Something Cool in the ABQ

Read Time: 8 minutes

Penguin Chill at the ABQ BioPark is a new, groundbreaking, immersive exhibit designed by Ideum (Corrales, N.M.), that whisks visitors onto a sub-Antarctic research expedition.

Imagine gazing up at the dazzling Aurora Australis while boarding a research vessel bound for sub-Antarctic waters to collect data on the habitat of Gentoo, King and Macaroni penguins…in the hot, high desert of Albuquerque. This was the vision of the ABQ BioPark and New Mexico BioPark Society: To create a STEM education-fueled exhibit that focuses on the difficult lives of these ever-adapting birds, whose habitat is being ravaged by climate change, right at home. The ABQ BioPark had a rich and comprehensive educational program, that made the zoo a favorite among educators in central New Mexico, and they wanted to expand with a cornerstone exhibit to base further revitalization on; one, which would bring the issues in the sub-Antarctic to the fore—educating the public on the science behind environmental threats, and importantly, inspiring them to take action.

The uniquely “cool” state-of-the-art habitat experience opened to the public during the peak of summer—on July 23, 2019. Alongside views of the (tightly climate-controlled) penguin habitat, narrative theming is supplemented by innovative technology in six interactives with a rich variety of interpretive content, creating a vibrant visitor experience. By presenting a space which “transports” visitors who assume the role of researcher to the front lines of climate change in the Antarctic, the reality of the interpretive material can resonate more deeply with them. To this end, Corrales-based design and technology firm Ideum collaborated closely with the ABQ BioPark and BioPark Society’s education, curation and keeper teams to meet critical goals for the exhibits and content of Penguin Chill.

After two years of development, Ideum completed Penguin Chill in collaboration with the client stakeholder group, VGHA Architects, S2 and Associates, Scientific Art Studio and HB Construction. Ideum, in addition to being deeply involved in the exhibit design and fabrication process, developed custom software for the exhibits, integrated all A/V solutions, provided narrative direction and consulted on interpretive content.

“We’re very proud of the fact that the educators fully embraced the exhibitry and narrative and have demonstrated their eagerness at encouraging visitors to embrace their roles as researchers on an expedition,” remarks Becky Hansis-O’Neill, director of Ideum’s Creative Services Group. “Zoos and aquariums have only recently begun to take advantage of more immersive, interactive environments to accompany animal viewing, in order to make conservation and ecology messaging more impactful and memorable,” Senior Exhibit Designer Joe Donovan, adds. “Penguin Chill is a further step in this direction, with an overarching experience narrative, multi-modal interactives and themed interior design.”

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors’ perceptions of penguin habitats are challenged as they become familiarized with the temperate tundra shorelines of southern South America—the port of Ushuaia in Argentina, to be specific. A sense of immersion, and suspension of disbelief is achieved quickly through rockwork, thoughtful architectural finishes and an overhead light sculpture that simulates the Aurora Australis using live data from NOAA to complement the first animal viewing area.

Interpretive signage introduces visitors to the journey, as they board the research vessel “BioPark,” where they can look out over a simulated vista of the ship’s bow traveling through sub-Antarctic island passages. Interactives allow guests to gather data from other researchers, observe real specimens and samples and make virtual video calls to real-life contributing scientists to learn more.

After disembarking, visitors arrive at the underwater viewing area, where they “scan” a simulated ice core and play a game called “Chow Time,” where they can use physical motion to guide a hungry penguin through obstacles, searching for food. Here, the background sounds of calving Ice and Weddell Seal vocalizations connect visitors with the underwater world they are observing.

The final interaction is a selfie photo station that invites users to complete a brief survey, provides an opportunity to take part in environmental mindfulness pledges and allows visitors to send themselves an animated gif of their selfie. In total, the project includes six interactive exhibits, a presentation system, two themed penguin viewing areas, two vitrine display cases, themed exhibit space and fabrication, a donor wall and interpretive signage throughout.

In 2017, the ABQ BioPark and BioPark Society approached Ideum, who had worked on a past exhibit for the park, to take the lead on the exhibit design for Penguin Chill, as the facility had already begun construction. They had a mission statement and outlines for the exhibits and educational goals, but needed help tying it all together and transforming the utilitarian space.

Because the building was designed with animal viewing as the primary visitor experience, the design team was challenged to achieve a balance of deliberate and meaningful exhibitions between the prescribed viewing areas. Crucial to preventing congestion and maintaining a fluid narrative were both attractive, universally accessible, bilingual, durable exhibits and the avoidance of “content cramming” in the space. The traffic flow through the building is linear: Guests enter the building and follow a single route straight to the exit, no circling back, or repeat experiences. The first major visitor space has both an above and below-water animal viewing space, the second a windowless “flexible exhibit space” adjacent to a very loud pump room, the third being an underwater animal viewing space.

They needed a concept that fit logically into this one-way street, and that unified the three very different visitor gathering spaces. “The concept we arrived at was inspired by theme park ‘dark rides,’ where a strong singular narrative gives purpose and structure to a linear visitor flow,” explains Donovan. “Communicating the unique narrative approach to stakeholders and our partners required significant visualization and corresponding interpretive planning to show the educational goals could be achieved by our non-traditional approach.”

The first nine months were spent in development—evolving the scope, concept and narrative, wireframing, drawing and meeting. The next year was spent bringing the project into the physical world. Scientific Art Studio, in Richmond, Calif., built set pieces and exhibit cabinetry like the ice breaker and ice core exhibit housing, while Ideum’s team focused on hardware solutions and software development. Midway through, Ideum opened their own fabrication studio, and in the last six months, final testing, refinements and installs were completed. The company also fabricated the donor wall and most of the selfie station.

The Ideum team executed live, full-scale testing in their studio for the interactive exhibits, like Chow Time—a motion-controlled educational game. Kinect motion sensors built into the Unity-driven kiosks locate and track and translate player movements into underwater turns and rolls. To succeed, players must avoid predators and pollution and gather enough food to eat. In the space, the technology must distinguish among many guests standing in front of the game, and the game should also be playable by guests of different heights and abilities.

Because Chow Time has special usability challenges, Ideum worked with the BioPark Society to recruit friends and family as young as three years of age to test the game. Staff trained in evaluation procedures observed game play and interviewed players to determine likeability, difficulty and evaluate if learning objectives were met. The team was able to quickly integrate changes as a result. “We had planned to instruct guests to stand on a pair of penguin tracks to ensure they were in the correct area for the game sensor to find them,” explains Hansis-O’Neill. “After watching everyone play, we quickly realized the need for more than one set of tracks for guests of different heights.”

In the research vessel experience, the team turned limitations into assets. The space houses a very dense and loud assembly of exposed plumbing in the ceiling with pipes and conduits feeding into the habitat pushing the seven-foot minimum height. The Ideum team allowed the infrastructure to function as additional set dressing, helping further the narrative that visitors are actually aboard a functioning ship, something they aided with digital screen “windows.” Limited by budget and distance from the Antarctic, they used a 3D game engine to execute believable undulating sea views.

At the ice core station, the Ideum team attached a special encoder to a custom-fabricated rail, providing specific data at precise points along the core. “Ice cores were tough—you hear about them in the news, but understanding really how they work, how scientists use them and how to communicate that was a really interesting educational and design challenge,” says Hansis-O’Neill. “The four-foot piece in the exhibit represents, approximately, the year 2003.”

Ideum linked all the interactives—from Chow Time and the virtual video chat (a clever navigation of pre-recorded skype interviews with real scientists) to the Aurora Australis light sculpture and the ice core station to a single Crestron system. This consolidation to one universal user interface was key to docents and keepers not only for convenience of updating educational content, but also because the high-tech penguin habitat uses lighting systems that mimic natural seasonal and hourly light shifts, which could easily be disturbed by digital screens at night.

Lastly, the selfie and selfie-retrieval stations provide feedback to the BioPark in addition to a way to remember the exhibit and address issues of environmental conservation in the visitor’s own home. Meticulously constructed using five individual Canon digital SLR cameras that fire at once and process images quickly, the station sends users a custom-designed boomerang-like animated gif that “rotates” around the subject.

Unsurprisingly, the selfie station is a hit: The whole exhibit has far exceeded visitor volume expectations—increasing by a reported 80 percent over last year at this time—with overwhelmingly positive reviews. For the Ideum team, the work on one of their largest projects has been gratifying, as has seeing visitors embrace the exhibition’s narrative. Creative Director Jim Spadaccini remarks, “I am really excited about the approach our team took here in creating such immersive and compelling environments…If we can get visitors engaged and they can feel empathy for these animals, it can lead to the kind of outcomes the BioPark and all of us involved in the project, would like to see.”



Project Name: Penguin Chill at the ABQ BioPark
Client: New Mexico BioPark Society
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Open Date: July 2019
Total Budget: $19.1 million
Project Area: 14,000 sq ft
Architect: Van Gilbert Architects
Landscape Architect: MRWM Landscape Architects
Experiential Graphic Design: Ideum
Design Team: Becky Hansis-O’Neill (director of creative services), Joe Donovan (senior exhibit designer), Rafael Pico (art director), James Romero (3D artist), Jose Crespin (interactive designer), Christopher Murphy (interactive exhibit developer), Morgan Barnard (digital artist/light sculptor), Robert Demsey (media systems specialist), Chris Alires (media systems specialist/sound designer), Andrew Ferrer 3D (modeler/interactive development specialist)
Fabrication and Digital Integration: Ideum
Collaborators: S2 and Associates, Scientific Art Studio, HB Construction
Photography: Ideum