WSUV students' interactive auto exhibit unveiled at OMSI

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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There it was, at last: A vehicle stripped down to its bare frame, perched as the showcase at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland.

The metallic silver frame — called a unibody — offered a visually impressive pathway to a tale of how technology can improve and save lives. It's a story packed into three iPads placed on nearby height-adjustable stands, available to curious museum visitors. The words, images and video presentations on those iPads tell of the technology of the modern automobile -- its safety and fuel efficiency features, its engineering wonders that give cars the fuel to move and the brakes to stop.

The technology of the digital exhibit is equally impressive, taking advantage of "augmented reality" imagery to show three-dimensional engines and other auto parts floating in space, among other wonders. Soon, or perhaps already, visitors will be able to view the same information on their personal smartphones using a digital reader app.

The new exhibit was conceived and created by ten Washington State University Vancouver students enrolled in the university's cutting-edge Creative Media and Digital Culture program and their faculty advisors. It is OMSI's first student-developed permanent exhibit, and it was celebrated Monday evening with an invitation-only unveiling alongside the exhibit in OMSI's technology-focused Turbine Hall.

"The exhibit is cool, and the students did a great job," said Denny Andersen, OMSI's project manager for the exhibit.

The students were joined Monday evening by friends, family, OMSI staff, and representatives of the project's funder, Vancouver-based Dick Hannah Dealerships, as well as Dick Hannah himself and his daughter Jennifer Hannah. They enjoyed food, drinks, and brief speeches from representatives of Hannah, WSUV, and OMSI. Then it was time to turn on the iPads, temporarily attached to an extension cord. The smartphone scanner device that had worked earlier in the day wasn't quite ready for the big event.

The elevated auto frame is in the line of sight for visitors as they enter the museum. It raises a question — what is this all about? that is answered with the iPad. Push the right spots on any of the three iPads as they're pointed toward a digital "hot spot" on the vehicle, and elements of the inner workings that have been stripped away come alive on the screen. The "augmented reality" technology gives depth to such features as the workings of the car's brakes, transmission, fuel injection and its airbags. A crash test dummy vividly demonstrates how the vehicle's safety features save lives in a simulated collision.

Andersen sees the exhibit as a foundation that can be expanded over time with more "hot spots" containing additional information. Dene Grigar, director of WSUV's Creative Media and Digital Culture program, also envisions a continuing partnership with OMSI and future students.

Informal beginnings

The ten students who took on the huge project began working in earnest last fall, and they put in long hours during winter and spring months. Their work was part of a collaborative effort involving Dick Hannah Dealerships, which financed the project with a $40,000 donation, and OMSI that grew out of informal conversations over coffee about a year ago.

The endeavor fits Hannah's interest in supporting programs that provide local students with training and experience that will prepare them for the workplace, said Kent VanArnam, Hannah's director of marketing. And OMSI says the exhibit ties into its educational focus on innovation, and on energy and the environment. For WSUV, the partnership gave students an opportunity to learn to work in a professional environment, meeting with clients while dealing with deadlines and a project budget.

The students came up with the concept of the exhibit and sold it to museum exhibit managers. Then they designed and developed its interactive elements, which entailed coding, programming and media production. They shuttled back and forth between the WSUV campus and OMSI for meetings and project testing, toured the Hannah auto repair shop to learn about vehicle anatomy, and spent countless classroom hours piecing their work into a unified whole.

"I'm humbled and astonished by the professionalism of the students," Grigar said.

OMSI's Andersen said the white-knuckle moments that developed over budget, timelines and logistics are all part of the process of creating an exhibit. "It's a roller coaster ride, but we knew it would come out good in the end," he said. "It was just a great experience."