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How would a museum display a timeline of more than 300 events in an innovative way?

How would a museum display a timeline of more than 300 historic events across 1500 years of history in an interactive, entertaining and innovative way?

This was only one of the challenges set for two Cape Town-based design companies who teamed up to produce twenty interactive exhibits for a newly opened museum in Saudi Arabia. Appointed by exhibition maker MTE Studios to design a variety of multimedia displays, Formula D Interactive and Wireframe Studio played a leading role in the making of what will become known as Saudi Arabia’s most sophisticated museum.

The flagship exhibit in the Museum of Science and Technology in Islam (MOSTI) near Jeddah is a giant multi-touch table which demonstrates 1500 years’ history of Muslim contribution to science and technology. The 5 metre long interactive display boasts a projected historic timeline, which – when touched by visitors – reveals images, text, video and animation explaining a specific era or event. A unique interface designed for Formula D Interactive/Wireframe Studio by eminent multimedia designer Andries Odendaal, lets visitors immerse themselves into historic eras by expanding and contracting time windows. One of the questions when designing the interface was how a visitor could easily absorb the large amount of content which would normally take a person up to three hours to read. Michael Wolf, head of Formula D Interactive, remembers:

“We decided that this would be an interface for browsing and exploring, allowing visitors to jump around from one era to the next, whilst being guided through visuals rather than vast amounts of text.”

The winning feature of the timeline touch table is, however, that many users can enjoy the installation simultaneously, thus creating a social learning experience. Although each user explores the content at his own pace, some events of major historic significance, such as the invention of the first manned glider by 9th century scholar Abbas Ibn Firnas, trigger “Ueber-events”, or animated graphics, which  spread across the entire table surface for a few seconds, much to the amusement of other visitors.

To achieve multi-user functionality, the development team at Formula D Interactive and Wireframe Studio made use of innovative camera tracking technology which identifies fingers and hands of visitors touching the surface. As seen in movies such as Minority Report, the interface works with intuitive gestures, such as dragging and swiping. The hardware set-up is also impressive: all in all, the timeline touch table uses three quad core PC’s, six tracking cameras, and six data projectors mounted under the table surface. With the support of consultants in Sweden and Germany, the team was constantly running a race against time with less than six months to  develop the timeline table and 19 other interactive exhibits for MOSTI. Paul Tooze, creative director of Wireframe Studio concludes: “I think we once again gave proof to the fact that design made in South Africa has huge potential internationally. We are very attractive to markets in the Middle East, Europe and the US, who value us for our high level of creativity and innovation, but also for the hard work we put in to achieve an outstanding product.”