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TOUCHDOWN: Interactive exhibition takes visitors to the surface of Mars

When the European Space Agency asked us to create an interactive Mars experience for the ESTEC centre in the Netherlands, we were walking on air.

Located within ESA’s Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, ESTEC attracts scientists, politicians and academics from around the world, showcasing ESA’s pioneering work in space technology.

The Mars: We Explore, You Benefit interactive experience tells the epic story of three key ESA Mars missions, sent to search for signs of life. It’s a superb example of how storytelling can be enhanced by the latest digital technologies, and features video, animation, sound effects, interactive 3D models and timelines, all controlled from a large Tangible Object enabled touch-table, and housed in a Martian habitat themed set.

One of the big challenges for us was the need to source, edit and package large amounts of data into coherent and engaging storylines for a very wide audience.

After storyboarding the experience to facilitate both hosted and self-directed user journeys we built a hi-tech looking UI to house a suite of interactive content built from the crunched data.

The result is a visually rich experience consisting of several layers of information – from the ‘Big Numbers’ to the full story – making it suitable for both a casual/younger audience and for those looking for a deeper dive.

Our second challenge was to create a user interface – and experience – that could facilitate both ESA hosts and casual explorers.

When hosting, an ESA staffer can create custom storylines for specific visitor groups, and tell the story of ESA’s Mars missions directly to audiences of up to 50 people via a touch-based Tangible Object Recognition control console and an integrated wireless PA system. In unhosted mode, the UI remains flexible, robust and intuitive enough to allow casual visitors to the touch table to explore the details of each Mars mission at their own pace. The TOR console ensures a tactile and novel user experience via the use of activating pucks. The resulting system is designed to run for long periods unattended and content can be updated via remote log-in from any location at anytime.

The whole experience is housed within a modular Aluvision framework designed to resemble the interior of a future Mars manned habitat. Three 75 inch 4K screens become ‘windows’ recessed into the habitat’s walls that look out onto a conceptual future Mars base complete with rugged rover vehicle.

A visual highlight is the swipe activated carousel gallery of images taken from orbit of the Mars surface. These stunning and detailed pictures are displayed in panoramic format across all three screens at 11520 pixel x 2160 pixel resolution and look truly beautiful.

Some orbital images of Mars were shot in 3D and visitors can view these via 3D glasses.

The countdown has already begun on two more interactive experiences – the first will let users explore ESA’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) activities, the second will take them to the Moon. With training and support from Ouno the goal is for the ESTEC team to create and build the LEO and Moon interactive experiences in Intuiface themselves.

Having previously worked together on two New Scientist Live! exhibitions, this Mars interactive experience represents a growing partnership between Ouno and the European Space Agency.

The Mars experience will be on show at the Erasmus innovation Centre at ESTEC in the Netherlands with plans to take it on tour in 2021.

Technical Notes

The Mars experience is built in Intuiface running embedded real-time WebGL scenes, which allow users to explore the science capabilities of the Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft, the ExoMars 2022 robotic Rover and the Mars Sample Return Rover and launcher. The touch table control console employs a branded TOR puck to activate and explore each Mars mission.

We templated the Intuiface UI, for quick and easy replication onto the proposed LEO and Moon touch table experiences. And, since much of the content is database driven, ESA staffers can add or edit content via a simple Excel spreadsheet. The modular Aluvision stand system is similarly replicable, and can be rapidly dismantled and reassembled to enable easy transport. With portability, expansion and replication built-in to both the software and hardware elements, our first ESA ‘experience’ module delivers significant potential for ROI.

Our Role:

/ Research
/ Concepts
/ UX and UI
/ Development (Intuiface)
/ 3D modelling and animation
/ Tangible Object Recognition
/ Asset creation
/ Stand design, build and install
/ Exhibition graphics
/ Training and support

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