- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

NORFOLK, Va. — Just one of the challenges of renovating Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, a few years ago came when a bit of technological magic was added to explain the origins of the USS Wisconsin one of the largest U.S. battleships ever built.

With the hopes of effectively conveying information on all aspects of the 58-year-old ship, the designers had to walk the plank carefully to create exhibits that were engaging to younger, computer-savvy visitors but also accessible to war veterans.

"In order to get the educational aspect of what we are trying to broadcast across to the kids, technology is important because when they spin a wheel, if something doesn't come out and bite their heads off, they lose interest," says Pamela Gillespie, technical systems supervisor for Nauticus.

"On the other hand, we didn't want our interactives to be so involved that their operation would detract from the content."

Nauticus has been around since 1994 to educate the public on the power and history of the sea through the use of a wide variety of multimedia displays.

On Dec. 7, 2000, the USS Wisconsin, or "Whiskey," parked alongside the center, bringing with it a place in history books. Besides its immense size and speed, the battleship has been deployed in three American conflicts since it was commissioned during World War II.

Visitors first glimpse the massive battleship while approaching Nauticus, but once inside the center, they get a whole new view of the ship by looking out Nauticus' third-floor windows down onto the ship's teak deck.

The high-tech meets the traditional through a 30-minute interactive presentation titled "Design Chamber: Battleship X." The presentation brings to life how the Whiskey was commissioned by the government in 1944 in response to the possibility that both Japan and Germany were building more powerful warships.

Within the design chamber's interactive arena, visitors are seated and quickly begin learning about the shipbuilding process as they listen to and watch digital displays of specialists providing information on overall size, weight, fuel capacities and armaments necessary to take on the latest enemy ships.

These experts help the audience understand the technical design issues of the ship through a series of interconnected elements. For example, if the ship's overall size and weight is too big, it may be too slow to outmaneuver enemy ships and also may require extensive stores of fuel that are difficult to obtain while traveling in the middle of an ocean.

"We offer this information through a theater presentation that employs live actors working with and against a computer-driven video backdrop," Miss Gillespie says. "The result is that by combining high-tech equipment with human interaction, we were able to create a visually engaging, three-dimensional experience that explains the very aspects of designing and building an Iowa-class battleship." The Iowa-class ships, the first World War II-era battleships not encumbered by treaty limits, have been praised as the best-ever in firepower, protective ability and speed.

The design chamber uses two parallel screens, one in front of the other, to provide a 3-D effect. In front of and behind the screens, live actors help introduce the design problems at hand and introduce the video clips of experts who offer pro and con information on various configurations.

Era-appropriate items such as Adm. William "Bull" Halsey's desk, an old manual typewriter and old film projector further enhance the history while providing a convenient stage set.

Finally, the audience members use a simple two-button interface to indicate their individual preferences for final design options.

All this is kept moving along through a series of behind-the-scenes computers. One sorts and tallies the audience votes while another cues the correct video footage to respond to the audiences' design choices.

"The digital displays include actual newsreel footage, and theatrical interpreters portray the governmental board. The interpreters request that the audience design team choose the parameters for a bigger and better ship," Miss Gillespie says.

After experiencing the design chamber, visitors can stop by the Battlescopes binocularlike devices that look out from Nauticus over the USS Wisconsin. The units can sweep over the ship, allowing viewers to see virtually into turrets and the ship's upper reaches.

Each of the eight units, even though it looks like a common telescopic instrument, is actually a camera/video viewer controlled by a hidden high-end personal computer with enhanced video-card capacity. As the scope passes over the ship, cross hairs appear over 13 areas. Hit one of those target areas, and the computer is programmed to run an audio-video segment that provides information on the part of the ship the visitor is viewing.

All combined, the design chamber and Battlescopes deliver a potent educational strike to help visitors thoroughly understand the ship before they actually board and walk the decks.

"Some very simple, yet highly effective technology has really allowed us to give the visitor, regardless of age or military knowledge, a good understanding of the nuts and bolts behind this magnificent ship," Miss Gillespie says.

Where: Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, is in Norfolk at 1 Waterside Drive. It is about 3½ hours from the District.

When: The center is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday the rest of the year. The center is closed on New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Admission: Tickets are $9.50 for adults, $7 for children ages 4-12. Children younger than 3 get in free.

More information: 757/664-1000; www.nauticus.org

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