The hero of the Immersive theatre is the The Snowy Hydro Story, an expansive, cinematic journey through the Snowy Mountains and the national building history of the Snowy Hydro Electric Scheme. Guided across the magnificent mountain ranges by one of the Discovery Centre staff, visitors take a virtual flyover of the Snowy Scheme and delve into the Snowy story, which highlights the scheme’s past, present and future.
The experience takes visitors behind the scenes to view tunnels, dams and hydro-power stations, and to look back at where the Snowy Hydro story began. The current feature experience reflects on Snowy Hydro’s proud history and their future. Visitors are treated to amazing vistas and never seen before archival imagery and film, thanks to the partnership with the National Archives of Australia.
The Snowy River Hydro scheme occupies an almost legendary place in the Australian psyche. An enormous nation-building project, it gave thousands employment, including generations of new immigrants.
Snowy Hydro has had a visitor centre since the ’60s. It was back in the days when families loaded up the station wagon for a drive and would stop off at such ‘attractions’… this is prior to actual entertainment, like, the Big Pineapple or Wet ’n’ Wild. More recently, as the 75th anniversary of the Snowy Hydro approached and as Snowy 2.0 became more than a thought bubble, there was recognition that the Discovery Centre was in dire need of a schuzz up.
Visitors would be welcomed to the Cooma Discovery Centre in a raked theatrette by a DVD on a 60-ish-inch TV. Everyone knew it was cringe-y but they also knew a reimagining would take lots of time, resources and determination.
QUT On The Line
Like all good success stories, things start with people connecting with people. Snowy Hydro’s chief digital officer had existing connections with QUT so he reached out to the university after being blown away by the AVIA Award-winning 'Cube' installation.
The conversation quickly escalated from the upgrade of a theatre to talk of immersion and visualisation. QUT would be retained as R&D consultant, providing specialist content creation and AV design services. From there, Pro AV Solutions would take care of the AV integration. The headliner is the theatre but it’s only the first phase of an ongoing upgrade of the Discovery Centre and Snowy Hydro’s Sydney-based corporate HQ.
Let It Snow
Snowy Hydro’s Managing Director, Terry Charlton, wanted something ambitious and landmark — a destination rather than a loo stop. The Discovery Centre needed it to be something that could be promoted and become an attraction. The theatre sets the tone. It welcomes visitors, provides a shared experience and is pivotal to how the centre caters to school groups and bus tours.
Gavin Winter is head of the Visualisation and Interactive Solutions for Engagement & Research team (VISER) at QUT. If anyone could claim this project as ‘their baby’, it’s Gavin.
Rather than retain the raked seating, Gavin and the QUT team strongly advised it all be ripped out and use the back wall as the main projection canvas.
“Gutting it gave us a 14m by 4m wall and the floor to play with,” noted Gavin Winter. “We took inspiration from some other visitor spaces that allow guests to be in it and experience it their way — sit, stand… lie down.”
A battery of Panasonic projectors and a beefy Bose Professional multichannel loudspeaker system comprise the main hardware pieces.
Seven Headed Beast
The design of the projection setup was intended to maximise the wall and floor real estate — four metres from floor to ceiling, and 14 metres wide, along with a large chunk of the floor that abuts the projection wall. Gavin had no hesitation in getting Panasonic involved.
“We were familiar with the Panasonic PT-RZ series projectors: they brought a good form factor and great performance. But the challenge we had was in the optics. During the design phase, Panasonic’s 020 (zero offset, ultra short throw ET-DLE020) lens was announced and it was perfect for our needs. An ultra short-throw snorkel lens wouldn’t have worked for us, so when the 020 came along we banked on it — we took a leap, really, because Panasonic hadn’t built them yet. But thanks to that lens we’re able to create a three-headed wall projection with a four-headed floor projection — seven projectors in total.”
The design uses third-party edge blending and warping software (SimVisuals from ImmersaView). Despite everyone’s best efforts to keep the projector’s anchored, the centre has to combat significant vibration from highway traffic and a roof that moves and flaps in high winds — so keeping the images lined up is a constant battle.
"Panasonic has always performed well in these sorts of spaces in my experience, and we had the Panasonic team on site from Sydney to assist. Outside of Defence or specialised simulation spaces, this project is probably one of the more complex projection systems around."
More Than VR
To throw enough processing power at the installation, content for the wall and floor projection is served from two different PCs. That said, the content is integrated: the floor is a map that hard-meets the wall and floor edge. Gavin Winter suspects that, in time, the whole projection will be served from a single (seven-headed) computer that would allow the projectors to optically integrate. Such a setup might create the best foundation for future developments.
“The content we’re working through now transcends classic VR,” explains Gavin Winter. “We’re trying to move to a more augmented reality scenario. So perhaps you’ll have the floor and wall projection creating a single scene and your AR goggles will provide the virtual content within that scene. That’s still very experimental. The hardware exists but for the Discovery Centre to provide that at scale… it's a little way off yet.”
Motion & Gesture
For future VR and AR experiences to be possible, the motion tracking system in the space needed to be next level. Gavin and the team employ an array of sensors in the ceiling. The Intel Real Sense multi-sensor cameras provide a 3D ‘volumetric’ map of the space, allowing multiple individuals to interact at one time.
For now, the system currently allows multiple users to interact with the main projection. Using gestures, visitors can access archival media or other graphics that explains aspects of the Snowy River Scheme. The system can happily accommodate seven interactive participants simultaneously. It’s a good start but the QUT crew has some big ideas about how the system can be used into the future. Gavin Winter explains: “Because the motion tracking setup can support markers, the next stage will be for education groups, for example, to move objects around the space which will be recognised in our software. For example, students could build a dam wall in a certain map location and observe its impact on water flows in certain conditions.”
"Effectively, they’re infra-red laser emitters that we’ve placed around the ceiling space. And that gives us a 3D or volumetric point and our software processes that data to detect people’s head and shoulders. We then use the head and shoulder points to infer where the elbows and wrists are, resulting in a virtual stick figure, much like an Xbox Kinect does, but for multiple users and a much larger area than Kinect could support."
World Of Watercraft
The QUT content is super sophisticated. As Gavin describes it, a large swathe of the areas has been mapped almost to the point of knowing where each and every wombat burrow is. Gavin Winter again: “Using a games engine called Unity 3D, we’ve created a spatially accurate copy of the Snowy Mountains, about 160sqkm of countryside. And on that we’ve been provided satellite imagery — vegetation, streams, roads, power lines etc. Snowy Hydro also has a very well-developed UAV program. They fly LiDAR (Light Detection & Ranging) and other sensors that collect a lot of data. We’ve taken that and very, very accurately rendered 3D objects for the power stations themselves — things like pipelines and reservoir walls and such. We’ve even generated vegetation at a tree level and we can model different conditions such as snow, rain and time of day. It’s a pretty compelling bit of content and a very cinematic presentation.”
Snowy Hydro may well be sitting on Australia’s biggest and best open world gaming map — like World of Warcraft for hydrologists — but the detail and depth of the modelling and data has applications well beyond maintaining the attention of primary school groups. Executives, engineers, investors, politicians… The sky’s the limit for how the map can be interacted with, as Gavin Winter explains: “We can actually visualise scenes based on historic data replay — flood, drought, or peak demand, for example. Playing that historic situation back and observing the environmental impact or economic impact… it’s a very data-driven approach.”
More Than Nostalgia
The transformation has been extreme. Snow Hydro is developing a visitor centre that is not only capable of providing a mildly diverting pit stop for alpine commuters, but a genuine destination for powerbrokers, investors, influencers, and politicians. The theatre provides a cutting-edge venue to host QUT-developed content that can help shape opinion and provide insights. Sure, it’s a feel-good install that can stoke nostalgia, but it also doubles as an immersive visualisation space where data can truly be experienced.
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