For 62 years a German U-Boat on exhibit outside the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago thrilled generations of visitors with its massive scale, tight quarters and epic story of top-secret capture by World War II Allied forces. Recently restored and moved indoors, the U-505 submarine is the centerpiece of an immersive exhibit that gives visitors an in-depth perspective on the war and the people who fought it.
Twenty-four million people have toured the U-505 since 1954. Now interactive technology is bringing visitors the sights, sounds and feel of daily life and deathly danger aboard her. Conceptualized and scripted by MSI and created and activated by different design teams, MSI's U-505 exhibit includes details on life aboard a U-Boat and how to encode a message, as well as a buoyancy tank challenge, a periscope challenge, a storytelling kiosk, and the Dive Trainer experience.
Luci Creative and Leviathan (Chicago), together with Ravenswood Studio, worked on the complete wrap-around experience of three interactive Dive Trainer stations. The stations push the envelope of what today's technology contributes to a museum visitor's experience and really enhance a visitor's understanding of U-505's unique underwater world.
The Interactive Experiences of the Dive Trainer Stations
The Dive Trainer stations provide considerable insight into what operating the U-505 might have been like for its crew. In a recreation of the sub’s control room, visitors are challenged to maneuver the sub through a controlled dive by adjusting the bow and stern dive planes, while evading torpedoes, depth charges, and catastrophic water pressure that could force the vessel to surface. Hyper-realistic underwater explosions, waves of water and metal objects in the surrounding sea contribute to the sense of reality. Every pipe, dial, nut and bolt visitors see on the Dive Trainer stations' screens was given the same painted metal texture found inside the submarine, which heightens the authentic visuals.
The similarity of the user interface to the actual U-505’s controls sets the Dive Trainer station apart from other simulator experiences. Just two electrical contact buttons—one for up and one for down—control the planes. The control interface is a nearly exact duplicate of the actual controls in the sub, including response time and button pressure. In a loss of power, which happens during the experience, the visitor must resort to a mechanical wheel, just like in the sub.
Participants receive training on the sub's physical controls, along with information on dangers the real crew faced avoiding capture or destruction. Then visitors are catapulted into a thrilling mission where the fates of boat and crew are placed solely in their hands. It's a powerful and emotional simulation of life aboard, both on patrol and under attack. "The technology gives you the feeling of actually controlling the submarine," says Luci Creative's Senior Strategist Rich Walthers, explaining that the participant competes against the computer, which takes the role of the sea and the enemy and shows the sub diving or avoiding enemy bombs. Testing the program early on with one of his sons, Walthers adds, "I was able to save the submarine even though it was severely damaged. It was the first time anyone had done that with the simulator, and it was just because I had refused to give up." He adds that the experience can bring an interesting perspective to the war story, "because you’re getting bombed by the Americans as you’re trying to save the German submarine."
The U-505 Dive Trainer stations are extremely popular. For the creative team, says Leviathan’s Executive Creative Director Jason White, "It's incredibly gratifying to see people of all ages crowded around the stations, engaging, learning and experiencing a unique slice of history in an entirely new way."
Making it Real for the 21st Century
To create both the physical and game aspects of the Dive Trainer stations, the team did extensive research and testing on several levels, with the goal of making the experience as authentic as possible. German plans were studied, and German dive manuals used for the script writing and experience interactions. All commands given by the Executive Officer are directly translated from the German. For example, “closed” is actually stated as “off."
The team considered how people would move and interact within the space, and also studied how U-Boats actually worked so they could make the interactive experience as authentic as possible. Working within the existing space proved a bit difficult at first, but the final design fit perfectly. "We did ergonomic studies, then mocked up a station in our studio with plywood and had adults and children come in and test to get the relationships right," says Luci's Rich Walthers. With the help of Ravenswood Studio, the MSI and accessibility consultants, an innovative “disappearing” chair allowed one of the three stations to be ADA compliant, allowing a wheelchair user to play the game and have the same experience. The shape of that station is slightly different than the other two, but the functionality and controls are the same. There was another round of testing after physical alterations and the software were completed. "At that stage, it looked very much like what you see on the floor of the museum now. We tested again on a Saturday with museum staff and software developers present and got more feedback from that round, made the appropriate changes, then did another round of testing to ensure the efficacy of the modifications."
"Balancing historical accuracy with modern technology can be challenging. The MSI team gave us latitude to design navigational elements inspired by the sub, but that actually improve users' experiences," says Chad Hutson, Leviathan's president and executive producer. For example, dive controls were designed to make sense to modern gamers and, unlike the real crew, visitors are able to watch all the drama unfold right before their eyes across a mesmerizing panoramic display. Lighting and texturing help bring a high level of design polish to the project. U-505's original blueprints were used to create the etched, edge-lit acrylics that give an underwater lighting effect. The user's seat vibrates when explosions occur, and surround-sound speakers accurately replicate sounds a U-505 crewmember might have heard from inside the submarine when under attack.
As well as making the exhibit visually appealing, Leviathan’s creative team carefully choreographed the mission to quickly but thoroughly train visitors, allow anticipation to build before attacks begin, and then allow them to attempt to escape destruction. Another consideration—at the base of all Leviathan's work—was creating a digital experience that would intrigue visitors of all ages today, but remain engaging for years to come.
Behind the Scenes: Teamwork, Collaboration and Partnership
Three firms—Luci Creative, Ravenswood, and Leviathan—partnered to create the U-505 Dive Trainer stations and bring MSI's original concept into being. The project’s success required a deep level of collaboration among members of the project team, each of whom brought specific skills and knowledge to the project. The three firms connected seamlessly with museum staff, with whom the Luci and Ravenswood teams have long-standing relationships. For the Dive Trainer stations, the teams met the challenge of learning and using new methods of working together and solving previously unasked design problems with new design tools and techniques, as well as employing new thinking about what they were doing.
"The Museum of Science and Industry had the original idea for this immersive experience and approached us at Luci Creative to figure out how to implement it," says Rich Walthers. Luci Creative was engaged to manage the project through completion, including exhibits, environmental and graphic design, ergonomic design, industrial design, research and additional development of MSI's script.
Leviathan was brought on board by Luci's executives to create the videogame-based simulation, design the interface and develop the software. Leviathan chose Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4 to create and master the game's cinematic subject matter. According to President and Executive Producer Chad Hutson, this unique application of the sophisticated game engine behind many of the world's most popular video games was an easy choice that proved highly beneficial. Leviathan also engaged firm Creative Technology to provide equipment and installation for the simulators.
Luci enlisted fabrication partner studio Ravenswood for facets including control system engineering and design, electromechanical/technology design and integration, prototyping, testing, fabrication and installation of the three Dive Trainer stations.
Project Name: U-505 Dive Trainer Interactive Stations
Client: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Location: Chicago, IL
Open Date: August 1, 2016
Project Area: 650 sq. ft.
Experiential, Graphic and Environmental Design: Luci Creative
Team: Kevin Snow (creative director and project manager), AJ Goehle (director of strategy and design), Matthew York (senior designer)
Interactive Software Design: Leviathan
Team: Chad Hutson (executive producer); Jason White (executive creative director); Austin Mayer (interactive director); Kyle Shoup (creative director); Ellen Schopler (senior producer); Adam Berg (technical director); Kevin Razmus (senior programmer); Andrew Falth (prototype development); Lisa Starc (VFX); Anthony Malagutti (art director); Jesse Willis, Nik Braatz (2D animation); Andrew Butterworth, Anthony Malagutti (3D modeling and animation); Kirill Mazor (editor)
Fabrication: Ravenswood Studio
Team: Jon Gulbandson (project manager), Trevor Mayo (engineering detailer), Beau Hale (fabrication coordinator),
Collaborator(s): Creative Technology
Photos: Leviathan, Luci Creative (renderings)
Existing U-505 Exhibit
Architects: Goettsch Partners
Program Developers and Project Oversight: Jones Lang LaSalle
MEP Engineers: Primera Engineers
Exhibit Design: Christopher Chadbourne & Associates
Media Design: The Iona Group
Construction Contractor: W.E. O’Neal Construction Company
Boat Relocation: Norcon Inc.
Exhibit Builders: Design Craftsman
AV Design: Mad Systems
AV Integration: Edwards Technology
Naval Architects: McMullan & Associates
To learn more: http://www.msichicago.org/explore/whats-here/exhibits/u-505-submarine/