October 10, 2008

Multimedia : Multiplying Business Opportunities ; The Gibson Group’s Diversification Beyond Film and Television Production Continues Apace With a Groundbreaking New Exhibit at NZ’s National Museum.

The multimedia capability of Wellington-based Gibson Group has taken a "quantum" leap forward with the opening of Te Papa's unique new interactive museum exhibit, Our Space.

"We've done two big installations in France but this is a quantum step up," Allan Smith, the director of projects for Gibson International, says. "It is the most ambitious thing we have ever done."

The centrepiece of Our Space, which was unveiled on September 27, is an 18-metre long interactive video wall.

Using a hand-held laser controller, or wand, visitors can send it photos, video and text from a loading station to create a streaming multimedia statement.

The loading station can access a database of thousands of images and videos contributed by Our Space members from around NZ. Visitors can find the media they and their friends loaded online by entering a username and navigating with a tag-space browser.

They can record videos and photos in the station's web-cam, text a message with the touch keyboard, or upload their own files. And because the wireless wand has a built-in accelerometer, visitors can move, twist and creatively transform their images.

"It's about self-expression," Smith says. "The brief from Te Papa was to create an interactive visitor experience on New Zealand cultural identity.

"That was our starting point. We looked at some concepts they had developed but took it into a whole new level of technology and visitor experience that has not been seen before. To do that, we had to build our own technology.

"This is way in advance of what Te Papa envisaged. They liked the initial concept so much they threw out the old concepts and said, 'Develop these ones.'"

Te Papa wanted Our Space to target 15-25 year-olds. "So our approach was via that age range's self-expression, and that is what is at the heart of all the social networking sites on the web that we are tapping in to with this database," Smith says.

"That's the reason why we initially set up the Our Space contributing group on Flickr, which is an existing networking site based on visual imagery. We have then transferred that group over to our Our Space website where they are still contributing.

"Flickr, Facebook, YouTube are all about extending the 15 minutes of fame to, 'Hey, why not all the time?' It's real time on the web ...

"At the beginning we thought it might be a fairly individual experience. But as we grew the concept and the technology, we realised what the concept was inherently about was collaboration - collaboration at the level of contribution of images, collaboration at the level of the display of images.

"Because of the social dynamics that are starting to grow up around wall use, two people can be working together and swapping media - people will ask if they can use a piece of media from their neighbour.

"That whole kind of energy behind the social networking sites is starting to grow up in a physical site, where people can work together to express themselves in a group situation.

"Once you give an interactive experience over to people, you do lose control, and this is a good thing - that people make of it what they want. This is fundamental to the visitor experience - they are making the exhibition themselves - so in this particular instance, Te Papa is retreating from the curatorial role.

"On Waitangi Day, we might set a theme and people can come in and look for the images that relate to the statement they want to make about Waitangi Day."

Smith says the wall heralds a new generation of multimedia-based museum exhibitions.

"Traditionally, they've tended to use DVDs and touchscreens in one-to-one correspondence - what we would call old-fashioned multimedia exhibitions.

"What we have here is unique in that the whole experience is networked so people can collaborate right across the range of the experience, from the selection of media, the creation of media, through to the arrangement and processing of it in the display devices.

"People can work right along this 18 metre-long wall in one seamless environment. Nowhere else in the world can you do this to our knowledge."

The wall is made up of 12 1.5-metre wide by two-metre-high screens. The projectors are paired to six Apple Mac Pro computers.

"Each of the computers is hooked up to a camera," technical director David Crossan says. "The camera sees two screens at once. The camera is looking for infrared dots from the laser that comes out of the wand.

"When it finds the dot, it translates that dot into a user interface element. It figures out where the dots from the wand are, who the dots belong to.

"These computers send off the information to a main computer which controls the entire wall.

"This machine will tell another computer to display a particular image. It fetches the image from a server and places it on screen.

"If a user drags it from one screen to another, one computer relays it to the main computer, which recognises the dots belongs to particular image and tells another computer to display it.

"All has to happen seamlessly so movies and audio stay in sync."

Crossan says the advantage of this set-up is it's scaleable. "Each computer can control two screens, so if you want to add two more screens, you add another computer."

The 70 computers in the network represent about a fifth of the value of the project. The video coding is H264 and vertical rather than horizontal screens were used to accommodate a curved wall.

"You couldn't have movement there without that," Crossan says. "It provides us with a different portal into a virtual world - it has a proportion and a shape that's appealing. When you stand next to it, it's about as big as you are. If you put it on its side, it would be just another telly."

About a third of the 7000 "bits of media" on the database are moving images. "We see the exhibit lasting 10-12 years," Crossan says. "We have no idea how much we'll collect in that time but we're confident we'll be able to handle millions."

In addition to the Our Space member contributions, there is material from Te Papa's collections and other museums.

"But we have curated it in a filmmaking way," Smith points out. "We have chosen images for their intrinsic filmic properties, which is the interesting thing about putting filmmakers in charge of museum interactives.

"Brita McVeigh has managed the digital assets acquisition programme for us. Brita has been quite strict with aesthetic standards."

Her "visual and emotional criteria" for the selection of images have led to about 25% of contributions being rejected.

Our Space took about 18 months to complete and the technology was so new that not all of it had been properly documented.

"We had some initial trouble with the components of the wand but we worked around that," Crossan says. "It's a new type of device that's been out for about a year or so.

"A lot of these elements, like the processing power of the computer equipment we're using, the availability of certain web components, a couple of wand components, like the accelerometer and RF unit, are of 'now' and would have been very difficult to have done previously."

Smith says the wand is a much more sophisticated device than the Nintendo Wii. "It's as if the Wii grew up and went to university and got a degree in visual arts."

Next door to the wall is a massive, glass tile map of New Zealand. Stepping on to one of 27 regions triggers iconic images of those locations on wall-mounted screens, with one step equating to a mouse click.

"It's another window on the gigantic database of cultural imagery," Smith says. "It's about spirit of place.

"Apart from giving people a geographic reference, we wanted to provide people with the ability to put media up and know it won't be mucked about," Crossan says. "It's a simple presentation that isn't going to get mashed up."

Smith says Tech NZ has provided funding to take the core technology behind Our Space and develop new concepts for new territories.

"This particular application won't be repeated because it belongs to Te Papa but interest from Korea, the US and Europe is potentially going to account for a quantum expansion of the Gibson International business.

"We're looking at applications that range from theme parks to shopping malls, as well as points in-between, like museums and visitor centres.

"It's another stage of the film industry. We got into visitor experiences because we were looking for new stages to tell stories on. We're still doing the same thing. We're just doing it in real time, interactively."

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