When the world’s largest science and technology centre, the Deutches Museum, teamed up with one of Germany’s most visited museums, Bundeskunsthalle, in Bonn for a unique interdisciplinary exhibition on weather and climate change, they were looking for a unique way to tell their story through technology.

For this they sought the expertise of Edinburgh-based firm, Pufferfish, which over the past ten years has been working with a number of museums and visitor attractions to bring digital content to life for visitors. Their unique spherical displays challenge traditional flat technology by opening up new possibilities for communication, engagement and interaction with their trademark PufferSphere.

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The collaborative effort also involved the German Weather Service and was part of a wider climate change initiative by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to raise awareness in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23), which took place in Bonn last November.

At the heart of the project was the desire to educate and inform, while reaching visitors on an emotional level. The collaboration’s aim was also to highlight the impact of weather and climate on human culture throughout history and the exhibition features paintings by William Turner and John Constable, alongside artefacts such as an original thermometer by Daniel Fahrenheit and the first waterproof rubber shoes from Macintosh.

“During the conception of our joint exhibition: Weather Report. About weather culture and climate science, we were looking for an impressive tool to visualise the principles of the global weather system for our audience,” said Ralph Burmester, curator and research associate, Deutsches Museum. “While scouring the market for a solution we learned about the PufferSphere and we were convinced enough to travel to Edinburgh to meet the Pufferfish team and have a look at their brand new laser projection prototype. They hadn’t overpromised, the sphere was impressive and the projection quality brilliant, but what really made the difference for us, was the spirit of enthusiasm within the whole team. They worked hard to help us get our vision on the sphere. This worked out well for us as well as for our audience.”

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The PufferSphere UHD is an Ultra-High Definition internally projected spherical display system, incorporating cutting-edge laser projection technology and a robust 900mm acrylic screen. It can be combined with Pufferfish’s exclusive on-sphere touch technology or separate touchscreen interactivity. The PufferSphere products feature both inflatable screens (like its namesake pufferfish, which puffs itself up when in danger) or hardball screens and range in size from 600mm to 3.5m. PufferSphere also provide a range of content and application development services bringing stories to life using data, motion, video and code.

This proved successful at the Lapworth Museum of Geology at the University of Birmingham where a PufferSphere was installed in 2016 as part of its £3m redevelopment. The museum was keen to have a statement display integrated into a customised plinth and create a destination to pull visitors into the experience and that had ample space for groups to gather around to talk and interact.

“The PufferSphere at Lapworth Museum provided the canvas for the creation of an interactive globe through which visitors could browse data visualisations and animations pertaining to the evolution of the earth,” says Ben Allan, Sales and Marketing Manager who has led the projects. “As with Bundeskunsthalle, the content was designed to be viewed in conjunction with an interactive touch screen. The external touch screen facilitated deeper level information, a structured narrative and interactive controls.”

Following the redevelopment of the Lapworth, the museum was shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017.

Lapworth Museum of Technology installed a PufferSphere in 2016 as part of a redevelopment

At the Bundeskunsthalle the PufferSphere was incorporated to open the exhibit, introducing and disseminating the complex weather data and give it universal comprehension, while its magnetic appeal was utilised to inspire visitors on the geological impact of weather systems and leave them with a yearning to find out more.

Allan says the project needed a spherical display with a small footprint that would accurately represent complex meteorological data for groups and individual visitors. “The display needed to offer the best possible resolution to ensure the image quality was unparalleled, whilst the north pole of the display had to be carefully mapped and projected to show critical data accurately,” he says. “These parameters ruled out the use of systems reliant on mirrors to cover the surface of the sphere. Sight lines in the installation space meant that external projection would not be possible, users would need to get close to the projection and as such an internally projected solution was required.”

Beyond the initial exhibition, the system needed to have the ability to be repurposed for long-term functionality, and as such ease of use, set-up/down and movement were key functional parameters with the system moving to the Deutsches Museum in Munich in March.

The PufferSphere met most of the requirements for the exhibition, but the company took opportunity to harness the latest innovation in projection technology to incorporate an enhanced 4K UHD resolution source. The use of ultra high-definition technology in the system doubled the pixel count for the sphere and Allan says this delivered the highest resolution single projector display to date. An added advantage to the technology was the laser-phosphor light engine, which extended the lifetime of the light source from 2,000 to over 20,000 hours.

Pufferfish are also taking advantage of the latest developments such as the advent of 360° video as well as AR and VR, which are opening up exciting new possibilities for integrations with Pufferfish products for a more immersive experience.

Innovative digital experience

As well as providing a standout and innovative digital experience, the project team also required a supplier who could deliver a full service offering, as the focus of the project could not be technology itself. The critical element was that the digital globe should carry the key interpretation setting the scene for the exhibition as a whole – to represent the stage on which the weather plays out, and the processes that drive it.

“The PufferSphere is a native 360° monitor, complimenting VR experiences by transforming content for a new perspective on an already mind bending technology,” says Allan. “Our unique understanding of our own display technology, and experience in visual storytelling meant that we were perfectly placed to undertake turn-key content development and work collaboratively with external organisations.”

As the sphere would form the opening attraction into the exhibit, the curators needed a means by which they could combine high impact, guide-led narration and interactive user-led content. Pufferfish worked closely with the team to design a system that would allow both things to happen. A customised spherical movie incorporating data and film footage set to audio narration provided a dramatic introduction to welcome visitors to the exhibition, while outside of that at regular intervals an external interactive interface then became available, inviting users to explore key visualisations further.

Challenges

“The content provided its own challenges. Meteorological datasets tend to focus on visualisations of historical weather data in one aspect, such as temperature, pressure, wind, cloud formation, precipitation etc. As the project team wanted to tell the story of how these elements intersect and interlink with each other across a single time frame they couldn’t use a mash up of pre-existing datasets. New visualisations had to be created using data samples chosen for their clarity in showing classic processes, all while at an appropriate resolution and with a view to creating attractive content.”

To achieve this Pufferfish worked closely with German Weather Service and the team at Meteogroup to identify and select a core set of data visualisation across a common range – so that isobars showing pressure could fade to wind speeds, through to cloud cover and in turn precipitation within those same cloud formations. The result was a smooth animation of real meteorological processes covering the whole globe, tuned to demonstrating each point of the narration in an intuitive way.

Allan says the PufferSphere is a valuable tool in the exploration of global topics and can offer a new perspective in geosciences, along with offering new ways for users to interact with data best viewed on a spherical display. “But it is more than just a display, it’s an experience. Smaller PufferSphere displays spark conversations around the sphere, opening up discussions around content, while larger PufferSphere provide a real sense of awe, capturing the individual attention of the crowd, while still offering a communal experience.”

Tailored service

As part of a tailored service, Pufferfish can also manage all current and future content development, maintaining a roster of content updates with the client, alongside providing technical installation, regular scheduled maintenance and both on and off-site support. Or, alternatively, the firm, which has also worked with musicians Coldplay, can support customers with their own in-house resources to ensure they get the most out of their display over many years.

“We can provide training and equip them with all the tools and templates they should need for developing dynamic content for the PufferSphere,” says Allan. “Our support packages are tailored to each customer’s unique requirements, offering assistance where they need it most and on a schedule that suits them.”

The team at Pufferfish believe technology has become key to creating a more engaging journey for audiences, before, during and after their visit. Working with museums and visitor attractions to deliver new technology that excites, forms a large part of what the company now concentrates on as it strives to better understand its customers and their needs.

The company says the museum landscape has been changing dramatically in recent years and will continue to do so and will have to compete with the entertainment sector, rather than the education sector, for the ever-diminishing attention of their audiences and an innovative use of technology is key to it being successful.

A PufferSphere will be on display at this year’s Museums + Heritage Show on stand K3.

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In Focus

This case study is part of an In Focus feature on Technology in Museums