The high-tech space that will make you see red
Last June, Griffith University opened the doors on the Red Zones — two of the most unusual facilities you are likely to see. These spaces apply innovative design and technology to showcase the University’s research and teaching expertise.
I had the privilege of managing this ambitious project and wanted to record my experiences before the next big project consumes all my time. This post reveals the ambitions, design considerations and some of my favorite content pieces. I’ll explore some of the many lessons a project as complex as this provides in a future post.
The project combined the skills of architects, tradespeople, audiovisual designers, academics, marketing and IT professionals to create two facilities unlike anything else at Griffith. These spaces create new ways to engage with prospective students, industry and the broader community. With this project Griffith University set out to:
- create a memorable space that makes people say “wow”;
- build an interactive showcase of the University’s research and teaching expertise; and
- show how education can make a positive difference to individuals and their communities.
I was fortunate to manage this ambitious project. This was the most interesting project I’ve worked on so far and it will take something special to top it.
No two days were the same with this role. Some of my tasks included:
- working with consultants, designers and academic staff to imagine what the rooms might look like;
- identifying and purchasing suitable technology;
- recruiting a team of educational designers, digital artists, and software developers to create content. The team included freelancers, contract roles and existing staff.
- working with the facilities project manager on design decisions, and resolving problems during construction;
- configuring and testing technologies such as the biggest touch-screen I’ve seen, and an augmented reality sandbox. (More on that later).
- developing and documenting operational processes and managing the transition to operations.
A talented and committed team put in an enormous effort to deliver this project. Hundreds of people made essential contributions, but I’d like to thank a few for making my job easier:
- Martin Betts (Griffith University) for his vision for the project and for clearing many obstacles along the way.
- Jeff Jones (Collective Social Intelligence) for developing creative concepts and finding many of the specialists we recruited.
- Michael Bailey (Cox Rayner) for his innovative architectural designs.
- Rob Palmer (Griffith University) for his outstanding job in managing the construction process and sorting out many challenges along the way.
- Brad Harrison (Griffith University) and his team for building an ingenious delivery platform and wonderful content.
- Andrew Sorensen (MOSO) for creating the amazing Kinected Music exhibit and coding a solution for the touch frame which threatened to blow the project out of the water.
- Sean Gobey and Cameron Bradley. Sean is not just a great digital artist. His sense of humor kept the mood light when the pressure was on. We were very lucky to have Cameron on the project too. His skills complemented Sean’s and helped keep him on the straight and narrow.
- Darren Shepherd, Liz O’Brien, Stephanie Morris, and Monique Dobell for their support and encouragement along the journey.
- Chris Duckworth (315 Innovations) for simplifying complex systems with his masterful AMX programming skills.
- Alex Russell (VideoPro) for accommodating the many changes to the audio-visual systems.
Designed to be memorable
Let’s start with the obvious. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the phrase “It’s really red!”, I could buy a small tropical island. Red is Griffith’s signature color and was always going to feature prominently in the design. The bold design echoes Griffith’s branding and helps create a memorable experience. How many completely red rooms have you been in?
Where there reservations about the design? You bet! We were unsure whether so much red would have negative psychological or behavioral impacts. Before we committed to the design, I spent time researching this. Several academic studies have explored how room color influences people’s emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses. Red rooms are associated with energy and excitement and I found nothing to suggest that it would be a problem. Love it or hate it, it’s definitely memorable.
Construction took place over a hot summer, with no air conditioning and poor ventilation. Both the schedule and floor space were tight. If there was ever going to be an incident, it was during this period. Construction finished without any punch-ups and I figured we were in the clear
Different textures on the floors, walls, ceiling and furniture break up the sea of red. The ceiling cones add visual interest but also conceal unsightly cameras, sensors, and parabolic speakers.
Visitors’ first-time reactions are a good barometer for our success in creating a space that wows people. I’ve seen many interesting reactions, but my favorite was that of a senior academic who had just spent several hours in a meeting discussing topics as stimulating as the beige walls and drab carpet of the meeting room. Shepherded into the room by the dozen or so other meeting participants, his thumbs danced around the screen of his smartphone as he responded to the email backlog that accumulated during the meeting. When his attention shifted to his transformed surroundings, everyone in the room heard him involuntarily blurt out, “Holy $@!#… and I mean that in the best possible way.”
Designed for flexibility
The spaces have many uses beyond inspiring prospective students to study at university. The Red Zones have already hosted presentations, industry partner events, showcases of student work, and open days. People will keep dreaming up new uses which we could never predict.
Each of these scenarios has implications for the room setup, so flexibility was an important design consideration. Examples include:
- Spare power and data outlets. You can never have enough of these. Floor boxes equipped with power and data are installed around the rooms. This allows free-standing exhibits to be relocated. There’s even spare outlets in the ceiling space.
- USB power outlets. Students have an unquenchable thirst for electrons to charge their mobile devices. They only need a USB cable with this solution.
- Generous store rooms. Stored exhibits, extra furniture, spare parts, cleaning products and other miscellaneous items need more space than you’d expect.
- Flexible furniture. Most of the furniture is easy to move. Even that monstrous centre table is on wheels and nests into the bench seating.
Each Red Zone debuted with the same technology though room geometry forced a different solution in each location. The Gold Coast Red Zone is larger and features an adjoining meeting room equipped with video conferencing.
The centerpiece of both rooms is a touch screen measuring roughly 5m × 1.5m (16′ × 5′) built from 60 Christie Microtiles and a touch frame overlay. The touch canvas is divided into three segments enabling three people (or groups) to work on the screen at once. Overhead parabolic speakers confine audio to the respective canvas area.
Our developers built a database-driven web application to store and present content through a series of tiles. The content is already quite varied and the platform makes it easy to expand the library. Filtering mechanisms help visitors find relevant content faster as the library grows.
Dome and wave projection screens
The original design concept set out to envelop visitors with projected images across the walls and ceiling. Unfortunately, the constraints of the space made it impossible to build.
At Nathan we opted for a domed projection screen to create the immersive experience we envisioned. The dome is a 165° segment of a sphere with a 5m (16′) diameter. The curvature creates a sense that your standing inside the content you’re working with.
An irregular space at the Gold Coast campus imposed even tighter constraints. The entrance is a wide corridor into the main area and we used this to create a projection screen roughly 6m long and 2m tall (20′ × 6′). Rather than a flat wall, the wave wall as it became known is shaped like a shallow S. The wave metaphor works well with the beach lifestyle the Gold Coast is famous for.
The projection screens have unusual aspect ratios so content must be developed (or adapted) to make full use of the display area. Each screen uses several projectors. Immersaview’s SimVisuals seamlessly blends and warps each image to render an in-focus image on the curved projection surface. Both screens integrate Microsoft Kinect sensors for gesture interaction with content.
Even with the impressive technology, these spaces will become red elephants unless there is a stream of new and engaging content. Each content item aims to expand the visitor’s knowledge through a 5-minute interactive experience. I don’t want to give the whole game away, but here are a few of my favorites:
Touch screen content
Take stock of your life
How can we make business interesting to teenagers? That was our starting point for this content project. The team knocked this one out of the park by creating an interactive stock market simulation demonstrating the power of compounding interest, and the tradeoff between risk and return.
A fictional benevolent relative invests $25,000 on your behalf at your birth. You select your year of birth and an investment strategy and attempt to maximize your returns. The simulation runs for a random number of years. You can then review your investment performance and change your strategy if desired. Players can choose from predefined investment strategies or create their own by distributing funds across several asset classes. Events which influenced market movements are highlighted as the simulation unfolds.
Major challenges included presenting a rich set of data in a simple way and implementing input mechanisms that didn’t use an on-screen keyboard. The team devised some creative solutions to both of these problems and it has become one of the most popular content items.
I don’t know how to describe Jason Nelson‘s work other than interactive digital art. Even Jason admits some of it is pretty weird. He created five interactive artworks for the Red Zones. It’s different to most of the content and draws people to the touch screen to begin exploring.
River catchment simulator
This interactive illustrated simulation explores some of the key species found in river systems in South East Queensland. A map-based interface shows how Australian Rivers Institute researchers conduct field work across the country.
Dome and wave projection screen content
Bring some friends and create music together. You choose from a varied library of synchronized musical samples designed to sound good in any combination. A Microsoft Kinect camera takes gesture input so you can select different tracks and control volume, equalization and echo. Even with this small control set, an almost limitless array of interesting compositions awaits.
Virtual Meanjin is a cultural heritage simulation which recreates the area around central Brisbane as it might have looked before British settlement.
Brett Leavy and his team have gone to painstaking lengths to ensure their simulation is accurate. They sifted through thousands of historical records and photographs, and validated accounts and stories with indigenous elders. The resulting Unity3D application recreates Brisbane’s topography, vegetation and animals from almost 200 years ago.
You explore traditional campsites, hunting grounds and ceremonial places as you learn about the culture and lifestyle of the Turrbal and Jagera people.
Going off grid
While Virtual Meanjin recreates the natural environment of the past, Going Off Grid uses similar technology to help players understand modern energy systems. The developers recreated the Sir Samuel Griffith Centre using Unreal Engine 4. This building is unique because it’s designed to supply its own energy needs through photovoltaic panels, a battery array for short-term power supply, and innovative hydrogen storage system for longer-term energy storage.
Sean Gobey and Cameron Bradley have recreated every detail of the building in a visually stunning and incredibly smooth gaming experience. Once you explore each component of the energy system, you see how its behavior changes in sunshine, rain and at night.
Augmented reality sandbox
Inside these hi-tech rooms is a tray of sand which seems at odds with everything else. Using Oliver Kreylos’ open source software project, Microsoft Kinect sensor, and projector, you can model water catchments and visualize the flow of rainwater across the landscape.
Just watch the video — it’s a lot easier than describing it.
This was an amazing project and I’m grateful to have been involved. I learnt many valuable lessons along the way, but I’ll leave that for a future post.
The Red Zones are free to visit and are open from 10:00 am till 4:00 pm, Monday to Friday. If you ever have the opportunity, stop by and check them out.