Exploring the unknown at CERN Science Gateway

Paul Milligan sat down with the AV companies charged with the difficult task of producing a multimedia exhibition for CERN to deliver particle physics to a wider audience.

You will know the name, but you may not know much more about The European Laboratory for Particle Physics, known widely as CERN. It is an intergovernmental organisation in charge of the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. Established in 1954 and based in Meyrin, a suburb of Geneva, it’s made up of 23 member states, and is funded by donations. CERN’s main function is to provide the particle accelerators and other infrastructure needed for high-energy physics research, and is perhaps best known in recent times as the home of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider.

In October last year, CERN Science Gateway opened to the public, it is CERN’s new flagship centre for education and consists of three exhibition spaces: Discover CERN, Our Universe, and Quantum World, which will attract 300,000 to 500,000 visitors per year.

Dutch experience design agency Tinker imagineers was responsible for Our Universe, which is located in one of the two tubes within the impressive building designed by RPBW Architects (Renzo Piano Building Workshop). Tinker led a Dutch consortium that included Bruns (set construction), YIPP (interactives), Shosho (Big Bang film), and Mansveld (AV hardware) to enter the tender process. CERN issued a 53-page ‘Invitation to Tender’ which included technical specifications for design, supply and installation of the exhibition. “Based on that, our team put together a substantive and technical concept, linked to a fixed budget,” says René van de Vondervoort, technical commercial advisor, Mansveld.

To get the feel for what they would be designing for the client, Tinker visited CERN and went to a couple of its underground labs. “We had a really good look at what these people work with and what they’re building in order to recreate the high energy conditions of the early universe in order to research fundamental questions in physics and we used that as a basis to design the tables and the exhibits,” says Daniel Dugour, content creative, Tinker imagineers.

Getting the content to a point where the scientists were happy and visitors aged from 8 to 80 years old, some with no scientific knowledge, would be educated and entertained, is at the very crux of this entire project. The team had to deal with the most difficult aspect of the brief - the science had to be thorough and rigorously accurate at all times. “CERN content is mind boggling, I’ve had sleepless nights over stuff I learned from CERN on the galaxy and black holes. Our task is to make it understandable to a wide audience,” says Wouter Verbiest, Yipp CEO. CERN has its own team working on traveling exhibitions throughout the year, so were able to be a buffer between the scientists and the AV consortium. “The content is not simple. Even the CERN team involved with the Science Gateway cannot create all of the content, had to reach out to scientists who are busy with the Higgs particle for example. It required two years of back and forth on the subjects,” explains Verbiest.

Even with the help of the CERN exhibition team, it was still a huge task for all the AV companies involved, because the subject matter is incredibly complex, as this quote from Dugour illustrates: “The problem is that it is quantum physics. There was one scientist at CERN, who we spoke to as part of this process, who told us quantum physics is something you will never understand, but you will get used to it.”

The exhibition Back to the Big Bang embarks on a journey through time. Visitors start their exploration of the history of the universe in the present by witnessing real-time particle detection. A timeline that spans the entire length of the space shows the stages of our universe’s life, offering visitors a journey through almost 14 billion years. It explains the present and stretches back to the Big Bang. A series of interactive exhibits, fashioned to resemble laboratory setups, can be found in the central area of the space. Towards the back of the room visitors can watch a film that journeys to within a fraction of a second of the Big Bang, explaining the science of CERN to offer insights into the mysteries of the cosmos.

To get to this point however was an exhaustive process outlines Verbiest: “You start with a wide array of what we could talk about, then reduce the content bit by bit, until we end up with a good group of interactives that tells a story. And then we dive down into the particular interactives area. And that goes on right until the end when we have test groups, and they will tell us whether they understand it or not.”

What did the client want the AV technology to achieve in this project? AV has been used for two purposes explains van de Vondervoort. “First, it was to create a spatial atmosphere in the building by applying all-round projection of the universe to all walls. The purpose was to use projection over decorated walls to add extra effects to the universe images. This in combination with a background sound from speakers distributed throughout the room. Also, through the use of interactive technology, we could clearly explain complex scientific research and physical phenomena, both on a large scale (the universe) and on a sub-atomic scale. The AV is often a combination of hands-on mechanical exhibits with computers, various sizes of touchscreens, local audio with handsets.”

The goal of any visitor centre is to be educational and offer entertainment too, but because the subject matter is so complex here, there was a danger the interactives could take away from what CERN was trying to achieve with the Science Gateway, as this example from Verbiest proves: “The Higgs interactive definitely had a rocky road, at some point you have to look each other in the eye and say ‘we cannot gamify the Higgs particle’. We tried it early on in the process, it was like an air hockey game, but CERN kept coming back to say, ‘No, we cannot say this, they (the scientific community) will kill us.”

There are 11 interactions in total, and although they are in a timeline, which works its way back to the Big Bang, visitors can undertake them in any order they like, even in reverse. “We tried to put in as much hands-on physical interaction as possible, but since it’s so incredibly abstract, most of the time that was very difficult. Most of the interactives use a touchscreen, and we also put in a lot of physical attachments too,” says Dugour. Because the subject matter is so complicated each interactive has several layers of information. “Everybody doing an interactive gets offered a base layer, and there are side paths to it, for those who want it,” adds Verbiest.

As the visitor approaches the Observing with Different Wavelengths exhibit they see themselves on a large screen in normal white light, as seen from a visible light camera. They learn that visible light is just a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum which also includes radio waves, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays and Gamma radiation. This is demonstrated with two extra cameras: an infrared camera that shows the visitor as a temperature gradient and an UV camera that shows otherwise invisible patterns in the skin.

In the exhibit entitled Supernovae, visitors are invited to create their own star. They determine the amount of cold hydrogen and helium gas to start with, learning that every element heavier than hydrogen and helium was at some time produced through nuclear fusion inside a star. All the carbon in our bodies, all the gold in the world and the oxygen in the air and the water was made inside stars, mostly during the explosive supernova events of a star death. The message is we are literally made of stardust. Visitors can also choose to add a sprinkle of heavier chemical elements from earlier generations of stars into their new star, and then they give the cloud a spin.

When they’re happy with the resulting star, as visualised in a timeline, they can swipe it from the iiyama touchscreen into the surrounding projections of the scenography where it will live out its life. In the exhibit called Tactile Timeline, an almost 15m-long backlit panel stretches along the wall of tube-shaped exhibition space, which follows the journey back in time that visitors take when they move through the space. All illustrations are covered in a transparent panel with tactile relief representing that illustration, enabling visually impaired people to observe the universe for the first time. Several embedded screens show real CERN scientists explaining about different phenomena in five languages.

Audio at Our Universe is via headphones at each station, where scientists pass on information. The room also has a soundscape playing over six JBL speakers, created by sound designer Domenico Vicinanza, who has used procedural sound generation, based on scientific measurements, to create the layers of the soundscape to create atmosphere, the audio slowly changes as you go move towards the Big Bang itself. As mentioned above, Our Universe is housed within a tube shaped space, with the curved walls covered in printed material, onto which Epson short throw projectors are mapped together to cover the walls with images of stars and galaxies. The installation was completed in two phases, in January 2023 the interactives were prepared and the factory acceptance tests took place, in April the projectors, lighting and audio were installed on-site, and all AV kit was integrated into the OpenHab control system (more on that later).

What were the biggest challenges on this project for the AV team? “It was definitely the scientific content, it’s very hard. You don’t want to be a Wikipedia page on-site so you have to battle it out with the clients, and the scientists. And that is a mammoth job,” says Verbiest. It was a new build project, so that posed challenges too he adds. The client had a number of requirements regarding technology and brands, the initial plan from the AV consortium was to use Watchout or Vioso to run the content, but that was out of reach of the available budget. The next plan to use BrightSign players to run the projectors was changed when the client requested PCs instead. There was also a block on using extenders, so all PCs are fixed in the ceiling locally to the projectors. “The biggest technical challenge was projecting onto the curved walls. We had to experiment exactly where we put the projectors, and aligning and mapping the projectors to the decorations on the round walls was an intensive job,” says van de Vondervoort.

Another area that required a time investment was learning a new control system, van de Vondervoort takes up the story. “The client stated in the tender document we had to use OpenHab in all three pavilions because they had experience with it. Normally we use Crestron, so we had to figure out what it was, as it’s similar to a home automation system. Finally, we figured out how it works, and programmed it, and it works fine.”

The finished project is a testament to working alongside a client for a long period of time. Constant tests at every stage of the process to check they were on the right track help to deliver what everyone wants. “The most surprising thing [about the finished project] is the sheer amount of attention that people give the more difficult interactives. There is one about the Higgs field, which is a phenomenon I still struggle to understand. People are spending five or 10 minutes reading and looking at static images,” says Dugour with a smile.

“The sense of wonder is very important here,” he adds. “The message of the science is that the particles that everything consists of - our bodies and the universe – were formed very shortly after the moment we call the Big Bang. And these particles haven’t changed. They’re still the same, they’ve just reconfigured, and that has to be explained in a complete and accurate way, but also in a way that eight yearolds can understand."


Behringer headphone amp
BlackBox HP MKII AV headphone armour cable
BSS Dante/BlueLink bridge, Breakout box, Processor, Flush mount controller
Epson EB-L735U, EB-L635SU, EB-PU 1007 projectors
Extron MPA 152 audio amp
Hikvision DS-2TD3017T-3/V camera
Iiyama Prolite T1634MC-B8X, Prolite TF3239 MSC, Prolite TF4339MSC touchscreens
JBL Control 25-1L loudspeakers
Maxmax UV Camera
Molitor USO audio handset
Optoma ZK1050 projector
Samsung QM65R 65-in display
Visatone speaker 

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