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The Backstory, p. 2

Technological Challenges

Mastering communications technologies was a big challenge. We had a limited budget, so usually we couldn’t afford to use commercial broadcast satellites to connect the museum and on-line audiences to the research locations. Instead, we used two-way video conferencing, satellite phones, and other off-the-shelf communications equipment. We used emerging media technologies when they provided us with new tools; unfortunately, they were frequently full of bugs and had incomplete documentation. Often, we found ourselves working with prototype technology, some of which was later adopted by war journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Virtual Field Trips

It was very important to remain flexible. For example, exploring particle physics at CERN meant working with one of the most complex, esoteric subjects in science. That doesn’t lend itself easily to visual explanations. Few people know what subatomic particles are, and the particles are impossible to see directly. We chose to tell this story through the people conducting and supporting the research, and through the complex and enormous tools used to investigate minute, elusive bits of matter. We developed an organizing strategy of people, place, tools, and ideas, which carried through the entire project. A year after we launched this site, we returned to CERN with an Exploratorium senior artist to develop "Visting CERN." This section of the site experiments with a striking visual style that combines evocative photographs and original interviews to tell stories about CERN’s history and culture.

For the Hubble Space Telescope location, we knew that stunning images were readily available, so we experimented with a narrative Webcast series that evolved across episodes. This series explores how scientists compete for time on the telescope, gather data, and analyze the results to create the telescope’s famous full-color pictures of distant galaxies and exploding stars. We also did warm-up shows for our studio audience to introduce the basic science used in the telescope operations. We ended the Hubble series with what we were sure would be a triumph, conducting the first-ever live Webcast inside the giant clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where new technology for the space telescope was being assembled and tested. However, the Webcast crew and scientists were dressed in protective "bunny suits," making it difficult for the audience to connect with the people wearing them.

Antarctica presented an endurance challenge for both the location crew and the home team. Because of the time and commitment involved in preparing and traveling to Antarctica, we stayed for six weeks and conducted live shows five days a week. We created and staffed an activity center in the museum’s Webcast studio, which included large photographs, an exhibit on ice formation, and a full set of extreme cold-weather gear that kids could try on. Before each Webcast, studio hosts did a preshow that answered basic questions, such as: How cold is it? Have you seen any penguins? How do you go to the bathroom? With those questions answered, the field crew focused on the science at hand: how organisms adapt to a harsh climate, why the South Pole is a great place for astronomy, and the mechanics of a polar volcano that erupts daily. Besides the long absence from home, the Antarctic crew dealt with frequent technology meltdowns, especially at the South Pole. With only a few hours of satellite time available each day, there were often dropouts and fuzzy transmissions. The studio hosts covered, explaining how tricky it was to get a signal from the bottom of the world to San Francisco and the audience seemed forgiving.