EMP: The magical geek tour

There's more than music moving at the Blob.

A CURIOUS OVERLAP exists between techies and rock musicians. Both groups keep strange hours, show an almost fanatic devotion to their work, and rely heavily on chemical enhancements—caffeine for the geeks, caffeine and everything else for the rockers. So I shouldn't have been surprised at my recent discovery: The only thing cooler than the musical exhibits at EMP is the technology behind them.

Not to disparage the fantastic job the curators have done assembling the best homage to popular music in the world. (Cleveland? Please.) But EMP's technology, developed under lightning-quick deadlines with hordes of skeptics looking on, is the glue that holds the whole experience together.

If you've been there, you might have wondered "how the heck does this stuff work?" Never fear. We talked to several EMP sources, including Vulcan Northwest's Technology Director, Robert Fitzsimmons, who oversaw the implementation of most of the technology at the museum. Here's what we found out:

MEG. Named "Mollie" during development (short for "Mouse of Life"), the Museum Exhibit Guide is the multipart gadget that delivers audio and text information about the exhibits. The bulk of the device rests on the hip and dangles from a shoulder strap like an electric guitar. As visitors walk through the museum, they point the attached handheld at signs near each exhibit, then listen through headphones to music or explanations about each piece.

Designed and built by a coalition of Northwest- and Silicon Valley-based companies, each hip-pack contains a Toshiba 3922 RISC-based processor (the kind of chip usually included in top-end PDAs) and a 6 gigabyte hard drive with audio and text information concerning the 1,400 pieces currently on display. The handheld, which runs Windows CE 2.12 and has its own processor, is simply the interface tool—sort of like the keyboard and monitor on a computer. Of course, since each MEG effectively contains the entire museum, all 2,500 devices must be updated every time an exhibit changes. Easy enough—the gadgets spend their idle time sleeping in a docking station with a 10BaseT Ethernet connection, where they suck updates from a group of networked PCs somewhere in the bowels of the building.

When a user points the handheld at the ceiling in front of specially marked signs, an infrared signal travels back and forth, cueing MEG to show the right cluster of information. (Important: the device doesn't work like a remote control—it works best if you point it straight up, not directly at the sign itself.) According to Fitzsimmons, one of the biggest challenges was deciding on the physical range and layout of these infrared ports. If the signals were too weak, visitors would have to squeeze right up next to each sign to get their MEG to work. If they were too strong, or the signs were too close together, exhibits might "bleed" into one another, sending the wrong information to frustrated users standing between two signs.

After the infrared exchange, users can use the keypad or scroll up and down on the handheld screen to find specific audio information on each item in front of them. Dejected Napster fans can take some solace in the fact that EMP encodes all audio blurbs in their favorite bandwidth-friendly format, MP3.

Most intriguing of all, MEG allows you to bookmark certain exhibits. You can then go downstairs to the Compaq Digital Lab or visit the digital collections section of the emplive.com Web site on your home computer, enter the last 9 numbers on your ticket, and read more information about the things that interest you most (especially useful if you're part of a talkative or impatient group). But wait—how do they keep track? That's right, the friendly person who handed you the MEG near the entrance entered your ticket number into the device. When they hook it to the docking station at the end of your visit, any bookmarks you added are filed away in the central computer system along with your ticket number. Sweet.

Although MEG was developed specifically for EMP, Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures owns the technology for it and EMP spokesperson Paige Prill predicts this technology will definitely be used in future projects. Think about it: Instead of paying five bucks for a program in the new Seahawks stadium, you might be able to get an electronic device that offers player statistics (updated in real time), biographies, maybe even an e-mail link to suggest the right fourth-and-goal play to the coaching staff.

THE SOUND LAB. The rest of the exhibits are interesting enough, but the Sound Lab is probably the easiest place to lose yourself for a couple hours. Andrea Weatherhead, EMP's Director of Interactive Development, explains that MIDI technology is the workhorse behind the hands-on demos in this part of the museum. Popularized in the 1980s and used by digital musicians worldwide, MIDI is a standard originally used to translate certain musical information (elements such as pitch, tone, volume, and length of each note played) into digital information (1s and 0s). In the Sound Lab, MIDI goes way beyond these simple functions.

For example, if you're taking an interactive guitar tutorial, sensors in the guitar neck can tell where you're putting your fingers. This information is translated in MIDI format to a PC, where special software determines how well you're doing and decides whether to move you along to the next lesson. In other areas of the Sound Lab, MIDI sequences do everything from controlling the lights in the On Stage demo (which mimics the experience of playing before hordes of fans) to controlling the pneumatic pedals of the Drum Robot. Even the short narrations in the interactive demos are encoded as MIDI files—the voice saying "sorry, you suck worse than U2's last album" is a single note to the computer, just like any note played on the keyboard or guitar. (OK, the narrations are never so insulting, but you get the idea.) Finally, E-Mu APS Soundcards in the PCs themselves allow them to duplicate the sounds of many different musical instruments, eliminating the need for separate sound modules for each display.

Once you've learned the basics, you can retire to one of 12 rooms with various instruments in them, lock the door, and crank up the volume. Hidden microphones in the wall pick up the noise from your voice and the amplifiers and push them through a Lexicon reverb unit to duplicate the sound of playing in a concert hall. Technology developed and donated by Wenger Corporation of Minnesota eliminates feedback—a miracle to anybody who's ever tried to practice a full band in a tiny basement room. Another interesting note: The ten-minute timer for each practice room runs down inside the room and switches the instruments off about 30 seconds before the outside timer reads "00:00." And you thought those people waiting outside were just being polite!

VIDEO SCREENS AND OTHER FUN. In addition to all this stuff, EMP is loaded with flat plasma-based video screens (think $10,000-plus a pop), hidden DVD players, broadcast-quality audio and video servers, and the most psychedelic wall-sized pixellated video screen you've ever seen.

So, fellow geeks, if you haven't been there yet, then it's time to get over your silly objections, whatever they may be. The crowds are starting to thin (visit on a weekday evening for the shortest lines) and a membership costs exactly the same as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Which, I might remind you, has inducted Billy Joel and James Taylor but can't seem to find room for Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, and Queen. Not to mention MEG.

For more on the fantastical blob of music and technology, check out our special supplement page on EMP.

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