A bespoke solution for Leadbeater education.
Text:/ Marcus Pugh
Images:/ Courtesy ThinkOTS!
It’s usually a bad sign if a client requests a meeting in the middle of the bush in the dead of night, but this is precisely what created the moment of inspiration for Lunar’s Secret Forest, ThinkOTS! most recent project for Healesville Sanctuary. Run by Zoos Victoria, Healesville Sanctuary is a not-for-profit, zoo-based facility, located an hour’s drive north-east of Melbourne. Healesville is a leader in helping to fight the extinction of the Leadbeater or Fairy Possum, a small marsupial glider found only in central Victoria. The Leadbeater was thought to be extinct after the catastrophic 1939 bushfires, but was rediscovered in 1961, only to have its habitat devastated again by the Black Saturday fires of 2009.
While the Healesville Sanctuary is actively fighting the Leadbeater’s extinction through a captive breeding program, it is also raising awareness through a Fight Extinction message. The sanctuary’s latest exhibition ‘Lunar’s Secret Forest’ is an interactive presentation pitched at families with young children. The brief for the exhibit was simple: Educational, interactive, for children two to six years-old and accessible to up to 10 children at a time, while also pushing the Zoos Victoria’s Fight Extinction message. And, they had just nine weeks to design, create, implement and deliver the product before upcoming school holidays. Pete Ford, Creative Director at ThinkOTS!, certainly did have to think ‘outside the square’ to come up with this solution that was both ambitious in its scope yet simple in its execution.
The problem with many interactive displays is that the audience needs to be trained in how to interact with the display, something Ford wanted to avoid. Inspiration hit him one day when coming home from work to find his five year-old daughter playing with family’s Nintendo Wii game console. As anyone with young children can attest, kids are able to pick up the Wii wireless controller, and rapidly work out how to interact with the games. Ford commented: “To this day I have never been more proud than when we let in the first audience, and the kids just picked up the controllers and started using them – no questions, no confusion – just results.”
BIG GAME HUNTING
So that ThinkOTS! team could get a better understanding of the subject matter for the exhibit, they were invited on a ‘stag hunt’ by the rangers from Healsville Sanctuary. The stag hunt is an important part of the research process where rangers go out at night with torches to find the hollows in the ancient trees of old-growth forests where the Leadbeater possums make their homes. Once inhabited hollows are located the rangers are able to calculate the Leadbeater population in the area. It was this stag hunt which inspired the concept for the interactive component of Lunar’s Secret Forest.
By taking a Wii-style remote and encasing it in a ‘torch’ shell, the audience are able to go on a stag hunt of their own, guided by the animated character, Lunar, an anthropomorphised possum. The audience is able to experience some of what the rangers and researchers do to help save the cute Leadbeater.
Once the concept for the exhibit was established, the real work began. A video game with purpose-built controllers needed to be created from the ground up, not to mention a sound design and the theming for the rest of the theatrette space – all within a nine-week window. ThinkOTS! had an advantage, with the team from Pixel Pickle who had experience in the world of game design, and enthusiastically took to the challenge at hand. The game was built on the UNITY 3D game engine, popular among mobile game developers, which provided a solid base for developing the characters and their movements within the game. “Also the use of programs like UNITY for our field of work was a brand new and delightful experience,” explains Ford. “We created custom software to link up 10 Wii-style remotes that worked in sync with each other and with the show. This appears to be the first time in the world that anyone has successfully linked up 10 Bluetooth remotes into the single program.”
The entire exhibit is run by a gaming spec PC built around a Gigabyte GeForce GTX 580 Ultra Durable video card and an Intel i7 CPU that also triggers the sound and lighting cues as part of the overall presentation. System output is a single 1920 x 1080 stream. The theatrette is themed with trees coming up out of the floor that also double as small tables. The tree theme is integrated onto the screen’s surface and framing the projection, which helped to blend physical space into the digital world. All of the various elements of the exhibit blend seamlessly to make Lunar’s Secret Forest quite an immersive experience. Ford: “This took Healesville (and indeed Zoos Vic) into a whole new world. When we won the project they were flat-out convinced we couldn’t deliver on the promise of the interactive torch concept. Doing so illustrated how it’s possible to speak to the most important guests that visit zoos – the kids.”
The purpose-built theatrette sits in the middle of Healesville Sanctuary and offers some respite for weary parents, as the rest of the Sanctuary is an outdoor affair. You enter the space, lit with 45/75° Selecon Pacific profiles fitted with leafy break-up gobos, Tri Colour LED Parcans and PAR 16s, all of which help to build the atmosphere prior to the start of the presentation. Brian Laurence’s 5.1 surround sound design is distributed via a 12-channel Redback amplifier to panel speakers masked with custom mesh covers.
When the children point the torch at the screen a spotlight appears in front of them, ‘illuminating’ the forest in real-time. The game encourages children to work together to count possums, ward off predators such as feral cats, record time and help save the endangered species. I took along my two and half year-old son to give the exhibit a test run, and he was totally engaged for the entire game and presentation. In fact, I had to go back in on my own a second time to actually get a feel for the torches and how they worked – not because I’m addicted to video games but simply because my son was hogging the controller! I saw some families return for a second and third time to delve back into Lunar’s world.
At the end of each presentation the children are encouraged to write their names and thoughts on the Leadbeater possums onto leaf-shaped pieces of paper which are then hung from the trees inside the theatrette. This shows the children’s commitment to help fight extinction of the Leadbeater and also symbolises the regeneration of the forest after a bushfire.
One of the most impressive achievements of this project is its thriftiness, given the scope of the work. “It utterly engages kids in a way that I haven’t seen in these environments, it is 100% original, utterly bespoke and a miracle of budgeting! This whole exhibit was delivered for $180k, the media component under $70k.” Pete Ford and Andrea Burgess (Visitor Engagement Manager for Zoos Victoria) put this down to the project being tightly-managed through good communication between both parties. Andrea Burgess said: “We were kept informed throughout the process. ThinkOTS even presented different pieces of the project as they came together”.
Lunar’s Secret Forest is a highly-technical artifice, yet manages to blend into the natural surrounds of Healesville Sanctuary. When quizzed on what his favourite aspect of the Lunar experience, Pete Ford commented: “When dads grab a torch and try flashing it on their hand, then back on the screen, then back to their hand – they have no idea where we stick the bulb!”.