Amazing feats of AV integration uncovered as we explore Dubai’s Museum of the Future

Amazing feats of AV integration uncovered as we explore Dubai’s Museum of the Future
AV integrator AVI-SPL joined a crack team of curators, designers, futurists and creatives to bring the Museum of the Future to life. Anna Mitchell journeys to the year 2071 to experience a feat of immersion, storytelling and stagecraft.

Dubai’s Museum of the Future manages to stand out in a city packed with architectural wonders and record breakers. The curved, gravity-defying loop of the now iconic structure nestles comfortably into its surrounding landscape with an exterior delicately scribed with Arabic calligraphy.

Opened in February 2022, the gentle brilliance of the building is perfectly paired with the approach museum curators took in guiding visitors as they navigate the future. The museum presents ideas of where humanity is heading and the challenges it faces, placing the visitor as an active participant in the centre of that story and someone with the capacity to influence future events.

Curators made the deliberate decision to not pack the museum with the latest technology currently available, believing that would quickly look dated. As Brendan McGetrick, creative director at the museum notes: “We used solid technology that was stable, and we knew we could work with. But we focused on how we could innovate using those technologies and mobilise those approaches in a way that does feel new and original. People can imagine it as a futuristic experience even though the ingredients of it are established.”

As well as being an experienced curator and designer, McGetrick is an accomplished writer which fits in well with a project that in the words of the museum’s executive director, Lath Carlson, is “writing future fictions”.

Carlson outlines the museum’s approach: “In the practice of future foresight, we look at current trends and extrapolate from them a cone of possibilities for the future. From those possible futures, we intentionally pick what is known as a ‘preferable future’. We do this in collaboration with futurists, subject experts, and creative professionals. Once a future vision is established, we draft the storyline for the exhibition and then work with artists, designers, and producers to create the environments, speculative objects, and media.”

The Museum of the Future was developed by an international team of some of the best minds in museums, attractions and creative design. Alongside McGetrick and Carlson, Sundar Raman is director of technology. [You can read an interview with Raman here []

Exhibition design company Atelier Brückner acted as consultant on the project with medienprojekt p2 hired as a sub-consultant with responsibility for AV.

It was the summer of 2019 when Phil Marlowe, managing director of AVI-SPL Middle East, first heard of the project and on New Year’s Eve 2019, after a rigorous and lengthy RFP process, AVI-SPL finally saw off 18 other contractors to be awarded the AV installation contract. The integrator had one year to complete a challenging and ambitious design with a scope that also changed and expanded throughout the installation.

The vision was in place, but Marlowe and his team were instrumental in making the ideas a tangible reality. “It was ambitious,” says Marlowe. “We had to stretch the limits of the current technologies to make the ideas come alive. We used the word improbable a lot, but we never used the word impossible; we never shied away from the creative vision.”

It was challenging but AVI-SPL had support and a good client. Marlowe says: “I loved working with Atelier Brückner because they’re futurists, but they’re also realists. The museum was also a fantastic client. Their in-house team set the bar high. The general contractor, Al Tayer Stocks, was very flexible and really understanding of technology and how central it was to the project.” 

If transforming an ambitious creative vision into reality within a tight time frame wasn’t tough enough, the building itself also posed a huge challenge to the technical installation. Marlowe describes the inside of the Museum of the Future as “a box within a box”.

“When we took over the building it had a full terrazzo floor, fully painted walls and ceilings, lights and air conditioning,” Marlowe continues. “We weren’t allowed to penetrate the floors or walls so there’s nothing physically screwed to the building, everything is floating. We had floor boxes we could plug into and there are some structural rigging points from the ceiling but that was it.”


Innovation meets standardisation 

The number and range of stakeholders and contributors on the project meant the demands on technology were diverse and one of AVI-SPL’s early impacts on the project was consolidating and simplifying hardware deployed.

“There were 13 content providers working under Atelier Brückner,” explains Marlowe. “We had to make sure all their content was rendered correctly, frame rates were right and that the content looked perfect within the space. Each provider had its own demands on hardware for playback and some were working with custom software.”

AVI-SPL met all these demands while settling on a relatively narrow range of equipment. All playback is 7th Sense, anything related to projection is Barco, displays are Samsung, audio processing is Q-Sys and loudspeakers are Fohhn, except for a small number of K-Array units. Even the models and ranges of equipment were kept deliberately narrow. Out of Barco’s projection range AVI-SPL focused on using only five models. “This had the added benefit that provision for spares was massively reduced,” Marlowe says.  

In addition to the wide range of demands on hardware, the plethora of content providers, as well as the sheer amount of content (which is all native driven with no compression or scaling), brought other challenges too.

“We had 13 content houses,” says Marlowe. “Some created in Unreal, others in Unity or other proprietary platforms. Some was pre-rendered; some was live rendered interactive playback.  To top it off these content houses were based throughout the world working in different native languages and time-zones”

It was here that Raman, director of technology at the museum, had a significant input, pushing for the museum to use Plastic SCM, a version control and source code management tool.

“This allowed files to be transported as network connectivity allowed,” says Marlowe. “If the content house only changed 10 seconds of a clip, that’s the only part of the file that was transferred. That decision really did work out for the project.”

Creative content was vital to the success of the visitor experience at Museum of the Future, orienting and immersing guests in our world 50 years in the future. The museum design team also knew that, because of social media, every guest had the potential to beam the experience across the world. “The entire project was engineered to be social media-friendly,” says Marlowe. “Photos taken on smartphones had to look good, we had to avoid unwanted effects.”

The base building backbone was Cisco which prompted AVI-SPL to involve AVI-SPL’s Professional Services team to ensure the AV network was converged into a single network fabric with the base build. Media transport was Lightware with all video signals transported over fibre using HDMI20-OPTJ-TX90 and HDMI20-OPTJ-RX90 transmitters and receivers.

At one point the vision for the building was to have the different floors handled by separate contractors, built off-site in multiple locations and delivered to the museum. It’s here where AVI-SPL had another significant input with the vision to approach the building as a whole and not separate sub-systems.

To achieve this vision, the original plan for a 1Gb uplink had to be upgraded. “We worked with the networking team to upgrade the uplinks to the main building and extend the networking fabric to each individual floor server room over multiple 10Gb uplinks,” says Marlowe.

“It worked in our favour later, because we ended up adding a huge amount of network attached storage in the main data centre that houses backups and archives of all the content that is distributed around all the floors.”

The Belden Cat6 fibre that runs through the building is a Belden certified system. “This gives a lot of scope for the future,” says Marlowe. “We don’t know how the museum will grow or change but this leaves them with a lot of flexibility.”

A lot of the work including rack building, network integration and programming was handled offsite at AVI-SPL’s Dubai facility which was essential to meet the tight timeframe for fitout. In addition to spending less time on integration in the museum, it protected the AV equipment during dusty build phases when lots of contractors were on site.

From wraparound projections, LED floors, giant LCDs and immersive soundscapes; AV technology was vital to placing museum visitors in the future and taking them on a journey of inspiration and discovery.

Carlson says: “As place making elements of the environments, we use AV technology to show life in space, the earth in 2071, Dubai in 2071, and hidden elements of ecosystems. When it comes to showing futurist technologies, we use AV technology to enhance 3D models of space stations, space suits, 3D displays, holograms, and sensory experiences. One of the biggest benefits of AV technology is that it can more easily be used to create convincing facsimiles of future worlds then if we needed to create everything as 3D objects.”


3, 2, 1… lift off

Museum visitors are first oriented to believe they are in the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Port in the year 2071. It’s 50 years in the future and our planet is in crisis. Against this backdrop they embark on a mission into space.

The first point of contact is Aya, the Museum of the Future’s digital guide. She is shown on a CreateLED LED display and greets visitors in either Arabic on English with both languages in subtitles. Aya will reappear on various screens and projections throughout the visitor’s journey.

The group is invited to board a vessel to space which is in fact a lift that was used as the service elevator during build phases of the museum, which posed some challenges for AVI-SPL.


“This is a key part of the museum experience because it sets the stage and makes sense of the journey visitors are about to embark on. But it was also vital to construction,” says Marlowe. “We had to build the interior off site and assemble within the lift two weeks before the museum opened.”

“It’s a 13 metric tonne capacity lift from Kone, it was never designed to be a themed attractions ride,” says Marlowe. To transform this functional piece of equipment Framestore created content that Marlow describes as “incredibly ingenious and high quality.”

Marlowe says AVI-SPL then felt the pressure of ensuring the AV fit out added to the realism of the experience.

The content runs across ten “windows” around the lift. AVI-SPL hatched a plan to cover 75-in 4K displays from Samsung with thick Perspex to create the spacecraft’s “windows”. Each display was independently fed with 4K content at 60 frames per second by 7th Sense Pico media servers. The desired window effect was achieved incredibly well but the ceiling still posed a challenge.

“This is a passenger elevator,” he explains. “It’s carrying up to 50 people at time. All equipment had to be installed safely and we had to follow drop test standards for passenger lifts. Samsung informed us that if we bolted a 75-in screen to a ceiling, the LCD would fail. Smaller screens would work but were out of the question; we wanted all the windows to look the same. Direct view LED was considered and discounted as we wouldn’t achieve the pixel density we needed to.”

Marlowe pressed on and, working with one of AVI-SPL’s structural CAD engineers, hatched a plan to machine an acrylic panel that the TV could rest on.

The technology packed into the lift is astonishing. There are three equipment racks on the roof of the elevator and 26 channels of audio delivered through Fohhn LX-10 speakers and AS-10 subwoofers. ButtKickers were deployed to vibrate the lift and the audio was mixed to deliver a highly immersive experience. “If you stand in the middle you feel like things are moving around you through the journey,” says Marlowe.

The show control and guide control of the opening experience was something AVI-SPL had to pay close attention to.

Marlowe explains: “Both Aya’s presentation and the lift are run by 7thSense playback. While they had to be independent, we also needed to ensure that everything was timed to work together smoothly and deliver the same experience for each group.  

“We wrote custom code in Lua running on Q-Sys [a QSC Core 8 Flex was installed] and that acts as the front end. The guide leading the group will use a mobile device to select English or Arabic. Everything is timed so there are seamless loops and smooth transitions.

“We had no mechanism to control the lift and we had to work with Kone engineers to install a third-party control box that would allow us to open and close doors, select floors and have live feedback on the status of the lift.

“When Aya’s presentation finishes on the ground floor, it then tells the lift open the doors. The lift show doesn’t start until the doors are closed and then the lift waits until the loop is complete. Take off always happens at the same time so you get the feeling of a rocket lifting off.”

What looks seamless from the outside required a lot of work from AVI-SPL to ensure tight integration between Q-Sys, Crestron and 7thSense’s media servers.   


Arrival at OSS Hope

The lift opens in arrivals on level five which is the OSS Hope, the UAE space station circling earth. A 4m x 4m Barco RigiFlex screen shows 4K content rear-projected by two Barco F90 projectors installed less than 1m behind the screen.

The star of level five is waiting for visitors just around the corner as they step into a large room totally dominated by a wide window looking out into space. The effect is delivered by rear projection again and this time a 21m-wide Barco RigiFlex screen curved in the horizontal and vertical axes.

“This was the most challenging element of the entire build,” says Marlowe. “It’s the largest Barco RigiFlex screen in the world and at the time Barco only offered the material up to 10m in length. This was a manufacturing restriction, so they had to upgrade their equipment, but they did it and they did it on time.

“We then had one shot to install it. When RigiFlex is installed and tensioned, it’s highly durable. Before that it’s very susceptible to damage. If we got this wrong, we’d have had to re-order and that would have taken another 10 to 12 weeks and the museum opening would have been delayed. It was tense, but it worked out.”

There’s also an acrylic dome in this room custom made to look like a planet and lit up by three ceiling-mounted Barco F70s. Visitors also meet characters in the future shown on portrait mounted 98-in displays.

Audio in the space is cleverly delivered to generate background effects such as engines rumbling, while in other areas more local feeds are delivered for speech from one of the characters on a display for example.


Time to HEAL

Descending through the building, visitors reach the fourth floor: the HEAL Institute.

McGetrick takes up the story: “This is a scientific institution in the future that uses biotechnology and artificial intelligence to create new species that can repair damage we’ve done to the natural environment."

This calming floor uses ambient effects delivered by deploying CreateLED mesh LED behind glass to show content of plants in an indoor garden. Simultaneously, a “digital window”, similar to the effect employed in the elevator, shows views of Dubai in the year 2071.

Another large projection was deployed for an installation called ‘The Forest’ that shows a 3D model of a rainforest. The live rendered content runs in Unity and is projected by two Barco UDM-4K22s installed just 2m in front of the approximately 12m-long by 3m-high screen.

“We had to use front projection because it’s an acoustically transparent screen,” explains Marlowe. The soundscape is delivered through 16 channels of audio with Fohhn loudspeakers installed behind the screen and over the heads of the viewers to make it feel like effects, such as rain, are coming towards and over you.

“You can be less than a metre away from the screen and you won’t block any of the projection light path,” says Marlowe. Projection mounting however was difficult. The room has an open ceiling so projector heat and noise had to be considered. AVI-SPL worked with Barco to adapt an external cooling system from the UDX line of projectors to work with the UDMs installed at the museum. AVI-SPL worked with ShowTex in Dubai for the screen material which was cut just before installation on site.

On the other side of level four is ‘The Library’, a vault containing thousands of species. The effect was created with illuminated cylinders that are interactive and individually programmable in terms of light colour and intensity. Here visitors are handed a custom-built tablet device, called a Bionsynth Device, and can use it to scan and “collect DNA” from the species in the cylinders to create a new species that could help survival within the new ecosystem.

They then move through to ‘The Lab’ so see a round room with huge, curved projection screens on each side powered by six Barco UDMs.

“This used the same projection screen material as ‘The Forest’ installation,” says Marlowe. To handle the curve two cameras were installed on either side to support the auto alignment system from Scalable Display Technologies. Content runs in a live Unity environment.

Placed in front of the large screens are stations where visitors can connect their Biosynth devices. Their species is rendered in front of them and placed within the new world environment to see if has a positive impact on the ecosystem or not.

Guests can also visit ‘The Observatory’ where two walls on opposite sides of the room contain specimens, which are physical models, that are being grown and gestated. Projection was used on one wall to overlay content, while the other side employs transparent LCD screens from ProDisplay.

Switching off, tuning in

The next stage of the journey is ‘Al Waha’, a digital detox zone on floor three. “The idea is in the future we have to have these dedicated spaces where we can disconnect from our devices and reconnect to our bodies and each other,” explains McGetrick. “This is a kind of wellness spa-like environment. We wanted to have almost no information and very little digital content. Almost everything you encounter here is to be experienced with your senses.”

Where technology is used it is deployed subtly. Aya appears again as a projection on a concave space with a gentler affect than LED or LCD.

Another challenging installation for AVI-SPL was ‘Movement Therapy’, dubbed “the world’s first dustless desert”. The concept was designed by Deeplocal who also created the software to run the experience.

Fringed by a thin white LED light strip, a sunken area butts up to the terrazzo floor. Four Barco UDM 4K projectors fire onto this area of floor from the ceiling. A single custom server plays a fully interactive rendered environment. Intel RealSense cameras capture the visitors as they move through the “desert”.

“It’s responsive to location and movement as visitors walk through it,” says McGetrick. “As you move you create ripple effects and bubbles. We programmed it so if you move fast and jump around it doesn’t respond to you. It encourages slow, meditative movement. When two people come together they create another effect to make visitors want to interact.”

“Mapping on to sunken area meant we had to scan the floor and create a full mesh 3D file that could be overlayed within Scalable so the lines didn’t bend or curve and everything looks straight from a content perspective,” explains Marlowe.

“The initial idea was to project on to real sand but that was quickly discounted,” he adds “We ended up testing different samples of carpeting and memory foam padding to create a cushion feeling.”

Ultrasound haptics from UltraLeap were deployed in ‘Feeling Therapy’ have the sensation that they are manipulating geometric shapes in space. McGetrick says: “We wanted to create a different interface that didn’t require a screen. It’s interactive but it’s more ambient than a display. This area is all about lighting, sound and a sense of touch.”

Continuing with this multisensory mission, the floor also includes ‘Connection Therapy’, a group experience where six people sit around a table with projection firing on to the surface. Facing each seat is a grille with a microphone. Visitors hum into the grille and create a floating cloud in front of them. As they continue the six clouds float through the air and join in the centre of the table.  “When they link up a moment is triggered where the room fills with light, the sound changes and scent is released from the grille,” says McGetrick.  

Another highlight is ‘The Centre’. This is an acrylic disc covered in water. The arms that hold up the disc have actuators to vibrate the water in different patterns. There’s a beam of light that shoots through from the centre and projects the shapes and ripples on a dome above it. “It creates this very hypnotic and very contemporary feeling that is ultimately only about motion, lights and water,” says McGetrick.


Journey ends, experience continues 

When visitors leave ‘Al Waha’, the visitor journey is complete but there’s still more to experience. Level 2 is the sponsors floor with a more typical museum approach to showing collections. In addition to audio and number of screens deployed here AVI-SPL also had to deliver a 5x5 freestanding Barco UniSee videowall.

“We weren’t allowed to bolt to the floor so built a cabinet to house the videowall,” says Marlowe. We had to use 1.7 tonnes of counterweights to ensure the wall is structurally stable and will not tip over.”

There is also an entire floor built to entertain and engage children. Within this space is the interactive ‘Imagine Lab’, a dome with several objects placed in recessed areas of the wall. Children take objects out of the wall and plug them into a station, which creates a kind of mandala on the CreateLed LED floor.

In December 2022 AVI-SPL completed integration of the retail area and it opened to the public. “We’ve utilised curved Infiled 1.9mm LED wrapped around columns with façade panelling over the top to create unique shapes,” explains Marlowe.

“There’s also a full soundscape. We have 64 channels of audio; each speaker is driven individually. We worked with a Micah Silver, co-founder of Polytope Agency in Los Angeles, who handled all the audio creation design.”

AVI-SPL also handled interior and exterior digital signage for visitor information and wayfinding. It’s all run by Tripleplay and AVI-SPL built displays into totems, selecting Samsung for indoor displays and LG for bright, outdoor, weatherproof displays.

Although not part of the visitor experience, the Museum of the Future also houses an auditorium. Originally this wasn’t in AVI-SPL’s scope of work and a separate party handled the installation of an L-Acoustics audio system. AVI-SPL stepped in around August 2021 to install a Unilumin Kslim 2.5mm LED in the space and complete the auditorium. 


Smooth operation

A few months before the museum opened it was decided that a technical centre from which the museum’s AV could be operated would be required. Working with the museum and the general contractor, AVI-SPL built a full command and control centre.

“The building moves a lot,” says Marlowe. “The whole exoskeleton is designed to flex and move. That’s where the system from Scalable Display Technologies works wonders and ensures each projection system looks as it did on day one.”

Two AVI-SPL managed service staff were employed to support the museum in November 2021. “They were part of the final installation, content loading and testing,” says Marlowe. “So they understood the systems, there was a lot of continuity from the projects team to the services team.”

The company is on hand 24/7 and any maintenance work is done at night and ready for the following morning.

Completing this installation in the space of 12 months was difficult but Marlowe was then also faced with coronavirus restrictions and the start of the now-notorious supply chain issues. Kit wasn’t in short supply when AVI-SPL started but Marlowe could see warning signs and pushed for expedited approval on all hardware.

“We had brilliant support and quick sign off,” he says. “We ordered the majority of the equipment within 30 days of the contract award and a lot of it was custom-built or built to order.”

This huge up-front investment in AV technology could have been seen as a risky move and the fact it worked out is testament to AVI-SPL’s quick understanding of how it would deliver on the vision of the project.

The integrator’s formidable planning and foresight meant AVI-SPL was able to navigate two enormous undertakings in Dubai simultaneously.

“Expo 2020 had been delayed and the museum was not, so there was an unexpected clash,” said Marlowe. “We had a huge amount of work at Expo and had to split our team. I took on the Museum of the Future, while Adam Loosley, operations manager and Marko Joka, service manager for AVI-SPL in Dubai handled all Expo projects.

“We just worked really methodically,” continues Marlowe. “The mission statement for this project was ‘one time and right’. We didn’t have the time to do anything twice.”

Photos courtesy of Atelier Bruckner, AVI-SPL and Museum of the Future

Tech Spec            
Audinate Dante AVIO USB adapters
ButtKicker speakers
Focusrite Dante/AES interfaces
Fohhn Airea digital audio network system; NA-4 convertor; LX-10, LX-20 and LX-60 speakers; IG-100 ceiling speakers; AS-10 subwoofers; and MA-4.600 amplifiers
K-Array Rumble-KU210 subwoofers and KV52 and KT2C speakers
LB Lautsprecher Polar directional loudspeakers
Meyer Sound MPS-488HP power supply and UP-4XP loudspeakers
Powersoft Quattrocanali amplifiers
Q-SYS Core 8 Flex and 510i processors
RDL amplifiers and power supplies
Shure MicroFlex Advance table array microphone and Microflex gooseneck microphones
Visaton PL 7 RV-8 Ohm loudspeakers and AMP 2.2 LN amplifiers 

Management and Control
APC Smart-UPS and power distribution units
Belden patch panels
Cisco Catalyst network switches
Crestron TSW-770-B-S 7-in and TSW-570-B-S 5-in touchpanels, RMC4 control processors, AV3 control system
G2 Digital PCs, workstations and servers
Middle Atlantic equipment racks

7th Sense Pico, Proton and Infinity media servers
AJA Gen10 convertors
Allied Vision cameras
Apple iPads
Axis network cameras
Barco F60-W7, F70-4K8, F80-4K8, F90-4K13, G60-W7 and UDM-4K22 projectors; external cooling modules; and UniSee displays
Brightsign XT244 and XT1144 players
CreateLED LED processors, 1.25mm LED, LED floor, transparent LED display
Elo 22-in touchscreens
INFiLED SF series 1.9mm LED
LG 49-in and 27-in monitors
Lightware HDMI20-OPTJ-TX90 and HDMI20-OPTJ-RX90 video transmitters and receivers and OPTJ power trays
Novastar LED processors
Samsung QM series 32-in, 49-in, 55-in, 75-in and 98-in displays; and VM46T-U 46-in displays
Scalable Displays calibration cameras and software
Unilumin Kslim 2.5mm LED

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