Fire and ice at the Lava Centre

Not much on earth can match the wonder and ferocity of a volcano. Paul Milligan visited a new museum in Iceland tasked with educating visitors on this natural phenomenon.

They say every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of the Lava Centre in the town of Hvolsvöllur in Iceland, it’s certainly true.  The inspiration for the museum came when one of the founders of the project, Skuli Gunnar Sigfusson was stranded in Florida during the ash cloud eruption in 2010.  All the American TV coverage was beamed from his native land and it led him to wonder why there wasn’t something back home to represent the island’s incredible natural landscape. Ásbjörn Björgvinsson, the director of sales and marketing for the Lava Centre, was brought on board early on after successfully setting up The Whale Museum in northern Iceland in the late 1990s.

He takes up the story; “In the beginning I said we cannot go half way, we have to create a unique experience, a unique building, which will capture people’s attention, which will make people come to us.  You don’t send tourists to a location, they will go where they want to go. We had to create a presentation on how we thought it would all work, because if I couldn’t sell it to the investors how was I going to sell it to tourists?” Björgvinsson said it took about a year to get the funding, with the crucial element coming from the Iceland Tourism Fund, which was setup by Iceland Air and the National Bank of Iceland to invest in tourist attractions outside of Reykavik.

Lava Centre exhibition-60

The town of Hvolsvöllur was chosen because of its close proximity to five active volcanoes, but it is also situated on a main road through which 60% of all tourists drive past during their stay on the island. To help keep costs low, the museum owners lease the building from a local builder (who self-financed the build) to ensure the initial funding could sustain a few years before investors needed to see a return.  Once the building began to take shape it was down to Björgvinsson to find the right people to make the interior come alive.  “We started off by finding one of the best architects in Iceland (Basalt) at interpreting buildings within nature. We then touched base with the geology department at the University of Iceland, the Met Office, the local police and the authorities.  When we knew what we wanted to install we started talking to different companies who could provide us with technology.”

The whole concept for the Lava Centre is based on a script written by leading Icelandic geoscientist Ari Trausti Gudmundsson.  It was then over to Reykjavík-based interactive media agency Gagarin to transform that in to a modern-day visitor attraction.  Tasked with taking on the AV part of the project was Reykjavík-based integrator Feris. “I’m driven by passion, I don’t own any of the museum,” says Björgvinsson “I don’t gain financially if it goes well. I want to create something unique and leave something behind for the community.   I feel like Feris put their hearts into what they are doing.  That was the key reason we decided to work with Feris and Gagarin.  We went through the same presentation to Feris that we gave to investors.  We told them what we wanted to achieve, and they swallowed the ideas whole, they wanted to create something unique too.  From the very beginning they were fully on board, and quickly came up with creative solutions on how we could realise all the ideas we had in our minds.”

lava centre hallway

Hringur Hafsteinsson, creative director, Gagarin, was keen for visitors to be immersed in the exhibition from the off.  “Even in the very first exhibit, we have sensors with triggered sound, so that you become a part of it.  From there we tried to make every exhibit interactive, so you are in control.  We have learnt from years of experience that if people participate they will learn much faster, and the experience is much greater for them.” 

Visitors to the Lava Centre are greeted in the foyer by a large table showing the seismic activity of different volcanic systems in Iceland using real-time data. The map is produced by two Vivitek projectors edge-blended together with Vioso Anyblend.  The two 8,000 lumens projectors provide the image via bespoke mirrors (something Feris had to commission after the architects rejected the idea of the projectors pointing downwards).  Seven iiyama screens accompany the table display more real-time data.

To take in the full show, which takes around 30 minutes to complete, visitors must navigate through four corridors and four rooms, all filled with a wide variety of AV tech.  

On entering the Volcano Corridor you are met by lighting jutting out of the wall. The specially designed pieces of wood (each home to 3 LEDs) represent a timeline of eruptions in Iceland.  The LED effects are being driven by Raspberry Pi’s connected via the network to one PC.  

Lava Centre innanhus-91

The Creation of Iceland room features a giant metal rail with a projected dome surface inside (a Vivitek 4K 10,000 lumens projector providing the images is hidden above).  When users move the rail a black/white pattern (printed on the underside of the rail) triggers a sensor which communicates from a nearby PC to the dome. By turning the wheel visitors learn that Iceland was created when tectonic-plates drifted over a stationary Mantle plume that lies underneath the island today.  Hafsteinsson was worried initially that having multiple people wanting to turn the wheel at the same time would turn it in to a battle, “but in reality it has been just like any other human behaviour, if you enter a room full of people they instantly give you attention, they give you space, and even create a dialogue.”

This exhibit had been in the plans for the venue since the very beginning, but also created a number of issues for Feris, as the company’s manager, Jakob Kristinsson explains.  “It was difficult to do because the 4K projector had an aspect ratio of 16:9, and the ceiling height was low, so the selection of lenses made it difficult to find the correct distance from the lamps, so we had to use a mirror again to cover the distance.”

Lava Centre exhibition-313

The room also houses a 9.3 x 3.3-metre screen with two Vivitek projectors (again blended using Anyblend).  There are three standing positions opposite the screen.  By standing on one of three chosen spots the floor begins to rumble (driven by a ButtKicker under each panel) and different content (Shearing, Magma movements and Drifting plates) appears on the screen in front of each spot.   

The next sensation for visitors is found in the Earthquake Corridor, where an erupting volcano is relayed via a wildly vibrating floor.  In another innovative use of AV technology, instead of using a more traditional effect like a ButtKicker, Feris installed two Powersoft M-Force transducers fitted on the X and Y axle of a wooden platform, these are driven by two Powersoft M-Drive amplifiers which move counterweights in response to the earthquake audio file.  Under the platform sits a Danley DTS10 sub, which is used to create a deep audio rumble.

The next section called The Mantle Plume is centered on a 12-metre tall sculpture.  This proved to be the biggest challenge for Feris, as it involved the arduous and time-consuming install (by hand) of 1.3km of NeoPixel LEDs.  The exterior of the plume is a thin, stretchy material created especially by a British tailor, but it was the interior, where the LEDs are held together with a wire mesh, that caused headaches.  “It was a mammoth task,” says Kristinsson, “It took one month to attach the LEDs as we couldn’t glue them because of the heat, so we had to use 15,000 wax rubbers instead.”

lava centre mantle plume

Control of the sculpture is by Raspberry Pi’s and Teensy controllers (a USB microcontroller system), with Gagarin providing the programming of the controllable LEDs in the sculpture.   Before visitors reach the next room, called Volcanology, they have to pass the Magma Corridor, a space full of mist and eerie atmospheric sound.  Volcanology features nine iiyama touchscreens, each fitted with localised audio and a clever control system.  The whole screen is touch-enabled but Feris has installed a U-shaped slider at the side of each screen, so the main display stays fingerprint-free.  As you slide your finder down from the top of the U the video and audio changes in time to your touch. 

To make it to the next room you have to travel through the Tephra Corridor, which replicates the disorientating effect of falling ash.  The next room, called Mountain View, features 270-degree projection, with the total projection surface measuring 28-metres wide by 3-metres high.   It is driven by 8,000 lumens Vivitek projectors.  Like the display in the Creation of Iceland room, there are five interactive spots around the room, at each one visitors point to specific areas on the screen to activate content.  A Microsoft Kinect sensor, housed in a small box on the floor, facilitates the gesture control.  At each touch point there is also a directional speaker to dispense atmospheric sound.  The content is based on all the volcanoes near to Hvolsvöllur.  For the content Gagarin started with some of its own photos and composed a panoramic image using Houdini FX software to create the animation, which is shown in a 10-min cycle ending with an eruption.

The final piece of content is found inside the cinema room (which doubles as a presentation space), it features a Vivitek 4K 10,000 lumens  projector shining  on  a  6.3x3.6-metre Stewart Filmscreen Phantom screen with 7.1 surround sound.  

Audio  in  the Lava Centre is managed by Peavey MediaMetrix.  All Sennheiser mics  are fed into the NION n3 unit for processing  and level  management.  The 7.1 cinema  system is processed and managed by the NION, control of this takes place over a Kiosk GUI and in addition a Crestron system has access to all user controls, presets, level, mutes etc hosted by the NION. 

The Lava Centre has seen more than 30,000 visitors in its first three months of opening. An extension of the site has already been discussed, and there is also the possibility of using the roof as a viewing platform for the Northern Lights, and offering  the venue for  private hire in the evenings. “My  vision is that we expand it in the  future, by adding more components,” says Björgvinsson.  "We want to be the centre for information when the next eruption happens, we want people to come here to learn what to do when you have an eruption. We don’t want to meet expectations, we want to exceed them, that is the key to the future success of this project”.




Audac WX and MERO speaker series and subwoofers
AudioTechnica Active WL antennas, combiners and splitters
Danley DTS10 and TH212I subwoofers
OnPointAudio OPA series speakers
Panphonics directional speakers and amplifiers
Peavey MediaMatrix NION n3
Powersoft M-Drive amp, Ottocanali and Quattrocanali DSP
Presonus 4 and 8 channel USB sound cards
Sennheiser EW series wireless microphones


Audipack projector ceiling mounts and mirror rigs
iiyama TF2234MC-BX3, TF3237MSC-B3AG, X2481HS-B1 and LH4281S-B1 touchscreens
Microsoft Kinect ONE sensors
Stewart Filmscreen Fixed Phantom HALR screen,
VIOSO AnyBlend Dual
Vivitek DU8090Z, DU8190Z and DK8500Z projectors


Bosch Security DIVAR IP 5000 server, FHD cameras and Flexidome 7000 360° IVA 12MP camera
Crestron, CP3e Control unit
Raspberry’s PI3 + Controller’s for Neopixel Led control
Samba PLC control unit for Laser sensors and PIR detectors



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