How we made... the Situation Room experience

IN CASE OF EMERGENCY Lead Mediator Aleksandra Amaladass gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the Situation Room at IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. 

How does the idea of being on a Catastrophe Citizens’ Assembly sound? Would you like to get on board a team, engage in some decision-making and solve potential disasters that might affect the rest of the nation? IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, the current exhibition at Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, gives the public a chance to team up with other valiant citizens and tackle large scale calamities.

The thirty-minute-long experience starts off with a light round of Cards for Humanity game where each member uses their unique deck to address disasters put forth by a Science Gallery Dublin mediator.

The results of this game determines who presides over the assembly. What then follows is a nail-biting, heart-pounding sequel that demands tough decision-making. The president has the right to veto the majority vote, and the assembly has to face the dire consequences of their choices at each stage.

Derek Williams, Science Gallery Dublin’s technical manager, had a huge role to play in the construction and technical setup of the Situation Room. He let us in on some details of what went into putting together this unique experience.

What was your vision for the Situation Room?

Like a lot of things in Science Gallery Dublin, the Situation Room evolved from an idea and is a big team effort, there's a huge number of people involved, from creating the concept and researching the scenarios, to graphic design and production, the whole thing was created in-house. A few months before IN CASE OF EMERGENCY opened, we started workshopping the two games we now play in an informal setting, with groups of staff, Leonardos and even some of our Transition Year students. We were using bits of paper for the cards and trying to work out the best way to make the game interactive and the best ways of encouraging conversation. We realised that we had the bones of a great game, and making sure that it was played in the right environment would really get the conversations (and, hopefully, a few arguments) going.

How did you come up with the idea of the physical space and tech? What did you draw inspiration from?

We knew we wanted the game to be played in private with only a limited number of people participating and no spectators. The reason for this is that we didn't want the players to be too self-conscious while participating; we wanted to create an environment that would allow them to feel that they could participate freely. To do that we needed to control the room as much as possible — everything from the lighting, to sound, to the chairs we use were chosen to provide complete immersion in our disastrous world.

The whole flow of the game is designed to give the best chance of robust debate for the decision tree game.

We knew we wanted the room to dominate the space downstairs and provide a bit of a mystery to non-players visiting the gallery. It provides just enough intrigue to make people wonder what's going on in there without giving away the game until you go to play it yourself. We also wanted the room to be a bit sinister and industrial, hence the choice of materials and the dark internal colour scheme. We chose a round table to ensure that, subconsciously, everyone seated around the table was equal, and this gave rise to a circular room, which had the added benefit of giving us the curved screen for the ultra-wide projection. That large screen gives the room a cinematic feel, which is part of creating the disaster vibe for the room.

The tech had to be 'Theme Park Grade' as in it had to be reliable and so robust as Science Gallery Dublin is open six days a week and the game is one of the most interactive pieces in the show. It's based on QLab, which is normally used for playing video and sound effects in theatre, so it's well supported. We have a total of five displays connected the computer running QLab, a TouchOSC control surface for the mediator operating the room, a custom voting system, and a ARTnet DMX control for lighting, local speakers and a DANTE link to the gallery's paging system for automated announcements.

What was the biggest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge in the project was creating the content for the cards and the questions in the scenario. From a technical and physical installation point of view, the voting buttons were quite interesting. We couldn't find anything off the shelf that would do the job; we wanted to have the voting system controlled by QLab so that it could integrate into the rest of the flow and not have a separate control.

In order to make this happen, we designed a custom system based on Arduino. There's a central hub that communicates with QLab over OSC and this sends and receives signals to and from the Arduino in each of the voting panels and the LED display in front of the mediator. Each panel has a custom manufactured PCB containing an Arduino Micro and a bit of circuitry to protect it. Communication between the central hub and the buttons is very simple, just using open collector outputs to drive signal lines. We also manufactured the custom faceplates to make them look slick.

Have you worked on other projects like this before?

Yes, I'm with Science Gallery Dublin almost ten years now and we're fortunate enough to get to build interactive pieces ourselves every so often. Regular visitors will remember Forecasts from the Future from STRANGE WEATHER. It was a piece that allowed you to give a futuristic weather forecast in front of a green screen, which was then recorded and automatically uploaded to YouTube. It was also based on QLab with a lot of custom software to handle the recording and the uploads. Most of the team here know that if I start a sentence with "Wouldn't it be cool if..." then I have some crazy idea that usually ends up with a fun interactive piece.

Do you single-handedly maintain the Situation Room tech?

We have a small team in Science Gallery Dublin that maintain all our exhibits. We do hold ourselves to a much higher standard for maintenance than what we expect from visiting artists; typically our own pieces are designed in such a way that they'll start up and run with very little human intervention. We write a manual for our own pieces with the troubleshooting procedures in place, and so far there's only been one issue with the Situation Room and that was fixed by power cycling the Arduinos.

What happens to the Situation Room after the exhibition?

The physical infrastructure will be no more, but that's the nature of Science Gallery Dublin exhibitions, they change three or four times a year so we don't get too attached to them. The majority of the AV equipment in there has been reused from previous exhibitions and will continue to be reused again and again. In fact, the computer that runs the whole thing is seven years old and started life as our graphic designer's workstation.

The games themselves will live on for a while; a slightly lower tech version of the game is being used by our education department with teacher and student groups and they are creating a toolkit to enable teachers to make their own versions of the game for use with their students.

Any plans of making the games played in the Situation Room available to the public to play outside of the gallery?

We are planning to make the cards available as a PDF so you can print your own.

The Situation Room will be running disaster scenarios on a loop until IN CASE OF EMERGENCY closes on 11 February, so come along with your family, friends or just bring yourself and some enthusiasm to solve big problems and have fun all the way through. This blog was written by Aleksandra Amaladass, lead mediator at IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. Aleksandra is a bioscientist who enjoys science communication and is on the road to becoming a nutritional therapist.

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