Digital Exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Explorers Basecamp

Client

  • San Diego Zoo - Wildlife Alliance

Location

  • San Diego, CA

Technologies

  • Unity
  • Multitouch displays
  • RFID
  • LED lights
  • Projection

by Jim Spadaccini, Founder March 30th, 2022

After more than three years of designing, planning, building, and coding, the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at the San Diego Zoo is now open to the public. Ideum was thrilled to play such a pivotal role in bringing these exhibits to life. Working in close collaboration with the world-famous San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) and Architects HGW, Ideum designed and built over 20 exhibits for both the herpetology building and the invertebrate building.

We worked closely with the curators from San Diego Zoo and other team members to design experiences that help visitors better understand the ecological role that invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians play and to help them feel more empathetic to these sensitive animal populations.

From digital signage to full-dome projection, from unique fabricated pieces to custom software, there is plenty to explore in this new exhibition. Nearly every group at Ideum played a role in this project, from our hardware group and fabrication to AV and software development. Here are some of the highlights.

Migration Full-Dome Experience

View of San Diego Zoo exhibit.
Migration cycles from day to night and includes a number of different insect species.

The centerpiece of the invertebrate building immerses visitors in a full-dome projection experience. Butterflies, fireflies, and other insects move across the dome while visitors view them from below. The scene changes from day to night as new insect characters are introduced. A meadow encircles the space with tall grasses and oversized flowers, helping to make the room feel even more immersive. A massive 7.1 surround sound system and ambient scents of flowers and grass complete the scene. This experience plays with scale in a way that offers visitors a bug's eye view of the world and a peek into their fascinating lives.

Ideum designed, modeled, textured, and rigged the 3D characters and built the entire digital scene using the Unity 3D game engine. In close collaboration with the curators at San Diego Zoo, we refined and finalized the design and behavior of the insect characters. In addition, Ideum collaborated with Elumenati who helped with the dome projection.

Living River Animated LED Sculpture

People in science exhibition space.
Dynamic and animated, the Living River “flows” through the herpetology building, visually directing visitors in their exploration of the space.

In the herpetology building, the centerpiece exhibit is the Living River, an animated LED sculpture that helps set the tone for the space. The Living River sculpture is made up of 3,245 individually mapped LEDs spread across 145 neon LED strips. That’s a total of 1,330 feet of LED strips! Ideum worked closely with Environmental Lights to design this one-of-a kind system. Ideum used Unity to program a real-time animation that mimics the colors and movement of a river. This dynamic sculpture directs visitors through the building as they view various reptile and amphibian enclosures along the way.

Custom Fabricated Microscope Stations

Families looking through microscope.
Custom designed and fabricated microscope stations enliven both the herpetology and the invertebrate buildings.
Adults and kids in a science exhibition with microscopes and touch screens.
The microscope station in the herpetology building uses the same hardened materials and styling but has a design that is distinct from the station in the invertebrate building.

Custom microscope stations allow young visitors to explore a variety of animals and plants at the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp. Each set of microscope stations was custom designed for each building. Ideum worked closely with the architects on the design and material selection, as we developed shop drawings and fabricated each set of stations. A software program, also designed and developed by Ideum, allows visitors to capture a picture of the object under the microscope. After capturing an image, visitors are then able to create their own artistic overlay using a variety of colors, stamps, and filters. When their piece is complete, they are able to save and send their creative work via email.

Stick Insects Multiscreen Interactives

Kid exploring digital screen.
A young visitor explores the interactive Stick Insect Camouflage exhibit in the invertebrate building.

Visitors learn about stick insects and their remarkable camouflage with a two-screen interactive game. Visitors seek out and find stick insects in two animated and illustrated scenes, one depicting a tropical setting and the other a eucalyptus forest. Ideum created all of the custom illustrations, and designed and developed the exhibit in close coordination with the zoo’s curators. This digital game helps visitors to build the skills they need to find the actual stick insects, many of which are housed in nearby enclosures. Two custom 86” inline open frame displays are embedded into the walls in the invertebrate building. The arrangement provides a large canvas that can accommodate multiple visitors.

Volunteer Stations: Docent and Visitor Experiences

Docent showing families an exhibition touch screen.
The volunteer stations appear in both buildings and provide a docent-led activity along with one that is visitor-centric for when volunteers are not available.

Ideum designed and built a pair of custom volunteer stations. Like the microscope stations, they are incredibly durable and use hardened materials. In addition to the design and fabrication, Ideum worked closely with the curators at SDZWA to create compelling programs. One is designed to be led by docents and includes a custom RFID reader that allows volunteers to switch between software at the swipe of a card. In addition, the docent-led application allows volunteers to call up images, maps, and other important contextual information about various animals to support discussion with visitors.

When there are no docents available to lead a talk, the table presents an interactive and cooperative game. In the Invertebrate building, the game is based on the concept of ecosystem health. Players take on the role of a variety of invertebrates, or as a supplier of resources, and work together to influence the health of the ecosystem. Their success is tracked on an ecosystem health bar, displayed both within the game and on adjacent screens. In the herpetology building, the game is based on conservation. Players choose an endangered species and answer a series of questions related to its conservation. If players answer a question correctly, they are rewarded with a scientist’s tool, such as a dip net or GPS device, to store in a digital backpack. If enough of the team answers a question correctly, an additional member of the species is added to the habitat. At the conclusion of the game, depending on the number of correct answers provided, each player earns a conservationist rank and is congratulated for their hard work.

Digital Signage and CMS

Exhibition of a Leaf Insect with a digital sign.
One of nearly 50 digital sign monuments found throughout the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at San Diego Zoo.

In addition to the exhibits described in this portfolio piece and many that were not, Ideum also developed a digital signage system for all of the animal enclosures in the herpetology and invertebrate buildings. We designed a custom enclosure for Bluefin digital signage displays and created a custom CMS (Content Management System) that allows the signage to be easily updated and scheduled.

New Zoo Experiences

The Wildlife Explorers Basecamp provides a dynamic place for families to learn about insects, reptiles, and amphibians and to better understand their role in the natural world. The interactive media accompanying these unique animals helps tell that story in compelling ways. Whether we are shrinking visitors down to the size of an insect or offering the opportunity to crawl through a tunnel and come face to face with a naked mole-rat, our immersive experiences will help the zoo build empathy for wildlife. Not unlike our work on Penguin Chill with the Albuquerque BioPark, visitors taking on the active role of an explorer (or in the case of Penguin Chill, a scientist or researcher) is a great way to increase engagement and to get visitors excited about what they are seeing and interacting with.

A strong narrative structure, social engagement, interaction, and media-rich visuals presented alongside the animals themselves creates a powerful visitor experience. Visitor engagement and agency is the key to making deep connections; visitors as active participants make these types of experiences so effective. As zoos continue to evolve and to expand their mission to include more advocacy for wildlife and the environment, we will continue to see these types of approaches and innovations to foster empathy and encourage conservation behaviors.