Interactive Penguin Exhibits Take Visitors on a Sub-Antarctic Expedition


  • New Mexico BioPark Society


  • Albuquerque, NM


  • July 2019 - Present


  • Unity
  • Kinect
  • Cameras

by Joe Donovan & Becky Hansis-O’Neill, Sr Exhibit Designer / Director of Creative Services July 22nd, 2019

The new Penguin Chill habitat at the Albuquerque BioPark is a groundbreaking immersive exhibit that takes visitors on a research expedition from the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula. Ideum designed and built exhibitry that supplements the indoor habitat-viewing by adding a vivid narrative experience in which visitors assume the role of scientists bound for the Antarctic. Along the way, they learn about penguin habitats, sub-Antarctic ecology, climate change, and STEM concepts related to Antarctic field research. Narrative theming, innovative uses of interactive technology, and a rich variety of interpretive content creates a colorful visitor experience unique to the world of zoos and aquariums. The state-of-the-art indoor habitat is home to King, Gentoo, and Macaroni penguins.

Ideum completed the project in collaboration with HB Construction and VGHA Architects, and after 2 years of development, the experience opened to the public on July 23, 2019. Since the opening, Penguin Chill has been a tremendous success; in fact, a recent KRQE news report notes that attendance at the BioPark increased by 80% over the same period last year. The Albuquerque Journal recently reported that this exhibit has helped make the BioPark "the state’s No. 1 most popular attraction."

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are introduced to the temperate tundra shorelines of southern South America, challenging the expectation that penguins only live in perpetually cold and icy environments. Rockwork, rustic architectural finishes, and a dynamic light sculpture that simulates the aurora australis through live NOAA solar activity data all work together to create an immersive sense of place. For this space, Ideum created interpretive signage and a fully customizable presentation system for educators, and collaborated with building contractors to select colors and finishes that would deepen the expedition narrative.

As guests continue their journey, they board the research vessel RV BioPark, a flexible exhibit space between viewing areas that Ideum transformed into the observation deck of an offshore research ship. Once aboard, visitors can look out over a simulated vista of the ship's bow traveling through sub-Antarctic island passages. Interactive exhibitry lets visitors gather data from other research vessels, observe real research specimens and samples, and make virtual video calls to real-life contributing scientists to learn more about their research.

Visitors look out over a simulated vista of the ship's bow traveling through sub-Antarctic island passages.

Visitors then disembark and arrive at the underwater viewing area, where they "scan" a simulated ice core and play a game where their body motion steers a penguin through obstacles in the search for food. The sounds of calving ice and Weddell seal vocalizations connect visitors with the underwater world they are observing.

Visitors 'scan' a simulated ice core.

As a final takeaway, visitors can enter a selfie photo station near the exit, which will take an animated gif that they can email to themselves. The application asks visitors to complete a brief survey and provides an opportunity to take part in environmental mindfulness pledges.

Visitors enter a selfie photo station which takes an animated gif that they can email to themselves.

In total, the project includes 6 interactive exhibits, 1 presentation system, 2 themed penguin viewing areas, 1 dedicated themed exhibit space, 1 donor wall installation, interpretive signage, 2 vitrine display cases, architectural finishes, and themed exhibit fabrication. Ideum developed all custom software for the exhibits and integrated AV solutions, and in addition to being deeply involved in the exhibit fabrication process, Ideum provided design and narrative direction, project supervision, and interpretive content consultation. Creating these experiences showcased the exceptional talents of our diverse team of designers, developers, and hardware specialists—including 3 UNM alumni who played key roles in bringing the project to life. Ideum thanks everyone who helped make this memorable project a reality!

Edited 07/23/2019: Learn more about this exhibit as conceived during the planning stages.

Edited 09/12/2019 & 1/12/2020: to include information on how the exhibit has affected BioPark attendance.