Published in March 2009

Exploring The Depths
By R. David Read

Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall raises technological tide.

The center rotunda of the historic Natural History Building was restored to its original Beaux Art grandeur and now houses the Smithsonian Museum’s new Sant Ocean Hall.
Jay Rosenblatt Photography

The newly opened Sant Ocean Hall (named for the Sant family, a major contributor to the project) occupies space in the Smithsonian’s long standing National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. Initial construction on this vintage hall commenced in 1908 and the building was opened to the public in 1912. During the recent restoration, the exhibit building was painstakingly returned to its original Beaux Arts grandeur. Reconstruction architects Quinn-Evans of Washington DC sought to shed the building of its several 1960s-era “remuddling modernizations” that significantly masked the building’s original artistic appeal.

Significant Challenge

The architects and construction teams faced a significant challenge, inasmuch as the exterior walls had been constructed using seven-foot-thick solid red brick, and then clad with blocks of granite. Interior bearing walls, although not quite as massive, had been erected in an equally robust fashion. As you might well appreciate, this type of construction presented some formidable obstacles when it came time to plan and install conduits to accommodate modern electrical service and the Cat5 electronic technology distribution system required to support a demanding AV/IT infrastructure.

Unlike a typical aquarium that relies on exhibiting “watery tanks” housing fishy, finned denizens of the deep, Sant Hall shuns this approach. With the exception of a showy Coral Reef exhibit, it instead elects to incorporate a host of AV exhibits that seek to inform visitors about what we know, and don’t know, about the oceans that girth our planet.

Weather conditions from around the world are displayed in real time.
Courtesy The Smithsonian Natural History Museum and NOAA

Product Content

The Smithsonian commissioned Feodor Pitcairn, principal of Pitcairn Productions of Philadelphia PA, to produce the unique and exclusive video, Ocean Odyssey, that is displayed on 12 wall-surface “screens” spaced in bays about the perimeter upper walls of the Hall. A renowned diver, oceanographer and cinematographer, Pitcairn shot footage from locations around the planet to capture the diversity of creatures lurking in the waters of Earth’s ocean depths. For maximum resolution, the films were shot using Sony’s CineAlta HDCAM technology.

The Smithsonian also teamed up with NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) to sculpt an interactive 5½-foot-diameter sphere that represents a view of our planet from the perspective of a spectator 22,000 miles above its surface. With a direct, real-time link to NOAA, the computer-activated display instantaneously reflects weather conditions as they exist around the globe.

Aptly positioned about the hall, and supported by a multitude of onsite servers, are numerous interactive kiosks that, with the use of touchscreens, enable visitors to probe deeper into additional subjects relative to the particular display of interest.

Ocean Explorer Theater

The Ocean Explorer Theater features a continuously running 13-minute AV “loop” of an HD widescreen presentation with 5.1 surround sound. Here, the audience is entertained and informed by the screening of a film provided by A&E Television Networks’ The History Channel.
In response to an RFQ (Request for Quotation), Design & Production Inc. (D&P), of Lorton VA, submitted a successful tender offer to provide complete exhibit design, scripting, graphics, systems engineering, software production, fabrication, site installation and programming for all the exhibit spaces within Ocean Explorer Hall, including the High Bay experience.

Over a span of some two years, D&P and its subcontracted associates (Gallagher and Associates, exhibit design; Available Light, lighting systems design; Northern Light Productions, video software; and Redmon Group, interactive computer programs) crafted the various exhibits and engineered the AV/IT programs that would be required to enhance the overall visitor experience.

In addition to those capable subcontractors, D&P would also like to acknowledge the following employees who were involved in this production: Mike Smith, Project Executive; Donna Kuba, Project Director; Debbie Cone, Exhibits Project Manager; Dana Reid, Graphics Production Manager; Sue Lepp, Systems Project Manager; Dale Panning, Senior Systems Engineer; Dawn McAllorum, Systems Site Manager; Jonathan Bailey, Field Engineer and Dataton WATCHOUT programmer; and Patrick Barron, AMX programming.

The aforementioned high-bay projector installation presented a truly unique challenge. The Sony front-imaging projectors would be attached to catwalks 55 feet above floor level and behind the skylight that runs the length of the hall. The concealed projectors are some 24 feet in elevation above the surface on which the images would be cast. This required that the projector image be impinged on optical mirrors that, in turn, would be reflected vertically downward to another set of mirrors that would “bend” the images into a beam path that is 35 degrees off axis, and which ultimately would be displayed on the zero-gain wall surfaces. Obviously, these optical assemblies had to be superior devices to accomplish the transmission path with an absolute minimum of degradation. Dale Panning, D&P’s chief engineer, and his staff designed this intricate set of optical apparatus to overcome the challenges of casting the images on the walls with maximum resolution.

Rigid Design Criteria

Regarding the design, Panning observed, “We had to adhere to the rigid design criteria of having invisible video projectors, the absence of traditional screen surfaces and non-conforming image aspect ratios that matched the existing original millwork trimmed wall medallions.”

He added, “We engineered a folding ‘periscope’ that could slip through a 13-inch linear lighting slot in the ceiling. Both primary and secondary mirrors were unfolded to the correct corresponding angles once secured in place. We used the WATCHOUT computers to warp the images back to their original linearity and symmetry, to edge blend two images together for the longer medallions, and to mask the image perimeter to conform to the shape of the millwork trim. Thanks to the digital domain, this was all quite doable.”

A combination of original high-resolution images, exceptionally high pixel projector playback and use of cleverly devised high-optical mirror arrays provides a stunning display for visitors.
Jay Rosenblatt Photography

Philanthropic Act

In an act of corporate philanthropy, Sony donated a projector to support the engineering and testing of the design to enable segments of the Pitcairn documentary to be screened on 12 high-bay walls around the perimeter of the hall simultaneously. The installed equipment took the form of 12 Sony 4K SXR-S110 SXRD projectors, which were then mounted in custom-designed, above-ceiling enclosures equipped with an intricate set of optical mirrors to transmit the images downward and then another 90 degrees for viewing on the walls. Because the walls are zero-gain surfaces, the high-resolution characteristics of the projectors were taxed to their ultimate capabilities.

An equally challenging situation presented itself when it came time to design and fabricate the Science Sphere Exhibit. Imagine, if you will, a static 68-inch-diameter sphere suspended in free-space. The intent was that the audience would visually perceive that the globe was rotating on its axis. Design criteria stipulated that constantly evolving graphics be displayed on this sphere in a real-time attribute. The product content would be provided by NOAA; however, it was the exhibit designers and AV/IT implementers who would be tasked with providing this information in a meaningful manner.

To accomplish the visual perception that the sphere was rotating, four Christie projectors were mounted equidistant about the globe, seamlessly blended and imaged on the 360-degree surface.

With the able assistance of specified playback computers and servers from NOAA, and a judicious amount of programming software, the blended images from the projectors were warped into what appears to be a continuously rotating presentation. D&P’s Dale Panning, with an amused chuckle, commented, “Apparently, we were successful in our efforts. We have received numerous comments from the public that they swear that globe is spinning.”

“The Sant Ocean Hall perfectly illustrates the important role of technology in modern museum exhibits,” said John Gibbons, spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. “Visitors no longer only look at an object and then move on to the next. They are now able to use all of their senses, interact with exhibits and, in many cases, continue their visit virtually on the web when they have returned home.”


Design and Production Inc. (D&P)

Founded in 1949, Design and Production Inc. (D&P) is a full-service provider of custom, museum-quality exhibit fabrication and media systems integration. D&P’s work is produced by its full-time staff of more than 100 professionals in a 150,000-square-foot plant located in the metropolitan Washington DC area.

D&P specializes in producing and installing large, multi-discipline exhibitions, high-end casework and audiovisual presentation environments for museums, science centers, visitor centers and corporate facilities. Working closely with design and client teams from all over the globe, D&P’s projects reflect creativity, techni cal mastery, environmental sensitivity and fiscal responsibility.

D&P occupies a unique industry position regarding customized electronics systems. Since 1955, the company has designed, fabricated, installed and provided field support for hundreds of AV environments and delivery systems in museums and visitor centers around the world.

Recent projects include Library of Congress renovations and the National Museum of the Marine Corps. D&B was awarded a THEA in 2007 for its work on the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and another THEA in 2008 for its work on the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico VA.

For additional information, go to


Entrance Experience
3 3M Microtouch KSP17EUT 17" LCD touchscreen displays
5 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub standalone remotes
2 NEC P60XP10-BK 60" plasma displays

Open Ocean
4 3M/NEC LCD205WXM 20" LCD displays
5 AMX PC-1 power controllers
6 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub standalone remotes
1 Sony GXDL52H1 52" full HD ruggedized LCD w/speakers

Shores and Shallows
2 AMX PC-1 power controllers
2 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub standalone remotes
2 JBL Control 23 speakers
1 NEC LCD205WXM-BX 20" widescreen LCD monitor
3 ToteVision LCD-703HDLX 7" LCD displays

Ocean Systems
2 3M/Richardson Electronics 3210-BK-MDUR 32" LCD touchscreen displays
2 American Technology HSS H460 directed sound speakers
2 AMX PC-1 power controllers
1 Audio-Technica AT8031 docent mic
4 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub standalone remotes
1 C&K Components docent keyswitch
4 Christie DS+650 video projectors
4 JBL Control 25 speakers
4 Museum Technology Source CC-1000 caption display board (LED displays)
2 Sony FWD40LX2F/S 40" LCD monitors
1 Sunrise Systems EXL2000 LED info/message sign

Journey Through Time
1 3M/Richardson Electronics 3210-BK-MDUR 32" LCD touchscreen display
3 AMX PC-1 power controllers
3 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub standalone remotes
1 IO Gear 2-port USB extender
2 JBL Control 23 speakers
2 NEC LCD205WXM-BX 20" widescreen LCD monitors

Ocean Explorer Theater
1 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub standalone remote
1 Christie HD6K video projector w/lens
1 Da-Lite 93089VC 96"x170.5" Cinema Contour screen, AV159D matte
white, microperf
3 JBL Control 128 speakers
2 JBL Control 25 speakers
1 Sunfire Super Junior true sub powered subwoofer

Climate Change/Resources Management Initiative
2 3M Microtouch KSP17EUT 17" LCD touchscreen displays
3 AMX PC-1 power controllers
3 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub standalone remotes
1 JBL Control 25 speaker
1 Sony FWD40LX2F/S 40" LCD monitor
1 Vista Group Soundstick w/30" armored cable

Where In the World
2 3M/NEC LCD205WXM 20" LCD screen displays
3 AMX PC-1 power controllers
3 Black Box ACUSREM Cat5 KVM extender hub
standalone remotes
1 JBL Control 25 speaker
1 Sony FWD40LX2F/S 40" LCD screen display
1 Vista Group Soundstick w/30" armored cable

High-Bay Projection System
12 Da-Lite 12"x12" optical grade Mylar mirrors
12 Da-Lite 48"x48" optical grade Mylar mirrors
12 Dataton WATCHOUT computers, programming software
1 NETGEAR GS748T gigabit Ethernet switch
12 Sony SRX-S110 SXRD projectors

Head-End Control
14 Adtec EDJE 4111 HD digital media players
1 AMX MVP-8400i Modero 8400i touchpanel
1 AMX MVP-TDS table top docking station
22 AMX NXC-COM 2 dual com port control cards
2 AMX NXC-IO 10 input/output control cards
1 AMX NXC-REL 10 relay control card
2 AMX NXE-ME260/64 NetLinx master enet cards
2 AMX NXF NetLinx card frames
6 Black Box ACU1006DSRA extender hubs
2 Black Box SW725A-R5 monitoring switches
1 Broadcast Tools 16x2 audio matrix switch
9 Dell OptiPlex 755 PCs
6 Dell Precision T3400n PCs
1 Denon AVR-3808CI surround sound decoder/amp
2 Extron DA4 RGBHV 4-output wideband RGBHV
distribution amps
1 Gateway FPD2185W PC/video/audio monitor
5 Middle Atlantic MRK-4426 equipment racks
1 NETGEAR GS748T 48-port gigabit switch
1 QSC CX-168 8-channel amp
1 RDL FP-MP1 mic/line amp w/phantom power
1 Sabine FBX 2400 feedback eliminator
6 SurgeX SX1120RT power conditioners
1 TASCAM DV-D01U DVD player
1 TOA Electronics A724 mixer/amp
1 Wohler VM2A audio monitoring switch

List is edited from information supplied by Design and Production, Inc.

Contributing Editor R. David Read keeps a watchful eye on developments in the museum and theme park fields.
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