- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

At the just-opened Newseum downtown, you can take in an exhaustive gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalism; revisit the heart-rending imagery of the Sept. 11 attacks; even keep tabs on press freedom abroad.

You also can feel the feathery swipe of a rat’s tail on the skin of your calves.

“I knew that was coming!” shrieked a woman during a showing of “I-Witness: A 4-D Time Travel Adventure,” a short film that plays three times hourly in the Newseum’s plush Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater.

The film chronicles the evolution of journalism through a trio of protagonists: the Revolutionary War newspaperman Isaiah Thomas; the investigative-reporting pioneer Nellie Bly (in whose New York City insane asylum cell we meet the aforementioned rodents); and famed London Blitz broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

The rat-calf connection comes courtesy of a “leg-tickler,” one of several effects built into about 200 of the theater’s 535 seats. It’s joined by a water-spritzer and a “butt-kicker,” which can replicate, for example, a jet engine’s rumble in your rump. Audiences also are fanned periodically with drafts of wind.

Developed primarily for theme-park attractions such as the Disney 3-D movie “Captain Eo” (1986) and Universal Studios’ “Back to the Future” simulator ride, the technology constitutes what’s now referred to as the “fourth dimension” of modern cinema — the multisensory goosing that accompanies the three-dimensional images on screen.

Gearheads are torn over the exact definition of 4-D. The term is “fiendishly overused,” Adam Bezark, a multimedia writer-director, told Video Systems magazine in 2004. “It’s come to mean a room with funny seats that sprays wind and water at you.”

In any case, what is such a room doing in a museum?

“This is Disneyland meets the Smithsonian,” says a skeptical Gerard Anderson, a health policy professor at Johns Hopkins University. He found the Newseum’s traditional exhibits “incredibly thought-provoking.” But the 4-D experience? “It educates you, but not profoundly,” he avers.

Eleven-year-old Zachary Kahn, an aspiring sports reporter from Bowie, however, found the movie “exciting.”

It’s to Zachary, says Joseph Cortina, that today’s museums must increasingly appeal.

At the Newseum’s previous venue in Rosslyn, youngsters yawned at the plaques and news artifacts on display, says Mr. Cortina, who oversaw the design of the multimedia theater through his McLean-based firm Cortina Productions.

Mr. Cortina directed “I-Witness,” working with the same 3-D cinematographer (Peter Anderson) and stereoscopic film company (3ality Digital) that helped produce this year’s concert film “U2 3D.”

The 4-D film is the Newseum’s signature technological asset, but it’s not the only one: The venue’s second level is given over to a colony of touch-screen video cubicles and “Be a Reporter” stations that simulate the reporting experience with varying degrees of humor and realism.

“Younger audiences have completely accepted this immersive experience,” Mr. Cortina says.

Interactivity has become a technological lingua franca for museums and other exhibition venues trying to transform themselves to the liking of the video-game generation.

The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which opened in 2006 as part of a multimillion-dollar expansion of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, is chockablock with fancy multimedia exhibits.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Ill., too, features a 4-D theatrical presentation, as does the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Hard as it may be to imagine, up-close-and-personal views of sharks, stingrays and other exotic aquatic life aren’t sufficient in the 21st-century infotainment environment. Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium and Camden, N.J.’s Adventure Aquarium all have incorporated 4-D theaters.

Technology buffs see precursors of 4-D cinema in productions such as the Universal Studios attraction “Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time,” which bolstered the on-screen entertainment with smoke and lighting effects.

The “Shrek 4-D” ride debuted at Universal Studios’ worldwide properties in 2003.

Could such technology one day become common at the multiplex?

“Absolutely,” Mr. Cortina says.

“In the same way that 3-D is starting to emerge, 4-D is probably just the next step,” he adds.

How else can filmmakers and exhibitors hope to bestir audiences out of their high-definition, surround-sound home-theater cocoons?

In a way, though, audiences have been experiencing 4-D for decades; it’s just bringing us full circle to the days of midnight viewings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with their water-gun-squirting, toast-throwing and chair-tossing audiences.

We’ve just learned how to automate the gimmicks.

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