Making an impact

By Brooke Sever  www.arabianbusiness.com

Live communications agency Action Impact takes S&S on a tour through the award-winning Saadiyat Story exhibition, where some surprisingly low-tech installations sit side by side with cutting-edge technology to deliver a high-impact message.

Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island was essentially a blank canvas until the development of the Manarat al Saadiyat visitors centre. The ambitious project – to include a raft of residential, tourism, retail and recreational developments including local versions of the famed Louvre and Guggenheim Museum’s – is far from finished. The idea of an exhibit to bridge this gap between reality and the proposed plans for the island was coined by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) in Abu Dhabi – the Emirate’s “master developer of major tourism destinations”, who then commissioned Action Impact to bring it to life.

“The brief started off as a tent – literally a tent – on the beach. And as it slowly unpacked, the client realised the potential to do something a little bit bigger was there, and that within their organisation there were people with the ambition to do temporary galleries and to bring sales and marketing functions onto the island; and so it grew and grew,” explains Francis Court, Action Impact’s creative director.

The end result is a 3,000 sq metre interactive exhibit that journey’s an audience through Abu Dhabi’s history, current and future plans.

Court describes the aim of the project as giving visitors a “taste of what it would be like to live on Saadiyat Island 10 to 15 years in the future. To show people the possibilities, to show them what the opportunities are.”

The undoubted showpiece of the exhibit is a circular auditorium that houses a 20 x 3.6 metre curved screen onto which four Christie S+16k 16,000 lumen DLP projectors with a 10 per cent overlap run  an audio visual experience entitled ‘The vision for Saadiyat’, through a Dataton Watchout presentation system. The resulting picture is a huge 4760 x 860 pixels – over 4 million pixels per frame.

“The screen itself was a very important part of the experience from day one,” explains Court. “It envelopes you very deliberately. The curved screen also helps to emphasis the directionality of the film, as it moves around out of your periphery vision.”

SMTP time-code linked lighting effects complement the colours and content of the screen during the AV experience.

Action Impact played an A to Z role in the project, from fleshing out the concept and creating the content, to implementing the resulting experience. The agency’s executive director and co-founder Adrian Bell says this type of “experiential environment” is a hallmark of the company, which also counts Nokia and du as clients.

He says content was the biggest challenge of the project. “In many ways you’re actually spoon-feeding the client, saying, do you want to include this, how about including that.”

Court echo’s this. “Clients always imagine they have more content than they actually do. At the end of the day the whole reason all this stuff is here is the content, but it’s always, always the one thing that gets neglected.”

A series of imposing and detailed 3D models give a visual representation of the island’s individual developments, literally highlighting the different phases individually, thanks to the use of humble gobos. “It’s a clever little gobo linked to a touch panel and it’s a simple as that. It works beautifully,” says Bell. The tight focus achieved is through narrow-focus Source Four fittings from ETC.

Court and Bell maintain that while the overall look of the exhibit is definitely high-end and technological, sometimes going “old-school” can be just as effective.

“Very early on, the client wanted to use a lot of technology but we argued quite strongly that technology didn’t just mean the X-desk and other expensive elements, and that you could use what I’d call ‘old school’ technology in a very effective way,” explains Court.

Bell agrees. “If you’re creating an experience this big you can’t use technology for everything. You can’t use an X-desk for everything, otherwise you lose the impact. You want one magic moment but at the same time you want lots of other little technology hot-spots that people can engage with.”

The ‘x-desk’ they refer to is a fully immersive, multi-touch table top surface, which allows multiple users simultaneously to navigate bespoke digital content through touch. In this case, the digital content is books, in both Arabic and English, which include text and photographs from the Emirates’ early days.

Another use of interactive technology is the ‘virtual books’, which are LCD screens displaying digital media that can be interacted with via gesture recognition sensors.

Spatially, the exhibit is designed to be linear, with a slight incline managed by small bursts of steps when visitor’s progress through the space physically and metaphorically as the future of the island is showcased. This “raked approach” threw up initial hurdles.

“It was quite challenging to sell to somebody that our exhibition is actually going to be a climb. I remember when we first put it forward to them they were like, are those steps? They weren’t quite sure about that,” says Bell. “But it’s a very modest climb. Lots of people don’t even notice.”

Very narrow dispersion electrostatic speakers have been used to create ‘columns’ of sound to avoid spill into surrounding exhibits, adding an aural layer to the experience.

A “reality gallery” closes the exhibition and according to Court, is “very updatable, very quick changing. It talks about what’s happening under your feet now, where we are in terms of development.” A series of touch screens allow visitors to view time-lapse videos of construction as well as visually pin-point exact dates in the project.

Court, like Bell, is confident of the result. “We’ve tried to take people on an emotional journey from arriving in Abu Dhabi, which is what the reception is; taking them across the water, into the theatre as it were, and giving them an idea of the hard work and human endeavour that’s gone into developing the island, and showing them the developments underway.”

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