As the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon approached, the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum wanted to expand upon its “Shoot for the Moon” exhibition with a new, hands-on technology that would engage, entertain and educate visitors of all ages.
The Adler Planetarium, America's First Planetarium, was founded in 1930 by Chicago business leader Max Adler. Following its 75th anniversary, the Adler began a transformation to become the world's leading space science center and inspire the next generation of explorers by sharing the personal stories of human space exploration and America's space heroes. The Adler is a recognized leader in science education, with a focus on inspiring young people to pursue careers in science.
In November 2006, the Adler opened a new permanent exhibition titled “Shoot for the Moon,” which highlights the exciting stories of space exploration and America's bold plans to return to the moon. Visitors begin in “A Journey with Jim Lovell,” a gallery based on the life and historic moments of astronaut and Adler trustee James A. Lovell's career. As they walk past a number of Lovell's personal space artifacts and the fully restored Gemini 12 spacecraft, they make their way to the second gallery, “Mission: Moon.” It's here where young visitors explore the thrill of being in space with a variety of hands-on activities such as the gravity-defying “Lunar Leap,” depth perception game “Moon Vision” and animated multimedia “Lunar Dangers Lab.”
When production began for “Shoot for the Moon,” Senior Director of Digital Technologies Doug Roberts, Ph.D., suggested they include hardware within “Mission: Moon” that would simulate flying through its craters and hills. Roberts' team began researching display providers and monitor specifications in order to determine their best route in creating the new activity.
Initially, the Adler purchased six 30” displays and installed them in a 3x2 portrait-mode matrix creating the initial version of the “Moon Wall.” After deploying the project, Roberts was disappointed to see how the high dot pitch was wasted given the rather large viewing distance. Additionally, the small physical size and large bezels took away from the sense of engagement the team desired. They needed to try something else that would immerse visitors in the activity and realistically simulate flying over the moon.
“I saw a flyer for NEC's new ultra-thin bezel display and was immediately interested, especially since it was recommended to us by our friends at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC),” said Roberts. “We worked with Robert Kooima, who was a computer science graduate student at UIC and is now at Louisiana State University's Center for Computation and Technology (CCT), to create a computer application for this alternate setup. By doing so, we saw that using larger screens would deal with the resolution and immersive issues we had with the smaller monitors. This configuration allowed us to remotely control the video wall and have accessibility for future imagery updates.”
Once Roberts' team and Kooima from the CCT configured the display setup, they needed to work with NASA to obtain a base map for the Moon Wall's imagery. To start, the Adler used a base map from spacecraft Clementine, which orbited the moon in 1995. The map, along with a 3-D height dataset called the Unified Lunar Control Network, combined to show the moon in fine detail, including the depth of the moon's craters and height of its hills. The simulation would allow visitors to fly above the moon between 50 and 100 km in altitude. The Moon Wall needed to be updated with data from NASA's next lunar mission, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The updates would include a new base image after several months, as well as daily updates of small high-resolution targeted images, allowing the view of the moon to improve as new data is collected.
Another challenge was mounting the video wall so that visitors would not lean on or touch the displays. With its kid-friendly appeal, the Adler knew it needed to protect its new technology from potential damages.
The Adler worked with NEC and reseller CDW to negotiate affordable pricing and purchased12 46” NEC MultiSync X461UN units. Roberts' team installed them in a 3x4 matrix, creating a truly realistic 14-foot-diagonal canvas for moon simulation.
In order to protect the Moon Wall, Roberts tilted the video wall on a 20-degree angle and installed a stainless steel railing to prohibit visitors from accessing the monitors directly, instead encouraging them to use the exhibit's simulators.
“Using NEC's ultra-narrow displays for our Moon Wall is the best thing we could have done with the space we had for the project,” said Roberts. “It's a huge hit with kids, because it's so seamless that they're immediately drawn to it. It's not like a window, where you're looking out at something in the distance; this video wall makes it look real, like you're actually there, flying this spacecraft. The images are beautiful and the displays show them in amazing brilliance.”
The Moon Wall functions from three separate visitor stations. The “Navigator” station incorporates a joystick and touchscreen for visitors to move about places of interest such as mankind's first moon landing and the moon's poles. Soon the team will be deploying two additional “Investigator” stations that allow young explorers to operate a camera probe and take pictures for a digital scrapbook.
“Ultimately, we want visitors to be able to explore the nearby space surrounding the moon,” said Roberts. “We are working to obtain new data from NASA's LRO spacecraft, which will provide updated images and height maps from the LROC and LOLA instruments aboard LRO. We are also working to upgrade our bandwidth, which will allow us to use imagery taken from the spacecrafts one day prior, enhancing the exciting interactive experience with high-definition images and giving visitors a unique way to appreciate the beauty of the moon. We're excited to expand upon the successful 'Shoot for the Moon' exhibition and are honored to be deploying such groundbreaking technology in the process.”