The Cook Museum of Natural Science is an amazing new museum in North Alabama. QuietPixel was honored to work with them to develop five cutting edge interactive exhibits that bring science to life!
The Voronoi Pattern shows up repeatedly in nature. It can be found in the cracks made by drying mud, in the cells that make up our bodies, the veins in a leaf, and even in the white and brown patterns on the skin of a giraffe.
We built a simple interactive exhibit, which allows visitors to make their own Voronoi Patterns. Each time you tap the screen, a new cell is added at that location, and the pattern gets more and more intricate.
Interactivity makes it much easier to explain how the pattern occurs in nature. Static images can show what a Voronoi Pattern looks like, but being able to see the pattern change as you interact with it brings the concepts to life.
Have you thought about just how perfect Earth is for life?
There are so many ways a planet can not be habitable! It could be too cold or too hot for life. It could orbit a small unstable star that throws out such frequent solar flares that it could strip the planet of its atmosphere. The planet could orbit too far away, or too close to the star. The planet could be tilted over at an extreme angle, like Uranus, where during “Summer” its north pole gets 21 years of uninterrupted daylight, and its south pole is trapped in darkness for 21 years. Just imagine how cold the one side would get, while the other bakes under the Sun. And don’t forget how fast the planet spins on its axis. If our Moon was a bit closer, our day would be a lot shorter. In the worst case, if the moon was really close, our day could be only 6 hours long, and the tides it generated could be hundreds of feet high, rushing in-land and destroying everything for hundreds of miles. If the Moon was farther away, our planet would spin slower, and perhaps even not spin at all. Can you imagine if a day lasted several months long? Daytime would be really hot, and the long nights would get unbearably cold!
All of these factors work together to determine if a planet can support Earth born life. The Cook Museum wanted to explain this to visitors, but the science gets really complicated really fast — making it almost impossible to explain with static text and images.
Our task was to create a simple to use interactive exhibit that lets you experiment with your own solar system and see what happens. Visitors learn the complex scientific principles without even realizing it!
The exhibit consists of three independent stations and a large central display.
Along the bottom of each screen, visitors see their star on the left, the orbit of their planet in the center, and the tilt of their Earth and the distance of their Moon on the right. Above these they see a temperature map for their Earth, as well as a live view from space of what the planet looks like. Across the very top are icons for eight types of Earth born life: microbes, fish, plants, invertebrates, reptiles, birds, mammals and humans. As the planet’s environment changes the icons show what percentage of each type of critter could live on that kind of Earth. If you get things just right, the total percentage goes up to 100%. Get it wrong and nothing survives!
Each station has four controls: a trackball for the size of the star, another for the distance of Earth from the star, a spinner to set the tilt of the Earth, and a final trackball for the distance between the Earth and Moon.
As visitors spin the first trackball, they move their star along what is known as the “Main Sequence” of stars. If you look at the Hertzsprung-Russel Diagram below, you can see that the Main Sequence ranges from tiny red stars up to ginormous blue stars. If you look close, you can see our Sun at around 5,800 degrees Kelvin (K) and a luminosity (amount of light coming out) of 1 solar unit. In comparison, the smallest stars drop down to 2,500 K and are only 0.0005 as bright as our Sun, whereas the hottest blue stars can be 45,000 K and a million times brighter than our Sun.
The brightness of the star determines what is known as the “Goldilocks Zone” around it. The GoldiLocks Zone is that area which is neither “too hot“, nor “too cold“, but is “just right” for life.
You can use the second trackball to set how close Earth is to the star. If you place the Earth too far away it will freeze and turn into a giant ice ball. Bring it in too close and it will burn up. Get it near the inner edge of the Goldilocks Zone and liquid water can exist.
If you tilt the Earth over on its axis, one pole can freeze while the other bakes. Move the Moon really close and the tidal forces will cause cracks in the Earth’s surface, volcanoes, and massive tidal waves. Get closer still and the Moon will disintegrate into a ring!
Our HoloSands Interactive Sandbox has turned out to be the most popular exhibit at the Cook Museum.
The exhibit combines a large sandbox with a special sensor and a projector. The sensor, mounted above the sandbox, reads the shape of the sand as visitors move it and sculpt it. The software we wrote generates images matching the sand and projects them down on the sandbox.
The result is a sandbox full of living sand! As you sculpt mountains, you see them change into snow capped peaks. Dig deep enough and you reach down to the ocean, with beautiful waves and the sound of surf breaking on the beach. Grab one of the rain sticks and hold it over the box, and a thunderstorm will erupt, with torrents of rain falling on the surface. The water flows downhill, forming rivers, ponds and lakes as it flows towards the sea. You can even make volcanoes! Just build a conical shaped mound and dig a hole in the center. Soon you will see a volcanic eruption with lava spilling out and flowing downhill.
The sandbox is more than just a fun exhibit. It introduces visitors to one of core concepts of the museum: biomes. It is situated between the Looking Up exhibit hall, and halls dedicated to the plants and animals that live in different biomes. The sandbox serves to tie these exhibit spaces together.
For Cook Museum, we created six virtual biomes, and set them up to cycle one after another every two minutes. This keeps visitors intrigued and lets them compare and contrast the characteristics of the environments. For example, in the desert you get massive cloud bursts, but it does not do any good, because the water dries up almost immediately. In comparison, the same amount of rain in the Alabama Forest biome will flood the fertile valley farmlands.
The exhibit is so entrancing, it’s hard to walk away!
In the 1960’s a mathematician named David Raup created a set of equations that can describe almost any mollusk shell found in nature with a simple set of parameters. The Cook Museum challenged us to create an exhibit that would let visitors create their own seashells using these “Raupian Parameters“.
We created software that lets visitors play with the three basic Raupian Parameters and see a 3D seashell grow and change on screen. Preset shapes on the left side let you quickly jump to a few common shell shapes.
This was only the beginning though. Raup’s parameters only describe the basic coiling shape of a shell — its backbone if you will.
We extended this with the ability to change the shape of the shell opening, set the thickness of the shell, and add wave patterns around the circumference of the opening that causes to form ridges along the entire length of the shell. We also added parameters that control spikes and ridges, so you can make the kinds of shells found in nature.
The final exhibit is a simple object identification station. Visitors can chose objects like deer antlers, hummingbird bones, rocks and buffalo horns that have been tagged with small RFID chips. When they place the chip on an embedded RFID reader, our ExhibitBrowser software displays a webpage with information about that item.
ExhibitBrowser is our hardened internet browser, that makes it safe to display web pages on computers in your visitor galleries. When ExhibitBrowser is running on a touch screen, there is no way to access the Windows start menu or any system functions. The software can load HTML web pages from local files on the computer, from a web server inside your facility, or from web pages on the Internet. You always have full control though. Only webpages from websites that you trust will be displayed.
The beauty of ExhibitBrowser is, anyone who can build a webpage can make interactive content for the museum floor. You can use the full range of modern HTML 5 to create animations and complex layouts, and the software supports modern video and audio formats for rich multimedia productions.
Our RFID add-on allows ExhibitBrowser to read and program cheap RFID tags. Just place a blank chip on the RFID reader, chose the web page you want to display, and press the WRITE button. The tag will now be ready for visitors to use. Visitors just need to tap it to the reader and they will see the web page you set.