A research study in Germany reported a dramatic decline of winged insects—around a 75 percent drop of insect biomass over the last 27 years. Design students in environmental design and new media at Virginia Tech found this environmental topic so compelling that they built an exhibit around it by using Virginia Tech’s vast insect specimen collection.
With the support of a CIDER educational grant, the Virginia Tech students were able to collaborate with designers and computer scientists who were experts in 3D modeling and immersive technologies. Once able to view the model in the Hyper Cube, the design process became an agile one where the team could test out different arrangements on the fly. This iterative design approach helped with spatial clarity and idea generation.
The exhibit resided in both physical and virtual space. The main exhibit was designed primarily for a gallery in the architecture building. Prior to installation, however, the room had been 3D scanned and those models were translated to ISO-IEC standard Extensible (X3D), along with assets made in Maya and SketchUp.
The final X3D model was viewed through an immersive Hyper Cube—a 26.7 million pixel back-projected stereo CAVE. The X3D version of the exhibition allowed for multi-stakeholder and multi-platform design walk throughs, as well as design testing.
There were multiple challenges in main gallery. The Virginia Tech designers couldn’t test in the space because of scheduling, couldn’t test with the specimen cases because of fragility, had to negotiate wooden slats on every wall, and had to learn (exciting!) new technology.
What’s interesting to note are the challenges the team didn’t face. Because the Virginia Tech class tested out the design in virtual space, when it came to the night of the install the team was surprisingly at ease. They still moved items around in the gallery, but there was a level of confidence to the install.
For example, the large butterfly graphics were a design unknown because of the wooden slats. Like a lenticular image, the slats would change the legibility of the image based on your vantage point—sometimes they even obscured the view. The students didn’t know if these graphics would work from key vantage points in the room. But the virtual exhibit confirmed the design, excited the team and eased minds.
This was a truly interdisciplinary project that brought scientists, computer scientists, designers and educators together to celebrate winged insects. It’s hard to project cultural impact without extensive testing but, judging from the course survey, the students found this process quite compelling. And maybe that’s enough.
"This student work demonstrates an advanced knowledge of scale shift, layered content and experience orchestration."
"The installation of this exhibit shows a restrained consideration of materials that resulted in an delicate elegant solution."
Kathleen Meaney (assistant professor); Justus Darby, Kehong Lu, Brooke Nelson, Erin Newman, Jessica Potter, Julia Rater, Tessa Riley, Rebekah Seiler, Vina Shen (design, 3D modeling); Alex Forlini, George Hardebeck, Thomas Tucker (3D modeling); Ellie Nikoo, Nicholas F. Polys (X3D)
Paul Marek (assistant professor), Grant Schiermeyer (scientist), Rhea Wong (scientist)
Daniel Cruz (CNC routing)