For a man whose job involves applications of the latest technology, Blair Parkin’s favorite exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences is surprisingly low-tech. It’s a tiny fragment of rock, displayed behind plexiglass, that most people overlook. But as our tour group moves through throngs of meandering school children on a busy Wednesday, Parkin points at it excitedly, and says, “Look, everyone! A piece of the moon!”
Maybe Parkin’s enthusiasm is an allegory: He likes to shoot for the moon. Drawn to “impossible projects,” as he says, this technologist has designed advanced audiovisual environments for museums, international oil companies, and New York’s most famous venue, Radio City Music Hall.
Parkin’s partnership with the California Academy of Sciences dates back more than a decade. Collaborating with the building design architect Renzo Piano, he developed the ideal viewing environment for Morrison Planetarium, even down to finding the most acoustically optimal theater seats. The result, the largest all-digital dome in the world with a 75-foot diameter NanoSeam projection screen, has a processing backbone capable of mimicking the real-world night sky.
Today we’re engaged in a behind-the-scenes tour of recent upgrades to the California Academy that Parkin helped bring to fruition. New technology installed in the planetarium, the coral reef exhibit, and Hohfeld Hall boosts the immersive experience that draws 1.3 million visitors annually to this award-winning museum. Parkin worked with AV integration firm Mechdyne to develop a proprietary audiovisual display solution that uses six Sony 4K laser light-source projectors operating on a Medialon control system. The control system allows all AV components, audio, house lighting, and the planetarium’s show media sources to be single-source operated.
Hohfeld Hall, where audiences wait for entry into the planetarium, provides a theater area showing short films. The projection system here was also updated with three laser light-source projectors.
It’s immensely satisfying to Parkin that the upgrades continue to operate on the same audiovisual and telecommunications infrastructure engineered by TEECOM more than ten years ago. This fact pleases the Academy staff, too.
“Thanks to the evergreen infrastructure it’s been very easy to support all kinds of programs at the Academy,” says Dean Do, Director of Experience Engineering at the Academy. “It was a well-designed and very flexible AV infrastructure. The initial investment may have been higher but it’s saved us a tremendous amount of time and money in the last few years as we’ve changed out exhibits. We haven’t had to lay new cable.”
As the world’s only single-network aquarium, and a facility that’s open 365 days a year, the Academy’s infrastructure has to operate with no downtime. That’s why TEECOM continues to works with Cal Academy staff and equipment vendors to identify and switch out weak components as technology evolves.
But creating an immersive experience isn’t just about the technology; it’s also about integration with the built environment. This is where Parkin’s extensive background in designing venues comes into play.
“Venue design is a very particular discipline when it comes to AV,” he says. “Planetariums and auditoriums are high-intensity environments. Any little thing that’s off will spoil the immersion. That’s why part of venue design is specifying things like seats — because they have acoustic value and must be at the right incline, or they’re a distraction.”
As the lights dim at the Morrison Planetarium and we settle into our acoustically approved seats, the reason for all this attention to detail becomes clear. Although the designers mumble about the red light beamed by the exit signs — required by life safety code — the experience feels otherworldly. Suddenly we’re birds flying high above the Port of Oakland, seeing the natural connections that as earthbound humans we miss all too often. Our eyes are open, our minds transported. This is what science museums are for.