For decades, only a handful of men had seen the moon’s surface passing below them in living color. But now that view has a broader audience. Today, people of all ages explore the moon’s peaks and valleys in living color using the world’s first life-size 3D moon wall overflight simulator at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. The exhibit, called “Shoot for the Moon,” is so realistic even retired Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell gives it two thumbs up.
The extraterrestrial sensation is actually the happy convergence of three unrelated events: NASA’s latest moon mission, the 80-year-old Adler’s transformation into a premier scientific institution and advances in digital-signage display technology.
Digital signage is the term for commercial flat-panel LCD and plasma monitors that are 26 inches or larger. Such large-format displays are increasingly used by all types of businesses, both internally and externally, say the experts.
“Digital signage now goes well beyond advertising,” says industry watcher Chris Connery, vice president of PC and large format commercial displays at DisplaySearch. “For example, instead of printed posters, which are instantly dated and frequently ignored, businesses are using digital signage for dynamic, real-time employee communications.”
At the nation’s first planetarium, digital signage is playing a starring role in the Adler’s mission to become a leading space-science center.
The worldwide digital-signage display market is expected to exceed $6 billion by 2015.
Although the transformation began at the turn of the millennium, the Adler’s senior director of digital technology, Doug Roberts, won a NASA grant in 2004 to support the educational and outreach elements of the planned Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
The Adler proposed to recreate the moon at a human scale by building an interactive moon wall that would simulate the sensation of orbiting the planet. Before the LRO launch, the moon wall displayed iconic Apollo-era images and maps created from data gathered in 1995 by the lunar orbiter Clementine.
When daily transmissions from the LRO’s 500 megapixel camera began streaming in, the Adler moon wall evolved into the most detailed, full-color 3D rendering of the moon to date. Post LRO, the grant stipulated that the interactive technology schematics, both hardware and software, would be available for others to build similar moon walls to further inspire space exploration.
In November 2006, the initial version of the display debuted in conjunction with the Adler’s new permanent exhibit, “Shoot for the Moon,” which opens in the gallery titled “A Journey with Jim Lovell.” An Adler trustee, Lovell contributed personal artifacts for the exhibit and helped secure the long-term loan of the fully restored Gemini 12 spacecraft from the Smithsonian Institution.
Dubbed “Moon Wall Junior,” the four-by-five-foot exhibit consisted of six 30-inch displays in a 3-by-2 portrait-mode matrix.
But “Junior” wasn’t the inspirational tool envisioned. “Since Junior presented static images, it only held the attention of people old enough to remember the Gemini and Apollo moon missions,” Roberts says.
Of U.S. adults, 67 percent (approximately 155 million people) reported seeing a digital-signage display during the first two months of 2009.
Although Junior was interactive to the extent it permitted selecting, panning and zooming images, it wasn’t dynamic enough for generations accustomed to streaming video, Roberts explains. “Younger people didn’t have the same attachment to still pictures,” he says.
Another issue was image interruption because of the wide bezels (the “frame” around the monitors).
“Each of Junior’s displays had a 1-inch bezel,” comments Roberts. “Consequently, there was a 2-inch-wide dead zone between adjoining monitors. Due to the interruptions, you felt apart from the surface — it’s not like you were there.”
To overcome these weaknesses, the Adler decided to create a dynamic moon wall to simulate overflight. For Roberts and his 12-person team of astronomers, educators, visualizers, interactive media developers, IT staffers, operations employees and construction personnel, it was a race against the clock.
The software to achieve motion proved to be a challenge. There was no application that could amalgamate multiple data sources, render a 3D extraterrestrial planet and permit simulated interactive overflight.
By reaching into his professional network, Roberts discovered that Robert Kooima, who at the time was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), was writing his thesis on planetary data rendering. Using Kooima’s application as a foundation, the Clementine data was incorporated to form a base map. NASA’s 3D height data set, called the Unified Lunar Control Network, was also integrated.
The resulting finely detailed overflight simulation presented a realistic view of deep craters and tall hills. Controlled by a joystick, users can fly in any direction above the surface at altitudes of between 50 and 150 feet.
Working with Kooima showed Roberts’ team that larger display screens were critical to resolving immersion issues. “Also, there was much discussion among the team about a square wall versus a landscape-oriented horizontal one,” Roberts says.
“Of course the younger team members were more familiar with gaming,” continues Roberts. “They effectively argued that a horizontal orientation was more immersive because we naturally use our peripheral vision. A square orientation was more like viewing art on a wall.”
Given the available budget, the team decided on a 12–by-6-foot wall of 26-inch monitors arranged in a 4-by-3 matrix. Yet, the bezel problem persisted. “Although the bezels on the 26-inch monitors were half as wide as Junior’s, the combined 1-inch dead zone still interfered,” Roberts says.
Luckily, fate intervened. Late in 2008, the LRO launch was postponed to mid- 2009. “The delay was critical,” Roberts affirms. “Early in 2009 we learned that NEC was introducing 46-inch monitors with only about a quarter-inch bezel.”
But getting the NEC MultiSync X461UN  monitors was problematic — none had yet shipped to North America. “Ultimately, we partnered with UIC to purchase 32 monitors, 12 for us and 20 for them,” explains Roberts. “Then, CDW negotiated with NEC to get a price and a prompt delivery date, so we could complete and test the wall prior to LRO launch.”
Adopting the larger monitors grew the moon wall to 14-by-7 feet, using the same 4-by-3 configuration. “But the width between the monitors decreased to about a half-inch,” Roberts says. “So total surface area affected by the bezels was significantly reduced.”
Although the tight turnaround for the NEC monitors posed procurement hurdles for Adler technology coordinator Melody Kirkwood, the results far exceed the cost. “Adults and kids alike light up when they encounter the exhibit,” she comments. “The heartaches over many tiny details were well worth it because everyone enjoys the exhibit so much.”
In the days leading up to its early June debut, the improved moon wall’s impact became palpable. “People are amazed by the graphics and how much fun they have,” asserts Kirkwood. “Even the techs in my department enjoy it so much they make time to play with the exhibit. It’s definitely something I want my godchildren to experience when they come to visit.”
But the true test came when Jim Lovell himself encountered the exhibit. “Lovell was a VIP tour guide just prior to the debut,” Roberts recalls. “When our president showed the moon wall, Lovell loved it. As he flew around with the joystick, Lovell exclaimed, ‘Hey, look at that mountain; I named that after my wife.’
“Later, Lovell said he wanted to come back when he had more time. The fact that an Apollo astronaut thinks our moon wall is engaging enough to interact with it on his own time — that’s incredibly gratifying,” Roberts adds.