.
Positive guest reactions to the Insectarium, opened three years ago, guided the direction of the master plan for the Audubon Institute, New Orleans, La., including the Aquarium of the Americas. New technologies will modernize the guest experience, said Steve Dorand, senior vice president of design and exhibitry. “Visitors want to go on an adventure. It’s time to change to more natural lighting as if guests are underwater.”
The new LED lights over the fish tanks provide striking effects, are economical, easily maintained,  allow flexibility to simulate a real experience for guests, and be controlled and changed for animal day and nocturnal cycles by color and levels, explained Dorand. “Other aquariums look to us for light design. It’s beautiful and fish love it.”
The LED system, along with DMX controls, provide theatrical lights in the galleries as well. Blue hues change as the ocean does, said Dorand. “The lighting isn’t stagnant, changing constantly as if underwater.”
A new Mayan reef exhibit and a Caribbean gallery transformation come to life with real elements and technological enhancements. In a walk-through tube, fish will tell visitors about themselves through use of Apple apps, one to download onto phones others onto large flat ELO touch screens.
In place of a row of photo id screens and signage, two 24-inch flat screens, and outside of the tube, a 52-inch monitor for interpretation, tie together schools of fish against a moving live feed backdrop. Rocks and ruins redeem stagnant walls yet guests look through a porthole to see the moving image.  HD video solid state machines replace moving parts systems for better quality and longevity.
Guest reactions to an internal TV station still in the building stages has been spectacular, Dorand said.
“It’s a great way to update materials using Keynote or PowerPoint to create graphics templates, and only changing the information as a new fish is introduced.” Fresh footage of feeds into monitor programming, such as people snorkeling, can change anytime or location through CAT6. “It crosses all age boundaries. They don’t want paper maps, rather to use electronics. They pay attention, answering questions about it during question and answer.”
Audio and visual together brings guests closer to the experience they want, noted Dorand. The soundscapes such as rainforest crickets and frogs to music produce pure escapism, that movie soundtrack experience. Underwater, aquatic animals don’t notice the muffled New Age music created for their area, whereas for guests, without it, something is missing. “The soundtracks created in-house are better than surround sound, layered into a symphony of sounds.”
Visitors get a special treat when they push a button to change the regular light source to a black light in the Crystal Jelly tank at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, Calif. The jelly’s particular green florescent protein becomes visible under ultraviolet light. The exhibit highlights the scientists that studied the protein and received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008 for applying it to everyday life uses.
“Guests are mesmerized because in regular light jellies are beautiful,” said aquarium Director Mike Schaadt. “Pressing the button, guests are intrigued.”
When weighing guest satisfaction and creature comfort, said Schaadt, of utmost responsibility is animal well-being, as well as safety of people and staff. Each animal has a lighting comfort zone and people love to see a kaleidoscope of colors. “For both we’re careful to match the natural world as closely as possible. Our mission is show what the underwater world looks like. So few go under, their only exposure is an aquarium or movies, but human nature is drawn to the real thing.”
The immersive experience occurs best when guests use as many senses as possible and sound plays a part in exhibit background ambience for Exploration Center, where guests learn to be naturalists. They imagine themselves miniaturized, stepping into mud and viewing magnified organisms found there. Elsewhere, kids dress like animals and stand in front of a backdrop TV screen to see themselves in a specific habitat. “Their observations help understand how organisms live with the objective to get them to think about the ocean and take care of it,” Schaadt said.
Jeff Hoke, senior exhibit designer, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, Calif., sees no sense in competing with the gaming industry or phone apps much of the public is fully accustomed to. “However, what we do is larger, what we have is real, live animals, and what we do is socially interactive, reaching out to people with something to take home and share. In the jellyfish exhibit, a jelly shows up on a large screen for kids to draw with their fingers on a touch pad, and send a link of it home or to friends.”
The tech elements at the aquarium progress, tapes and CDs to digitally formatted videos. Screens are bigger, cheaper and can do more, said Hoke. A recently opened exhibit utilizes a large interactive 8-foot diameter circular magnifying screen that shows computer-generated plankton. “As LEDs become more energy efficient, they’re improved, replace what they couldn’t in previous years, in strips can do fun things, are programmable for color, glow and movement.”
Adjusting lighting according to animal and plant needs is a trade off, said Hoke, a darkened room, keeping fish awake and not hidden, yet lit enough for visitors to see.
To minimize noise levels, which is always an issue in large spaces, multiple speakers in front of a group of people replace overheads that reverberate, and smaller ones direct sound in particular exhibit areas. Many options exist, said Hoke, such as sound domes and cones, two-degree speakers to deliver frequencies across a room, parabolic speakers, very directional speakers.
Through special effects, synchronized with sound and lighting, animated sculptures interact with guests. Pushing a button animates a jelly on a screen or has physical objects respond to them. “It’s object theatre. Electronics are available off-shelf and cross-platforms, video talking to audio, running motors and lights. Sound effects make the environment more reactive to people and video walls project action as people approach the screen, or motion detectors sense where an arm or body is moving and reacts accordingly.”
The slick, clean look of the iPad was the upgrade Director of Concept and Exhibit Development Scott Moran wanted for fish identification picture frames on select tanks at Steinhart Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Calif. The proprietary Apple product was reverse-engineered into an acrylic mounted pad with attachments hidden from view behind it. Guests navigate through the interpretive material on 20 tanks re-themed to animal reproduction, at their own pace to see pictures, videos or information by pinching and zooming.
Also developed was an entire content updating management system. Through local wifi, live content updates are transmitted daily, emailed from on area to another for quick approval, and guests navigate through layers of content at their own pace.
Moran altered his lighting approach, maintaining the low levels typical to public aquariums yet increasing the feel of brightness through color, orange and yellow graphic designs converted onto vinyl wall treatments rather than grays and blues. To avoid reflection off of the acrylic, light focus was directed away from the tanks.
To prevent sound disturbance to animals, event locations are limited and heavy bass is kept at a minimum. In the African Penguin public programs area, biologists wear wireless mics to improve intelligibility, multiple ceiling speakers outside of the tank decrease the need for volume, and acoustical treatments added to the ceilings and upper walls reduce reverberation.
Planter beds outside the main entrance of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., feature a cascading waterfall and dense, native plants and vegetation relevant to the region. “Wildlife would not be present in the middle of Baltimore City so we supplement the exhibit with a rich soundtrack of a variety of specimens,” said Richard Snader, manager of Multimedia Services and Design.
“Sound and special effects should complement, not overpower, live exhibits,” explained Snader.
“When using audio or special effects, we strive for scientific accuracy in content.”
Quality light fixtures illuminate the live animal habitats as naturalistically as possible. Positioning, focusing, diffusing and color gel addition enhance the overall appearance and present accurate representation. Snader considers the advancements in LED technology and its improvements exciting. Relying solely on artificial lighting for live exhibits as well as for interpretation in the main building, LED-based Energy Star rated fixtures and lamps have replaced conventional fluorescents and align with the aquarium’s Green Initiatives. –

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