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Visual Acuity realizes technical vision for California Academy of Sciences


Visual Acuity saw six years of meticulous planning, design, consulting and ‘green’ engineering come to fruition on Saturday,
27 September 2008, when the new California Academy of Sciences opened its doors to the public.

Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the new facility unifies the Academy’s three public attractions – Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium and the Kimball Natural History Museum – under a 2.5-acre undulating green roof.  The new facility is one of the most environmentally friendly museums on the planet and is expected to receive an esteemed LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum rating from the US Green Building Council.  Visual Acuity acted as the major media and technology adviser to the project throughout.

The story begins in 2002, when Visual Acuity started working with the Academy to develop the technologies required for the museum’s various areas.  The company worked alongside the building’s architects, the Pritzker Prize-winning Renzo Piano Building Workshop of Genoa, Italy, to define a set of objectives on the application of digital and new media technology, content and show production, as well as time scales, budgets, and the management of relationships with technology suppliers.

Renzo Piano was particularly drawn to the commission because the Academy acts as both a natural history museum and a place for research and scientific inquiry.  During design, the Academy and architect concluded that the building should be energy and water-efficient, use natural daylight and recycled building materials wherever possible, and allow visitors access to high air quality.  It was, therefore, essential that any deployment of multimedia technology should reflect these concerns and enhance the Academy’s green credentials.  "We needed the best technical advice that would also work with our fluid and natural design, " says Olaf de Nooyer, architect partner at Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
"We worked directly for the Academy throughout, " says Blair Parkin, Founder and Managing Director of Visual Acuity.  "We began by working with Renzo Piano Building Workshop, local San Francisco architects Stantec Architecture (formerly Chong Partners) and engineers from Ove Arup & Partners, then started with the technology supply community.  Then we moved on to interfacing with Academy research and production staff and the third-party companies who were charged with producing systems and content."

Blair Parkin adds that the long lead-in time associated with the Academy project is not unusual, but does create its own set of challenges.  "When we start a project there is an incubation time of about five years.   We do an overview of technical and operational requirements, which is then integrated into the architect’s building design.  For each project, we work with next-generation technology, covering everything from computers and networks, to projection, displays, lighting and construction materials.  If you build something specific for today, it won’t be right, so we have to be futurologists, looking at what is likely to be created tomorrow."

Among the detailed innovations used at the Academy were digital DVI inputs for video projection, along with optical fibre IP networks for computer, audio and video data, resulting in a future looking infrastructure and less need for cabling.  Working with heat-efficient projectors from Norwegian manufacturer projectiondesign, Visual Acuity was able to set and achieve unprecedented heat and power budgets for an AV installation of this scale.  The company also sourced low-energy lights to keep power consumption and heat generation to a minimum, using ColorKinetics LED lighting from Philips.

During the consultancy process, Visual Acuity used video conferencing, Skype, and an Autodesk digital collaborative design system to avoid unnecessary travel, while liaising with architects in San Francisco and Italy, as well as consultants Arup in London and technology suppliers from all over the world.

After the initial design stage, Visual Acuity was re-hired as technology consultants for the new Morrison Planetarium.  As well as drawing up its technical design and specifications, they developed an operational and business model for the facility which included the coordination of seating layout, design and lighting as well as the design of IT infrastructure and projection.

The new Academy site includes many places where digital media and scientific visualization will play a key role in educating and informing the public.   These areas include:

Water Planet

Showing the critical relationship between life and water in an immersive and interactive space, Water Planet forms the heart of the Academy’s lower level.  The area is flanked by a 100, 000-gallon California Coast exhibit and a 212, 000-gallon Philippine Coral Reef display – which will house 2, 000 saltwater fish when complete.  Once an hour, the lights go down inside the Water Planet exhibit and the room is transformed into a 360-degree projection theatre for the screening of a five-minute video about the importance of water to our planet.

This stunning display uses 10 projectiondesign F20 sx+ projectors which project onto silvery, sculptured walls using a new kind of moulded projection surface so that the screens seem to flow into each other, creating an immersive, watery setting.

The space is also projected on when it is not in show mode – the graphics labelling the tanks are animated and projected as headers over them.  In this area there are also three ‘wet interactives’ where aquarium exhibits, interactive projected touch sensitive images and running water are combined.  The projections are thrown straight down to a horizontal surface and are provided by three projectiondesign F10 sx+ projectors.  The exhibit was designed by Thinc Design from New York in collaboration with Urban A&O, with the projection, sound and control systems installed by BBI of San Francisco.   

Morrison Planetarium

Morrison Planetarium has been totally transformed with the help of Visual Acuity.   Cantilevered out over the Academy’s 212, 000-gallon Philippine Coral Reef tank, it mimics the tilt of planet Earth and takes visitors to the known edge of the universe and back.  The real-time digital environment has been created using a 78 ft diameter seam less projection screen, which is tilted at 30 degrees and immerses an audience of 290 viewers in scientifically accurate imagery.   The dome screen is seamlessly covered in real time and pre-rendered computer graphics by a Global Immersion Fidelity Bright™ digital full-dome display and theater management system.

This uses six F30 sx+ visualization and simulation variant projectors connected to a Global Immersion Media Server and playback solution, a Uniview cluster as well as a Sky-Skan Definiti graphics cluster to provide stunning imagery. 

Designed to provide the most accurate and interactive ‘digital universe’ ever created, the Planetarium will give visitors the opportunity to visit Mars, explore extra-solar planets, or embark on other space adventures.  The dome has been designed for a diverse range of uses and audiences for now and in the future, and will be used by scientists to broadcast live NASA feeds related to content from missions, as well as eclipses and other events.  It will also be used to connect visitors to Academy research expeditions around the world.  Morrison Planetarium matches the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles as the largest planetarium screen in North America.  

3D Digital Cinema

A full 3D digital cinema (right) at the Academy is understood to be the first fully digital DCI compliant cinema within a science institution, and it was designed and procured by Visual Acuity.  In its auditorium it incorporates 3D stereoscopic Dolby® digital cinema projection and sound using a high-resolution cinema projector and a powerful Meyer audio system.   This will be used to showcase content on science in 2D and 3D and is designed to bring a wide range of audiences closer to science.

 Hohfeld Hall

This pre-show visitor area uses six projectiondesign F20 sx+ projectors, integrated and seamlessly edge-blended together and warped by Sky-Skan to provide a canvas for imagery of space sciences.
The Visulization Studio produces and distributes real-time updates of scientific information and ‘breaking news’ to all of the digital areas at the Academy via flat-panel displays and interactive touch screens including Morrison Planetarium, 3D Theater, Hohfeld Hall and Water Planet.

The Academy’s prime resource for creating visual and audio content based on the institution’s research data and information from partner institutions around the world, the Studio is equipped with MAYA creation tools and RenderMan rendering technology as well as other specialized renderers.
Additionally, the studio will use 3D real-time visualization capabilities in the form of SCISS’s UniView and Sky-Skan’s DigitalSky.  The facility will also have audio recording and HD video editing capabilities.

Summing up the design and deployment of media and network technology at the Academy, Ryan Wyatt, the Director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization at the institution, says: "We wanted to use the latest technology to bring science closer to people, to immerse them and encourage them to participate, and to make them aware of their environmental responsibilities.  To do that, we knew we would need to work with best-of-breed suppliers from around the world, and Visual Acuity fall into that category."

Nor will the company’s involvement with the Academy end with its official inauguration, since Visual Acuity will manage various elements of the facility well into its operation to make sure it runs smoothly.  The company will also be responsible for training Academy staff in the use of media and network technology.

About Visual Acuity

Acuity is a leading consultancy, offering long-term, independent and unbiased strategic, consulting, design guidance and operational advice to clients in all areas of new-media, visualization & ICT technology all over the world.  The company is headquartered in Brighton, UK and has offices in Bergen, Norway and in San Francisco, California, USA.  It works closely with industry, academia, governments and non-profit organisations in the application of technology in projects ranging from museums and science centres to pharmaceutical research and development.

For further information, please visit or contact:

Blair Parkin    
Visual Acuity
Tel: +44 (0) 8700 77 50 40    
Fax: +44 (0) 8700 77 50 41          
See also
: Rana Creek Raises the Roof on the California Academy of Sciences
At the New California Academy of Sciences, Cinnabar’s Climate Change Exhibits Speak Up About State’s Environment and Future
More news from the installation front!
Cinnabar Installation Diary: The California Academy of Sciences

Collaborate, Design, Engage, Succeed! An Interview with Jonathan Katz
Cinnabar Inc. Executive Produces Major Exhibits For New California Academy of Sciences

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