In the beginning…

AUTHOR: Inavate
Collisions are the central theme of the exhibition

CERN has employed interactive and visual effects to bring complicated scientific concepts and the creation of the universe to the general public. Anna Mitchell takes a look at the Universe of Particles exhibition in Geneva.

The Universe of Particles exhibition is the friendly face of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, otherwise known as CERN. The organisation is probably best known for its Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the enormous particle accelerator that, when powered up, sparked wild speculation that particle collisions would lead to the end of the world.

Unsurprisingly doomsday hasn’t arrived and the world is much the same except now, there’s a futuristic new visitor centre perched above the underground particle physics experiments in Geneva.

The Universe of Particles was designed by German agency Atelier Brückner and is the starting point for the many thousands of visitors that flock to CERN each year. Most are attracted by the LHC, which is operating under the French-Swiss border. Obviously visitors cannot explore the experiments so the exhibition was designed to answer questions regarding the research as well as entertaining the tourists.

“Research at CERN is concerned with both the infinitely small and the incredibly large,” according to Atelier Brückner. “The visitors experience a world without scale, at once both at the sub-atomic level and at the vastness of the solar system. Entering the exhibition space they enter another world. Here, nothing is recognisable from the world outside.

” In order to achieve its aim Atelier Brückner wanted to create an environment where the visitor saw no plasma screens or touch-terminals, no display cases or graphic panels. “Instead,” suggests the agency, “they experience projections seemingly in space, 3D digital objects within spheres, and beautifully lit concealed artefacts slowly revealed.”

CERN is occupied with studying the hundreds of millions of collisions that occur every second when the LHC is in operation. Therefore, Atelier Brückner decided that collisions would form the central display of the exhibition and real data of the scientific experiments carried out on the massive particle accelerator are projected on a huge display.

The live feed floor mounted display was created by iart interactive; a media, art and technology company, based in Basel, Switzerland. Valentin Spiess, managing director of iart interactive, contacted 7th Sense UK to provide a high resolution media server for the impressive display.

Ian McPherson from 7th Sense explained that the company was required to head out to Geneva to set up the 7th Sense system that serves the complete immersive projection that iart created with CP-X Series Hitachi projectors. In addition to the floor display a main show makes use of four linked, large-scale projection areas to surround the viewer in a threedimensional experience.

The 7th Sense Delta server produces five XGA outputs, including masking and curved screen compensation. Furthermore a Delta audio server provides twelve channels of balanced audio to provide immersive sound and language tracks. McPherson says the server is fitted with solid state drives to ensure reliability. Display signals are distributed by Blackbox DVI-CatX-DVI converters and show control is via IP over a 1GBit/s LAN.

The main show is automatically programmed to run once every halfhour while the centre is open. When the show starts the space becomes alive with sound, programmed lighting and animated images projected around the circumference circular wall. The sound is handled by Fohhn spherical speakers driven by Bittner amps.

Atelier Brückner said the content is designed to take the visitor on an immersive journey from the Big Bang through the history of the universe to the present day work of CERN. “The challenges of visualising dark matter, antimatter, the higgs particle, the early state of the universe and other such theoretical states have been impressively translated into a comprehensible, beautiful and captivating experience for the visitor,” explains the agency.

For the interactive elements of the exhibition, Atelier Brückner didn’t want to use traditional flat panel monitor touch screens. Instead the company requested that iart interactive devise a “touch ball” device that would allow content to appear to be floating within the sphere. Steffen Blunk, project manager at iart interactive, used rear projection with a liquid cooled Acer K-10 LED pico-projector and a convex mirror optic. The surface was created by iart using acrylic glass with a rear frost coating. Iart and its partner company tegoro solutions used IRreflecting technology to create the touch surface of the ball. Software is based on the open source framework “Community Core Vision”.

An interactive table forms the central element of the LHC theme. An aerial overview of the CERN site demonstrates the size and complexity of the enormous machine. Interactivity, again created by iart and tegoro solutions, allows a user to navigate around the site, opening up “windows” into the earth to the LHC. The circular, multitouch surface allows up to 20 windows to be opened at any one time. Windows can be moved around the table and shared across the table with other visitors.

Tracking software was again based on Community Core Vision and the graphical user interface was designed by Atelier Brückner and iart interactive. Iart handled the interaction design and the display software was based on Open Source Computer Vision.

Iart also created an impressive interactive globe that acts as a giant track-ball. As the user turns the ball physically the projected content follows as if it were part of the ball. The globe allows worldwide connections of CERN to be visualised and explored. Visitors are able to navigate around a projected earth to find their own countries, investigate their own universities, or see the contribution being made by their own citizens.

Finally, a series of “Ball Chairs” allow visitors to listen to CERN physicists via speakers embedded into chairs that were manufactured by American company, Custom Immod. Flashcard audio players with capacitive button interfaces handled playback. The scientists report in their mother tongue about the work at CERN and basic research questions, which they are personally interested in.

The exhibition is visually stunning but Atelier Brückner has also achieved CERN‘s aim of creating an informative space. However, the sophisticated use of film, sound and light choreography creates an attraction that is as much about art as it is science.

In the words of Atelier Brückner: “The challenges of visualising dark matter, antimatter, the higgs particle, the early state of the universe and other such theoretical states have been impressively translated into a comprehensible, beautiful and captivating experience for the visitor. An emotional access to the often dry, scientific matter is made possible.”