Rumble in the jungle for Chester Zoo in technology revamp

A recreation of Southeast Asian tropical environments at a UK zoo saw the installation of a scalable networked audio soundscape and a 360-degree projection system. Anna Mitchell finds out more from Chester Zoo’s head of IT, Martin King.

North-west England is an unlikely place to find the tropical environments of South-East Asia but thanks to Islands, the latest attraction at Chester Zoo, that’s exactly what visitors can expect. An immersive soundscape and 360-degree projection are key tactics employed to transport people halfway across the world. In early planning stages to discuss the concept of Islands, Martin King, head of IT at Chester Zoo, was tasked with managing a huge infrastructure deployment. Kilometres of copper and fibre cabling were to be hidden below ground to deliver IP telephony, CCTV systems, Wi-Fi, EPOS systems and the computer network.

At the same time Dan Pearlman, the architecture firm red dot deliver the attraction, mooted the inclusion of a soundscape around Islands to deliver the sounds of the tropical environment. King immediately realised that it could be delivered using a network based audio system and offered to take responsibility for the installation.

“I wanted to opt for network based sound because we needed something we could easily extend in the future,” explains King. “We were also planning an immense fibre network so why not use it to its full capacity?”

“I wanted to opt for network based sound because we needed something we could easily extend in the future”

King brought Dave Lascaut, a show systems programmer and consultant, on board who suggested Medialon servers and a Dante system. The proposal was accepted and installation work began to deploy a single system based on a Richmond Sound audio server that delivered 64 channels of audio.

“The attraction was built on some land that had been used for grazing and there was no infrastructure in place,” explains King. “Everything had to be hidden and one of our biggest challenges was to keep everything below ground.”

The blank canvas gave King and the installation team a great opportunity to thoroughly and effectively plant he speaker positioning to deliver the soundscape. “We gave GPS co-ordinates for each duct pop-up and detailed the cabling we would need at each point. We opted for a 100V sound system so we had to get 4mm copper out to the loudspeaker points.”

When it came to loudspeakers King opted for Ohm and over the course of the project developed a close relationship with the company, which developed a number of custom units to meet the specific needs of Islands.

The attraction is broken down into six islands and includes Monsoon Forest - the biggest indoor zoological building in the UK.

King explains: “The idea is you have to cross water to get to each island. They all have different textures, different plants and different animals. Monsoon Forest spans two islands (Sumatra and Sulawesi) so we can showcase the plants and animals specific to each within a temperature and humidity controlled environment.

Thirty Ohm AS-5 outdoor rated cabinets are installed throughout the outdoor areas with a further ten smaller units installed throughout the bio dome. A mixture of four, eight and two channel Dante amplifiers from Ashly power the system and Symetrix was selected to handle DSP with its SymNet Solus product.

Some of the noises include rolling thunder and lighting effects and for this purpose Ohm active subwoofers were also deployed. “We have to be careful with the audio because of the close proximity of animals,” notes King. “We had to create a dispersed sound so it didn’t affect the animals outside. The approach used lots of smaller speakers rather than bigger, more powerful units.

“As soon as the plants and vegetation started growing we also realised we were losing some of our audio coverage,” he continues. “Because we’re running the 100V system it meant we could easily add more speakers.

“We also changed some of the directional loudspeakers and installed an omnidirectional unit in a few locations. This bespoke unit was manufactured by Ohm for this installation,” he adds.

Within Islands is a building called Sumba School, which houses a 360-degree projection system powered by two Dataton Watchout PCs and Optoma projectors. It was installed and commissioned by UK integrator Pure AV and designed by Lascaut.

“Sumba School was funded by a grant from the Wolfson Foundation [a UK charity],” says King. “When we were bidding for the system our development team asked me what I would ideally have in the schoolroom, to which I immediately replied: ‘360-degree projection’. I had to provide a cost so roughly estimated £40,000 [€56,000]. The bid was well-received and the Foundation paid for [the hardware side of] the entire building as well as the projection system. When I approached local integrators for the projection system the response was that it would be a struggle to source and install the equipment for £40,000 but we decided to source the equipment ourselves, leveraging our strong brand and eventually came in on budget.”

Watchout PCs are running version 5.5 and outputting to eight EH503 projectors. A Kramer 12 x 12 DVI matrix was deployed for signal distribution. 

Sound reinforcement is delivered by four Ohm CT-26 loudspeakers, which were left unfinished so King’s team could paint the wooden cabinets in the same texture as the building. Ohm also left the speaker grills outside to let them rust and add to the atmosphere inside. The units are powered by an Inter-M four-channel amplifier.

The system plays content, commissioned by Chester Zoo, on a loop with visitors free to walk in and out. The content was filmed for 360-degree viewing by DJ Willrich’s Tim Willrich in Sumatra and takes viewers through some of the habitats that Islands is focused on.

However, Sumba School was designed as a multipurpose space and the Watchout system also accepts live inputs. It is used for education sessions for groups ranging from primary schools to degree students as well as drop in sessions by zoo-keepers and as an events space for third-party hire. A Logitech camera and Skype means that visitors can even interact with people from across the world and working out in the field or behind the scenes at the zoo. Other input options include a Tascam DVD player and Apple TV.

“When presenters run their own PowerPoint we can still run a 360-degree background,” adds King.

A combination of Trantec radio and Audio-Technica gooseneck microphones were also provided for this space but King says the acoustics are so good they haven’t been used yet.

The final area of Islands is mocked up like a village and is designed to create the feeling that visitors have returned from a jungle expedition to civilisation. Two custom-painted Ohm speakers were installed here – one bright blue and one bright pink – to match two tuk-tuks installed in this area for photo opportunities. Further Ohm CT-6 cabinets were installed in a retail space within the village area.

The benefits of the network based system are apparent. King’s team manages the system and has good remote visibility, access, control and reporting using a web interface for the Medialon system. Furthermore the scalability of the audio system has already been tested with the addition of two more zones and an emergency announcement system.

In terms of visitor feedback it has been a resounding success with King reporting increased numbers heading to the zoo since the attraction opened as well as positive qualitative feedback.

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