An estimated five to six hundred thousand visitors stop by to explore the Museum of Flight each year. The astonishing aviation artifacts paired with some of the most knowledgeable tour guides, many of whom served as pilots in World War II and now act as volunteers, attract flight enthusiast from all over the world. Peder Nelson, Exhibits Developer and Digital Engagement manager for the museum, said, “Our vision is to be the foremost educational air and space museum in the world.” In order to achieve this top-notch rank, the museum staff grew the museum campus by nearly twice its size in 2014. The highlight was a 3-acre display known as the Aviation Pavilion, housing 20 rare and unique commercial and military aircrafts. With this new space and display, the exhibits team had a mission of protecting the historical aircrafts while giving guests an experience they could touch and feel.
The decision was to adopt cutting-edge digital technology within the Pavilion, taking the visitor’s fascination and imagination to new heights while giving them a behind-the-scenes look into the cabin, cockpit and roles of the vast range of extraordinary aircrafts. This technology could also empower the 300+ volunteer guides to tell their personal stories in modern and engaging ways.
Who’s Flying this Plane? Maintaining Control of the Experience and Content It was essential that any new interactives maintained the voice of the museum. Nelson had worked with interactive design agencies in the past. Through that process he spent a significant amount of time communicating the museum’s objectives and vision, significantly slowing progress.
Nelson had second thoughts about working with agencies so he brought in an Assistant Digital Exhibit Developer/Graphic Designer, Mandy Faber, to co-pilot all initiatives for interactive experiences. They had a specific vision for the Aviation Pavilion interactives. They wanted to own the interactive development process. Nelson says, “When working with digital design firms, we realized that we were doing 95% of the work. We are curators and we wanted to reduce time communicating what we had envisioned with others. Instead, we wanted to find the most suitable design suite and software to bring the planes and our digital content to life for visitors.”
To accommodate the need for aircraft re-configuring as exhibits and the museum collection changed, the pavilion had to be designed with an opening on one side. This was especially important in the reconfiguration of the enormous 747 and 787 prototypes, the latter of which has a 200-foot wingspan and 56-foot height. With this special design, rain penetration under the 56 to 87-foot tall roof was inevitable.
Large-format, stationary interactive displays would be subject to weather. The weather-resistant qualities of outdoor displays are impressive, but since the team’s objective was centered on the ability to empower guides by enabling them to physically hand off interactive “control” to guests, the museum opted for a tablet based experience. The tablets would also help the museum to meet ADA Compliance regulations. The tablet can be handed to a wheelchair-bound visitor just as easily as to someone standing. This device also would also enable patrons to avoid inclement weather as they can take cover in a dry spot within the pavilion while still exploring interactive content. A decision was made to use Microsoft Surface Pro tablets. Interactive content would have to both perform well and nicely accommodate small format displays. This would be a top priority when considering a software suite for content creation.
“We needed a programming solution that would meet not only our expectations, but that would allow us to surpass the expectations of our visitors,” said Nelson. “We had used Intuiface in the past to update some of our other exhibits and the ease of use and capabilities made the design suite perfect for our new Aviation Pavilion initiatives. We built our Aviation Pavilion project budget around the use of Intuiface, which allowed us to keep overall project costs very low.” Having the capability to create interactives with Intuiface enabled the Exhibits team to work independently from an agency. Not only did the team have tighter control over the end project, they were able to create the experience on a much shorter timeline. “With a digital design agency, a 6-month timeline for creating an interactive was typical and would have proved to be costly. With Intuiface, we are able to complete interactives, from start to finish, within a shorter timeline and at a significantly lower cost.”
Nelson addressed the unprecedented speed of interactive design.“We started work on these interactives at the end of March 2016 and they were completed by June 25th of that year. Three months turnaround for the project would have been unheard of if we had worked with an outside vendor for development of the interactives”
According to the Exhibits team, most of the project time was spent curating content for the interactive. Since the experience would incorporate a 360 degree interior view of the planes, the Exhibits team worked with Tosolini Productions, experts in AR/VR experience curation, to capture visual elements for the design. Once the content was developed, Intuiface offered a seamless way for the Exhibits team to organize and deliver the content just as they had envisioned. Nelson went on to state his appreciation for the customer support offered by the Intuiface team. Nelson and Faber were not only able to get swift answers and direction from Intuiface Support personnel, they were also able to bounce off ideas for the adoption of new product features.
With the Intuiface-powered experience at the Museum’s Aviation Pavilion, the Exhibit staff were able to provide tours and access to its historical planes, like the B-17 Flying Fortress, and still keep them well preserved. With interactive digital technology, the interior of the aircrafts were protected from accidental damage yet easily viewed by attendees.
Not only are the interiors well represented, but the stories of former pilots and veterans, now serving as volunteer guides at the museum, are brought to life with easily-navigable visuals. Guides are able to hand over the controls as they tell of their personal piloting experiences. Rather than just listening to the story set in the scene of the cockpit, guests are virtually taken there and immersed in the story.
Young visitors to the museum have appreciated the accessibility of the tablet-based experience. One young visitor explained that it was as if she could carry the museum around in her pocket. Nelson said, “The response that we’re getting from our visitors is ‘Wow!’ This is just an exciting first step. It’s safe to say that without Intuiface, we would not have been able to create the interactives.”
The Museum of Flight currently uses Intuiface in four exhibits. The team’s immediate initiative is to use Intuiface to update four additional museum exhibits. Nelson says, “The next big project will be updating of the Apollo exhibit interactives in preparation for the Smithsonian traveling exhibit, Destination Moon, which launches next Spring. We are also working on a database interactive for our collection of 427 WWII aircraft models.”
With regular additions of temporary exhibits, Nelson and the museum staff will have a lot of opportunity to explore new ways of introducing interactivity to fully immerse guests in all the adventures and history of aircraft.