National Geographic Crittercam: The World Through Animal Eyes

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Other

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Elena Guarinello

Published on September 26, 2007

  • Description and goals

    This 6,000 square foot exhibition explores ongoing research with Crittercam, a scientific video and data gathering tool safely worn by wild animals. With multimedia activities, evocative environments, and mesmerizing firsthand footage, Crittercam allows visitors to experience the world from an animal’s point of view. The exhibition has ten sections: Introductory Gallery, Theater, Seals & Sea Lions, Sharks, Turtles, Whales, Penguins, Land Animals, What is Crittercam?, and Critter Crew. The exhibition’s content covers animal biology, conservation, invention, and scientific field research.

    The exhibition’s main messages:

    • Crittercam shows an animal’s natural behavior from its own point of view.

    • Crittercam is an evolving scientific research tool.

    • National Geographic’s Crittercam team works collaboratively with field researchers to interpret and apply data to conservation efforts.

    The animal-focused pods predominate the exhibition, each one featuring an iconic image (from swooping acrylic seal cut-outs to an 18-ft great white shark model), stories told from the researcher’s perspective, and sections using point of view footage to display findings about animal behavior.

    Knowing that there would be a lot of screens for visitors to stand and look at in this exhibition, we did our best to include interactives (both tactile and mechanical) and unusual screen arrangements (i.e. a circular projection on the ceiling of humpback whales feeding).

    • Faux rock, ice, kelp, and sand for visitors to lift up to reveal point of view footage of seals using different strategies to forage in a variety of environments.
    • A life-size leatherback sea turtle model that visitors can climb on.
    • A tunnel below an Antarctic “iceberg,” which visitors can crawl through and pop up in a bubble to come face to face with a penguin model wearing a working Crittercam. A monitor, set on a time-delay, on the other side of the tunnel displays footage of visitors in the tunnel.
    • A crank to activate three screens illustrating varying depths of the water column.
    • Seven stuffed animals and matching Crittercams
    • A Crittercam puzzle
    • Touchable Crittercam, fin clamp, penguin harness, epoxy patch, suction cups
    • Build-A-Cam computer interactive
    • Expedition Atlas computer interactive giving details of deployments around the world

  • Development process and challenges

    We developed, designed, and built the exhibition in a little less than a year. While there were definite time-based challenges, part of the reason we were able to complete the project in such a short time frame is due to our collaboration with the Remote Imaging group at National Geographic. The research conducted using Crittercam is real science going on in-house at National Geographic Society and most of the people who have worked extensively on the project (including the inventor, Greg Marshall) work a few floors above or below us. We had access to their footage, images from the field, and their expertise.

    A team of six of us worked closely together to come up with the main content points and design/feel of each pod. We all worked separately on our own specialties (design, graphics, writing, video editing) with constant check-ins with each other as we barreled towards completion. Capitol Exhibit Services, Inc. worked from our designs to draw up construction documents and value-engineer the project. Based on price and complexity, we chose to build some of the components in-house, while Capitol fabricated the rest. National Geographic Society has in-house painters, carpenters, and photo lab. The design is such that most elements (graphic panels, acrylic animal cut-outs) screw or slot in to the constructed elements. This design allowed us to continue to write and design even as construction was beginning.

    Google SketchUp (free 3D modeling software) helped us greatly in the early stages of development and design. The ability to visualize exhibition elements helped us all communicate our ideas with each other and other stakeholders in at National Geographic Society. (Check it out:

    As mentioned before, the amount of video in this exhibition (nearly 60 separate clips) was a challenge itself. Crittercam footage has been used in a number of National Geographic television shows and, as suits the television format, the point of view footage is nearly always in short bursts. For the exhibit, we made the conscious choice to let the videos play out at the animal’s pace. The videos range from 40 seconds to a few minutes. We struggled early on with the idea that visitors may not hang around to watch a few minutes of video. However, the desire to accurately show the animal’s pace and giving interested visitors more to watch should they so choose, happily won out in the end. And, of course, coordinating the electronics was a major portion of the exhibition planning as well. Fortunately, National Geographic has an in-house electronics shop who happily provided know-how and expertise.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    1. Reconfiguring scientific software for a visitor-friendly computer interactive is not as easy as we’d imagined. We, and the software developers, underestimated the flexibility of technology developed specifically for scientists to interpret Crittercam data. In the future, without time for extensive prototyping, we’ll stick to known quantities and technologies.

    2. After our first weekend, we found that a number of elements were not as visitor-proof as we had hoped. We replaced buttons (to start video pieces) with buttons that don’t twist, devised new methods to securely attach deployment devices to the tabletop, added a tab to the lift devices in Seals, and added a “climb aboard” sign to let people know it was okay to sit on top of the leatherback turtle model.

    3. We chose to do all of the graphics printing in-house and have them cut to fit Capitol Exhibit’s constructions. This was done in an effort to keep costs down and ultimately, worked out. However, had we the financial leeway, it would have beneficial to streamline this process.

Latest Comments (1)

National Geographic Crittercam

by Robin white Owen - January 02, 2009

Hi Elena,
Crittercams provide such powerful information! It must be provocative for people to see themselves through the penguin’s crittercam. We never ourselves from their perspective. I’m looking forward to seeing your show.

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