WSUV students shift into high gear with OMSI exhibit

Groups developed ideas for display on auto technology, will design it

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Digital Dazzle

Washington State University Vancouver students are working together to create an OMSI exhibit, with the sponsorship of Vancouver-based Dick Hannah Dealerships. This is the first in an occasional series following their work.

The 10 Washington State University Vancouver students walked into the meeting at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry with two ideas, knowing only one idea would survive. They’d spent weeks in friendly competition over how to create an educational exhibit on automobile technology that would appeal equally to adults and children.

Soon, they’d be working together on the single project favored by OMSI’s exhibit staff and representatives of Vancouver-based Dick Hannah Dealerships, which is funding the exhibit. Their mission would be to complete their work before graduating from WSUV in May. But now they were trying to sell their competing ideas to a committee that would set the course for the rest of their term.

The OMSI exhibit, tentatively named “Autovation,” represents a rare convergence of community priorities. By tapping students to create the long-term exhibit, OMSI gives a boost to STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — education. By providing $40,000 for project costs, Dick Hannah Dealerships shows its support of WSUV and, specifically, the university’s Creative Media and Digital Culture program that pushes innovative use of digital technology. By participating in the project, students can expect to gain skills they can leverage into jobs and careers.

All big thinking aside, the students’ first major step was to pitch their ideas to officials from OMSI and Dick Hannah on a cold January morning. They didn’t get off to the best start. The first van carrying five students ran late from WSUV because its door locks had frozen shut. The second van was even later as students squeezed in a morning class before heading to Portland.

When the students finally arrived, six OMSI officials who work in exhibit design, technology, marketing, and public relations crowded around the table in a room in a corridor far removed from the museum’s crowded exhibit halls. They were joined by Jennifer Hannah, vice president of Dick Hannah Dealerships, and Kent VanArnam, the company’s marketing director.

“We’re prepared to be dazzled,” boomed Mark Patel, OMSI’s vice president of marketing, launching the meeting fifteen minutes late.

Student Hunter Crawford stood up to lead the first pitch. Crawford, a 25-year-old WSUV senior, presented computer images of an exhibit that would focus on the interaction between advanced technology and improved automobile gas mileage. Exhibit users could choose old or new car models, from gas-guzzlers to sippers, and guide the cars on simulated journeys to Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Oregon Zoo, or Oaks Amusement Park in Southeast Portland.

The audience was impressed, if not entirely dazzled. Jennifer Hannah suggested the demonstration could compare gas, diesel, hybrid, and electric vehicles. VanArnam suggested including other variables, such as the effect of tire pressure on fuel consumption.

Then it was time for the second student group’s pitch, for a display of what WSUV student Brian McGovern called an “augmented-reality car.” A short video created by the students instantly showed the exhibit’s potential: click an image of an automobile on the computer screen and the body disappears, revealing the detailed workings of the steering column.

The exhibit’s central feature might be an actual car, or perhaps a section of a car or a scaled-down reproduction that would fit more easily into the exhibit space.

It would be covered in vinyl, creating a coating similar to the wraps used for advertisements on C-Tran buses. Museum visitors could guide a computer tablet to spots on the car that would open up on the screen for a view of the vehicle’s hidden inner workings, which would be explained with text, video, and animation. The results could be displayed on touchscreen tablets, and perhaps a large screen above the exhibit and possibly even on smartphones, McGovern explained.

The student designers wanted to create a “wow factor” for the museum’s younger visitors even if it threatened to initially overwhelm their parents, McGovern added. “We want it to be like the game their parents didn’t want them to play with,” he said.

Patel looked visibly impressed, possibly dazzled, during the presentation. But he maintained his professional neutrality. “Looks very cool,” he said.

A week later, the project’s advisory committee chose the augmented-reality car. As it turns out, most students said they were secretly rooting for “augmented reality” while fulfilling a promise to offer two alternatives. They were among the dazzled.

The decision made, now the students were no longer rivals, but a single unified team. The hard work of designing a museum exhibit was about to begin.

Next for the students: A visit to Dick Hannah’s body shop.