Hello, Columbus: COSI Columbus Heralds A New Century With a Major Renovation

COSI Columbus has been educating patrons since 1964, but at the dawn of the new century, it was time to give the facility a facelift. So the museum embarked on a journey of renovation, which transformed the museum from a well-respected regional institution to a multifaceted infotainment venue with theming that could rival anything in Orlando.

The new COSI was envisioned in-house, under the direction of vice president of design and production, Joe Wisne. COSI Studio, the in-house design and production firm, handled a variety of aspects on the project, including design and project management. The facility contains several Learning Worlds within the space, including Life, I/O, Progress, Gadgets, Ocean, and Adventure. An in-house producer, who handled the overall look of the space and worked with various independent contractors, headed up each area. Overall, COSI uses a high level of theming in some areas, while others are more traditional museum fare.

Life and I/O, although diametrically opposed in subject matter, are more conventional museum spaces. Life explores the body, mind, and sprit through a number of interactive kiosks. I/O, on the other hand, takes visitors into the world of computers in a variety of incarnations, and includes a mezzanine devoted to non-violent video games. The overall illumination level in Life is brighter than I/O, which, due to the screens of the video monitors, is a darker space augmented by brief explosions of color.

Gadgets is a less traditional space; it lets visitors look inside to see what makes things tick. For those who want to do some serious tinkering, there is the Gadgets Café (with special seatings daily), which serves up everyday devices for patrons to take apart and explore. The ceiling is decorated by a giant themed mobile on a track, fabricated by Lexington Scenery of Sun Valley, CA, which runs through the space. "The mobile is really fantastical," says Lexington show producer Nancy Seruto. "Basically, ‘brain children’ pass through stations of the creative process," she explains. The brain children are actually cartoonlike brains that follow a track around the Gadgets area, passing by colorful signs that note the steps of the creative process. "The mobile is the one big piece that ties the room together," Seruto adds.

Moving out of Gadgets and into Progress, the level of theming and technology kicks up a notch. After a brief welcome to the space by a small, animatronic with a beehive hairdo, visitors take a walk down two versions of the same street–one circa 1898 and one circa 1962. "Progress is about technology and how it changed our lives," says Seruto, who also worked on this space. Lexington used a few thousand props in Progress, which ranged from parking meters to vintage chewing gum. "In 1898, the colors are earthier and everything has a patina to it, while 1962 is neon and yellow and pink and black and chrome. Color was a really clear way to communicate that you’re in a whole different time zone," Seruto adds.

The lighting in Progress works closely with the scenery to reflect the mood of the space. "The 1898 street is a little more romantic; I used a bit more lavender, and it was a richer in color," explains Karl Haas of Gallegos Lighting Design of Northridge, CA. "On the 1962 street, florescent light has pretty much taken over the world and the environment is colder and a little more harsh and edgy," he adds. For Progress, Haas relied heavily on ETC Source Four PARs and elllipsoidals, as well as numerous reproduction fixtures used in the shops themselves.

The level of theming explodes in Ocean, which is an intriguing combination of myth and science. To the left, one can enter Dreamscape, the dark and mysterious realm of the gods of old. To the right, patrons can enter Habitat, where science comes alive. "Habitat reflects how the modern scientist explains what goes on in the ocean," comments Ocean producer Randy Hinderer.

Habitat takes visitors into a simulated underwater research lab, equipped with ROVs (remote-operated vehicles), dive suits, a vintage submersible, and a number of aquariums. "The underwater habitat has a bit of a Jules Verne feel to it," Hinderer says. "It’s all themed, and it makes you feel like you’re really liked in this special scientific world under the water."

Habitat relies heavily on sets and props, which were created by Scenery West of North Hollywood, CA. "We dressed Habitat out as a working underwater sea lab," explains Scenery West president Ron Antone. "This is a very realistic environment, and all of the walls looked like they were made of metal," he adds. "In reality, it was a curved drywall structure that we painted and did a lot of appliqué work on."

Stylistically, it was the goal of Habitat to take patrons underwater without actually being underwater, which wasn’t the easiest task to accomplish. "The most challenging aspect of this area was to create the underwater environment so that you feel that you are actually submerged," explains Antone. "We couldn’t have hard ceilings for a lot of facility impact reasons, most notably fire safety and HVAC, so we ended up using elevator-type ceiling grid. This solution worked out, because we painted everything dark above the grid, and added some pipe and valve dressing above the grid. The lighting designer put lights above the grid, and made some really interesting patterns throughout the exhibit."

The color palette in Habitat ranges from industrial greens to safety yellows, all of which are accented by the lighting designed by Gallegos Lighting Design. "The lighting in Habitat was very realistic, and predominately functional," says Haas, who served as associate lighting designer. "We used Times Square PAR-38 fixtures over the grid ceiling, as well as red globe jelly-jar wall mounts," he explains. "Almost all of the light sources in Habitat are incandescent, except for the small aquariums, which are illuminated by metal halide lamps."

The Habitat underwater lab is filled with intercom chatter filtering through the space, relaying various messages. "We designed a multizonal, multichannel stereo playback system to support the Habitat soundscape," explains senior system engineer/CEO Benjamin Lein of Glendale, CA—based Associates of Media Engineering. The system in Habitat is comprised of 36 Peavey S6 loudspeakers in three different zones, which are integrated into the space. "We were lucky, because each of the exhibit spaces in Habitat is basically an isolated space, so it was easier to contain the spread of audio information from once space to the other," Lein adds.

The soundscape within Habitat was also produced by AME, and is rather complex. "There are quite a few different people on the intercom traffic," explains AME sound/music designer Kevin Mitchell. "The script for the voiceover was very detailed, and has a variety of characters. Each area has its own unique intercom traffic, and, occasionally, there will be a captain’s announcement, which plays throughout the entire facility." Mitchell also created a number of unique sound effects to fit into the undersea space, which helped tie the areas together thematically. "The soundscape in Habitat supports the scenery in the space, and emphasizes the feeling that you’re actually in an undersea research area," concludes AME project manager Ken Wheatley.

After experiencing the ‘real’ undersea world of Habitat, patrons can visit the mythical part of the sea as expressed in Dreamscape. "When you enter Dreamscape, it’s as if you’ve left the architecture of the building and entered a completely different world," Hinderer explains. "It’s a totally immersive environment."

Upon entering the highly theatrical Dreamscape area, a massive, 16’—tall statue of the god Poseidon greets mere mortals as they begin their exploration, which includes a number of interactive water features. Poseidon towers over a highly stylized rockwork pool, which sets the overall tone for the area. "Poseidon and the surrounding fish sculptures are cast-fiberglass forms on stainless-steel armatures," explains Scenery West’s Antone. "Poseidon is painted as a veined marble, using an automotive paint finish system, to withstand the constant exposure to water."

In Dreamscape, Poseidon can be frightening, inspiring, or even benign, depending on which one of a dozen different shows is being run in the main area. "It was a challenge establishing 12 different environments or atmospheres within the same space," explains Haas. "We use three baseline looks in the room–red, blue, and green–and each of the 12 shows goes to various levels of depth towards that color. There are some shows in the red look that are very, very frightening," To create the looks in the main area of Dreamscape, Haas relied on 55 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and 77 ETC Source Four PARs, as well as three Clay Paky Golden Scan HPEs.

For the audio component of the show, AME constructed a seven—channel, surround-sound system that features four Apogee AE 5 loudspeakers, five Apogee AE 3 surround cabinets and one Apogee AE 12 dual 18" transducer cabinet. "One of the requirements of the space was that these cabinets be weather-resistant, because it is a very humid and moist environment," explains AME’s Wheatley. To accompany the lighting moods, AME soundscape producer Mitchell created four emotive soundscape moods based on the colors blue, red, yellow, and green. "Creating the moods was highly subjective, and that’s one of the things about the space that’s so interesting–it’s not a conventional museum space," he explains. Wheatley created the soundscape moods in AME’s custom seven—channel mix studio with software and hardware designed especially for the project, which were then loaded for playback on a Fostex D 108, an eight—channel hard disk reproducer. "The show also has seven—channel playback, rather than stereo playback split around the seven channels," Mitchell adds, noting that this entailed taking each piece of music and adapting it to the seven—channel format.

The themed extravaganza at COSI doesn’t end at Ocean. Located on the south side of the first floor is Adventure, another highly themed exhibit that explores the scientific process itself. "We were inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, Howard Carter, the expeditions to South America and Africa, and by Tiki bars," says Adventure producer Allen Boerger. "We took those different elements and put them into a big shaker, shook them up, and made a martini that was custom for us."

Adventure encompasses 8,500 sq. ft. and takes patrons on a quest into the unknown. Using an amalgam of Egyptian, Polynesian, Mayan, and Indian cultures, the exhibit gives visitors the opportunity to find clues and become archeologists of old. "As guests move through Adventure, they’re uncovering puzzle pieces which are really science center exhibits dressed up in a different way," Boerger explains, adding, "Adventure is about the process of doing science." Guests move through Adventure in search of clues, aided by eight animatronic ‘spirits of knowledge’ that sing and give out clues to get into the observatory, a tower in the center of the space.

From a scenic standpoint, Adventure is exactly as Boerger describes- Indiana Jones meets Howard Carter. The area is dominated by concrete rockwork, provided by Living Waters of Brea, CA, and filled with rope, leather, small golden skulls, talking Tiki gods, and everything else one would associate with an archeological dig. "Everything in the space is aged way, way down, and there’s not a lot of bright color in there," notes Lexington Scenery’s Seruto. Lexington provided the set dressing and props found in Adventure. "The set dressing and the props did a lot to convey the story that Allen wanted to convey, leaving clues that you were tracking the footsteps of previous explorers in this ancient ruin," she explains. Although the ultimate goal of the space is serious, the space itself is far from staid. "There is a lot of humor in the space, so a lot of the propping is quite funny," Seruto says. "In fact, trying to work humor into the project was a lot of fun for me."

Adventure is peppered with wonderfully themed fixtures, from Dietz-style lanterns to weathered reflector worklights, and is also home to other, less conspicuous instruments. Above the themed fixtures are 55 ETC Source Four Lekos and PARs and 250 linear feet of Times Square Track Lighting, which are all but invisible to the untrained eye. "The most challenging part of the project was selecting fixtures that were easy to conceal, and if the guests had to look at them, we wanted them to look like they were part of the theme," explains lighting designer Ted Ferreira of City Design Group of Pasadena, CA. "The idea was to keep the lights out of the sightlines as much as possible." Although the space has a variety of elevations, the ceiling height runs from 20’-24’, which enabled Ferreira to conceal most of his primary equipment above the exhibit itself.

Adventure is dominated by the rockwork from Living Waters, which was another challenge for Ferreira and his associate, Teresa Enroth. "The rockwork is incredible, but with rockwork, you’re dealing with large expanses of flat surfaces, so we had to do what we could to break it up. We had to create a lot of the texture with the lighting". Consequently, the space is resplendent in palm tree gobos and a wide variety of breakup gobos.

The space is also home to eight animatronic ‘spirits of knowledge,’ which are simply singing Tiki gods. The animatronics, which were provided by Life Formations of Bowling Green, OH, are fiberglass figures that sing a variety of songs once patrons put in the right sequence of symbols. "The audio for the animatronics all comes from ETI 4000 point-source speakers hidden inside the characters," explains Edwards Technologies project manager Mike Stone. "For the most part, we tried to put the speakers in the head area, pointing out of the mouth."

From an audio standpoint, there is more to Adventure besides singing animatronics. "The space is divided into six different audio zones, and you would never realize that you were leaving one zone and going into another," notes Stone. "Throughout the area, we used 22 EAW MK 8196 4" speakers that are all overhead in the ceiling," he explains. "The soundscape in this area doesn’t just play for a minute; it’s a continuous loop, and we found that the MK 8196s have the best quality for the application."

The omnipresent rockwork in Adventure also presented unique audio challenges for Edwards Technologies. "It was like working in a cave," says Stone. "It was a very live room, and, in the end, I put some delays into the Peavey MediaMatrix in different zones, and it turned out well."

COSI’s Dive Theatre

COSI Columbus also gives visitors the opportunity to visit a number of theatres. There is the 375—seat Extreme Screen IWERKS theatre that takes patrons through the Serengeti Plain or into the mysteries of Egypt. The 230—seat Dome Theatre, which features stadium seating, takes the best in digital imagery, combines it with a titled 60’ projection dome, and gives patrons a dynamic look at the sky above. Then there is the 3D Theatre, which uses the latest technology to take patrons on a journey to the brain. There are also small theatres within Life, a Science Theatre, and a rather non-traditional show called ‘Stump the Gadgeteer’ that takes place daily inside the Gadgets Café. For those who are more liberal in their definition of a theatre, COSI is also home to a SimEx Simulator (provided by SimEx of Toronto). The COSI simulator is unique in that, although the ride area itself is enclosed like a traditional simulator, the bottom of the ride vehicle is uncovered, with its inner workings open to the world.

But the high point of the theatrical cornucopia at COSI is the Dive Theatre, nestled within the Habitat area of Ocean. The focal point of the show isn’t a giant movie screen or 3D imaging. It’s something startlingly simple: an 85,000—gallon water tank that lets patrons participate in a dive adventure. Inside the tank are two ROV arms that let patrons take part in the dive demonstrations from two separate areas–from the Dive Theatre proper and from the observation deck area. There are bench seats for up to 48 patrons, and there are three circular view ports from several sides of the tank, with the primary viewing area in the theatre itself. Audience interaction is a key aspect of the Dive Theatre, which makes it so popular. As the diver goes down into the dive tank, he appears to be receiving audio information from a ship on the surface, and needs assistance form the audience members. "The people in the audience communicate with the diver, and consequently they’re drawn into the show," says Ocean producer Randy Hinderer.

Therein lies one of the major challenges of the Dive Theatre–configuring a complex audio system interface that allows communication between the audience and a diver who is underwater, while maintaining exceptional acoustic integrity. "The Dive Theatre was a bit of a challenge," says AME president Benjamin Lein.

The first area that AME tackled was the Helios dive helmet, which is used in the professional/commercial dive industry. "The dive helmet and related helmet communications system is an integrated system that facilitates communications between the diver and the audience," Lein says. "The diver can also hear the show’s program material, since he essentially has a monitor in his helmet. He can, at times, communicate with the audience and then he can hear the response of the audience," he explains. There is a dynamic mic inside the dive helmet, while the audience members use either a Shure SMB-Series push to talk mic that is controlled by the dive show operator, or a corded Peavey PVM 38I, which can be held by audience members.

While the dive helmet took care of some of the acoustic challenges, there was also the issue of sound quality. The diver could hear the audience, and the audience could hear the diver. But the quality of the audio from the diver became an issue early on in the project. "The problem was really trying to achieve a fairly decent character from the diver’s microphone, because he’s encased in this helmet," Lein comments. Feedback, as well as acoustic quality, were early concerns that were solved using a multifaceted approach. "We added some padding inside the helmet itself for acoustical absorption," Lein explains. "That, in combination with careful gain settings and microphone EQ, was the ultimate solution to the feedback issue."

After resolving the challenges involved with the diver’s equipment, the AME team went to work on the operator control console that enables the show operator to start and stop the show, as well as control the audience mic. "The operator control console provides a very simple interface to a very complex system that is lying just beneath the surface," explains Lein. The console includes 16 soft-buttons programmed for different functions, including stopping and starting the video attract loop and bringing up the dive tank lighting levels. The system also limits what the operator can control to ensure the consistency of the shows day after day.

The Dive Show also makes use of video footage from oceanic research ship displayed on three 21" monitors. "The video is composed of the interaction between a woman who is on a research vessel and the diver, who is beneath the surface," Lein explains. The video was produced by COSI and was shot on the Great Lakes. "In every other location within COSI where we stored content, it was usually audio and usually in WAVE format," Lein explains. "For the storage of picture and audio, MPEG is the logical choice." AME used two Alcorn-McBride MPEG reproducers in the Dive Theatre, which provide a number of inherent advantages. "With MPEG format, you don’t have to support a tape, you don’t have to support rotating platters (laser disks), and it will perform flawlessly time after time for years," Lein adds. The Alcorn-McBride MPEG reproducers can also be updated via the Internet, so the show’s content can be changed effortlessly over time. "We’re designing most of our systems now to support Internet connectivity, so that we can maintain these systems from anywhere in the world," he adds.

There is also a bit of a surprise for audiences in the Dive Theatre. While the show is going on, things go a bit awry for the diver, who is suddenly engulfed in an underwater earthquake. As the earth moves for the diver, it also moves for audiences, courtesy of several Buttkickers. "The Buttkickers are fastened to the bottom of the side of the bleacher style seating, and we literally shake the theatre during the sea quake," explains Lein Guitammer, which is based locally out of Columbus, provided the Buttkickers, which are rather like next-generation earthquake simulators. "Basically, it’s a big metal cylinder and a big metal magnet that shakes up and down when we apply an audio signal to it," adds AME’s Ken Wheatley. "It literally shakes the bottom of the seat."

The overall sound reinforcement system within the Dive Theatre is surprisingly simple. AME used a five—channel surround sound system comprised of two Apogee SSM cabinets for main, two Apogee SSM cabinets for side surrounds, two Apogee SSM cabinets for rear surrounds, and two Apogee ACS 110 subwoofers. The trim height of the cabinets is approximately 8’ at the front of the house to 12’ at the rear of the house. For system amplification, the Dive Theatre uses five channels of an Apogee MA-8 multichannel amp, plus one QSC PLX 2402 for the subwoofers. "Overall, the Dive Theatre came out pretty good," Lein says. "Of course, the usual combination of more time and a lot of money would have helped, but we all realize that in themed entertainment this would be a utopia."