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Electronic Design

Science Center Gets High-Tech Revitalization

One of the most popular exhibits at the "old" Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., was the "touch tunnel," where little hands felt their way through a lightless maze. After a two-year renovation, the center has emerged from the dark ages. Now, little hands take surveys and browse news stories on touchscreen interfaces.

The $109 million redesign reinvents the science museum concept, as its digital exhibits are interactive and visitors use personal technology to stay informed even after they've left. The initiatives opened an opportunity for several design engineering firms—including Chedd-Angier-Lewis, Magian, Onomy Labs, and Unified Field—to employ the latest technologies to convey information in an entertaining way.

The result was a slew of exhibits that involve both hackers and keyboard-tappers. Less tech-savvy guests can leave their mark by contributing video testimonials to the "Our Hudson Home" exhibit, while hackers can breach LSC's network to reprogram displays like the "Make Contact" handprint wall (see the figure).

Henry Kaufman, a contract engineer for Chedd Angier Lewis, created the handprint wall, which flanks the entrance to the center's Communication exhibit. Guests can high-five the wall to leave behind a "cave art" impression of their hand, a reminder of one of the earliest forms of communication.

Behind the wall, Kaufman installed two FireWire cameras that sense near-infrared light. When a visitor puts a hand on the wall, one of the cameras—which analyzes images 30 times per second—bounces infrared light off the hand to capture its image.

"It's like a shower curtain," Kaufman said. "From a distance, you're fuzzy, but when you put your hand on (the curtain), it's in sharp focus. Here, when you put your hand on the glass, the (infrared) light hits it and bounces back to the camera. The camera picks up your hand as a bright, sharp, in-focus shape."

That information gets sent to the graphics hardware, which draws the handprint and projects it back onto the display using one of two NEC projectors. The projectors seamlessly overlap to cover the full, 12- by 5-ft area of the screen.

Kaufman wrote the image-processing and projection code, which the center will let hackers change. "At first I didn't want to make my project open-source because I valued my IP," Kaufman said, "but the idea of letting someone use my physical platform was attractive and exciting."

Using Python, programmers can change the background or the way the image displays on the wall. The hacked code, which must first be approved by an LSC operator, remains for an entire day before returning to its normally programmed state. The center's Graffiti Wall, also in the Communication section, enables the same type of programming exploitation.

Visitors will be able to take some of their artwork home with them via the museum's "Science Now, Science Everywhere" (SNSE) initiative. Onomy Labs will serve as the "clearing ground" for SNSE (pronounced "sensei"), which lets visitors send and receive text messages related to exhibits. Onomy implemented the gateway, which uses e-mail infrastructure to exchange information.

Onomy also contributed one of its signature interactive digital walls to the center's "Skyscraper" exhibit. Guests can push an LCD panel across a yellow timeline of the construction of the New York Times building to display additional information and photos. In building the signature piece, Onomy founders and engineers Scott Minneman and Dale MacDonald created what they call a "dog's breakfast" motherboard and embedded it in a Samsung LCD panel.

A standard rotary encoder acts as the sensor and transmits location data to the motherboard, where a Microchip PIC processor analyzes quadrature data, displaying information depending on its position. So little hands don't push the display too quickly, Onomy used a magnetic particle break from Placid Industries that reads the rate of sensor inputs and adjusts the speed accordingly.

"It causes the monitor to get too heavy if it's pushed too fast," Minneman said. Onomy has done similar installations at the Singapore Science Center and the Papalote Children's Museum in Mexico City.

The center's high-tech atmosphere requires an in-house IT and programming staff, which was involved in creating a number of the displays. Jim Austin, designer and programmer at LSC, runs that department.

Austin engineered the 40-in. touchscreen "rovers" that can be moved to accompany any exhibit. Most often, the rovers will be stationed with the "Breakthroughs" exhibit, which covers breaking developments in science and technology. Guests can use the touchscreen interfaces to scroll through fresh science and technology news stories.

"Our audience is 10 times more electronics-savvy than I was at 10 years old," Austin said. "There's a higher bar for making things interesting than there used to be."

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