Moving Beyond Earth

Review

of an Exhibition

by Michael Lenahan

Published on February 12, 2010, Modified on February 21, 2012

  • Description:

    The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) uses a series of digital technologies to reach audiences in its newest exhibition, “Moving Beyond Earth.” The exhibit is a work in progress, but the first stage of the gallery is open. It is intended to be an immersive look at spaceflight’s past as well as its future possibilities. Visitors are encouraged to learn about the physical, intellectual, and financial difficulties of space exploration while getting a sense of the excitement and educational opportunities offered in space. NASM employs interactive exhibits to get these messages across while still engaging and entertaining visitors.

    Upon entering the gallery, visitors find a series of four touch screen kiosks entitled “Find Your Ideal Spaceflight Job.” The kiosks prompt visitors to answer questions about their personal preferences in both fantasy scenarios and in everyday life. You are then assigned a choice between three NASA jobs that fit your profile. A visitor can have a photo taken and email himself or herself a digital badge for that particular job. These kiosks are aimed at younger visitors, but older patrons also took time answering the questions. While they illuminate the tasks of NASA employees, the kiosks fall short in several respects. When I visited the gallery, 3 of the 4 kiosks were not working at all. The one that was active had two major issues – an insensitive touch screen and a non-functional camera. In addition to these technical snafus, the kiosk did not have any audio. The lack of sound effects means that many visitors will not become engaged while also alienating those with visual impairments. While I felt informed about a number of different NASA career options, I saw many visitors grow frustrated with the malfunctioning technology and have a negative overall experience with the kiosk.

    Another set of four touch screen kiosks entitled “Be a Flight Director” are found in one corner of the exhibition. These kiosks are simulated workstations where visitors sit at chairs and play the role of a NASA flight director. Patrons are prompted with an emergency situation and must touch the animated desks of different NASA employees to receive updates before deciding to move forward with potentially risky moves. A countdown clock keeps track of your time and encourages you to react at a swift pace. These kiosks are good educational tools that use real-life scenarios to impress visitors with the difficult tasks of a flight director. However, the quick responses required in each scenario discourage you from reading every bit of text while simultaneously causing a bit of stress. There were no major technological issues with these kiosks. However, they also suffered from a lack of engaging sound effects. Visitors of all ages and genders seemed to appreciate the kiosks and spend about a minute in the role of a flight director, but I did not perceive an overwhelming negative or positive response.

    A different kind of technology can be found at the center of the room. “Spaceflight Academy” is a trivia game that asks visitors a set of 10 questions about spaceflight on three flat-screen panels. Fifteen control panels with four numbered and colored buttons on each panel surround the three screens. Up to fifteen visitors can play the game at once, but there is no interaction required between each visitor. The game keeps track of each numbered console’s score and provides players a ranking at the end of the game based on his or her performance. This interactive was both educational and fun. Families took great joy in conferring about each answer and competing with others. The game gave players plenty of time to answer questions without taking so long as to frustrate adults playing against children. Entertaining sounds accompanied answer selections and new questions while in-use consoles lit up during play. Like the other interactives, “Spaceflight Academy” was not really accessible to the visually impaired unless another individual assisted them by reading questions. However, it successfully used technology to educate families while being entertaining enough to get them to stick around for the entire six-minute duration of the game.

    The final piece of digital technology used in the exhibit is the “Design It” touch table located on the far right side of the gallery. Up to six users at a time can build their own virtual living or work modules for an animated space station seen in the center of the table. Users add components to their modules based on a fixed budget provided by their host nation. Before the customization begins, visitors can view a short video on the table educating them about space station modules. It takes about five minutes to design a module and then have it “launched” via animation to the space station in the center of the table. Users can then email themselves a link to a copy of the space station that they and the five other users customized. This attractive display was informative and many people of all ages were drawn to the table. However, a couple of issues limited its effectiveness. The touch table is insensitive, making it very difficult and frustrating to design your module. I occasionally had to touch a selection more than ten times before it worked properly. Once again, the visually impaired would probably feel left out from this virtually audio-free and visually demanding display. NASM must fix the table’s sensitivity issues to create a more pleasing experience.

    On the whole, “Moving Beyond Earth” successfully uses digital technology to educate and entertain its visitors. However, many will feel frustrated with malfunctioning kiosks. Those with difficulty seeing may find the interactive displays virtually useless. The general lack of sound effects means that visitors will not feel fully engaged in the interactive technologies. While many visitors were excited to try these technologies, I feel that the museum can reach even more people with a few tweaks. Since the exhibit is a work in progress, changes addressing these issues may be put in place in the coming months or years.

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