Observation of National Geographic Encounter – Ocean Odyssey

By: Michelle Kung
INFO 601-02 Assignment 3 Event Attendance

What is it

National Geographic’s Ocean Odyssey is an exhibition about marine biology and conservation that promises visitors an interactive and immersive experience. Visitors get to see, hear, and feel what ocean life is like for different sea creatures. A member of staff guides small groups of visitors through the interactive spaces and encourages everyone to explore every part of each space. The Ocean Odyssey starts in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean and takes visitors all the way to the Californian coast.  

I visited the Ocean Odyssey in March, 2019 had found this experience to both be a lot of fun and highly educational. The new technology used gave the exhibition a lot of affordances that visitors were not familiar with. And the guide, acting as mediator, served as the signifier to ensure that visitors’ experiences were pleasurable and not frustrating.

Immersive environments created by audio visual elements

Effective use of audio and visual elements made interaction with information truly immersive and entirely effortless.


The Ocean Odyssey experience featured multiple audio-visual displays. But unlike conventional single screen-based information, these experiences were highly immersive. Users were invited to enter rooms in which every surface was a screen, including the ceiling and sometimes even the floor. Many rooms had curved walls that surrounded groups of visitors. Our guide encouraged us to “swim” into the rooms, adding to the immersive experience. Many users attempted to interact with different visual elements, by pointing at them, stepping on them, and following them. Sometimes, digital elements responded to users’ physical movements but sometimes there was no digital/ physical connection. On the whole, visitors seemed delighted when interaction was possible and not at all disappointed when it wasn’t. Perhaps users haven’t developed an expectation to be able to interact with any digital element yet.

One of the most spectacular exhibits was a 3D video of a life size humpback whale displayed in a room on a curved wall that surrounded visitors. Visitors were invited to wear 3D glasses to improve their experiences. The video showed how humpback whales feed on krill by opening its gigantic mouth. Users were so mesmerised and immersed in the video that a user screamed out loud in fear when the photorealistic whale swam towards the screen with its mouth wide open! Such rich visual information elicited emotional responses in users.

Buttressing the vibrant visuals were rich and realistic audio elements. Effective use of sound allowed users to be immersed in the underwater environment created by the Ocean Odyssey. In an exhibit showing what the ocean is like in the night time, sound was the main medium. Users sat in a small auditorium completely devoid of light, listening to the sounds of whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures. Users were passive receptors of audio information. 

Interactive videos enraptured users

The Ocean Odyssey also featured gesture controlled interactive video elements to teach users about the behaviour of sea lions and about bio luminescence.

Our guide explained what bio luminescence was as users moved their arms in front of a screen. The screen detected motion and displayed corresponding lights, representing bioluminescent bacteria. Users were encouraged to interact tactilely with all elements of the bioluminescent exhibit. This hands-on approach allowed users to learn about an otherwise abstract part of the ocean that they have probably never heard of or thought about.

In the sea lion exhibit, our guide demonstrated using the screens to learn about sea lions. Individual users stood in front of individual screens, waving their arms and watching the sea lion swim in corresponding movements.

Traditional displays sadly forgotten

Unlike a traditional museum environment where static images and text are the bulk of the information, in this experience, they were peripheral. Unless the guide purposefully drew users’ attentions to non-digital image and text, they were largely ignored.

Perhaps a better designed information environment would make a more seamless transition between information that is digital presented to users, and traditional forms of information like posters and displays. Compared to interactive and immersive digital elements, traditional static visual graphics were much less interesting to users.

Quizzes and games

At the end of the exhibit, our guide led users into a room with many different games and quizzes on ocean ecology and conservation and allowed us to interact with them independently.  Most of these activities were screen based, apart from colouring sheets which no users used.

Users interacted with different screens equipped with pressure, laser, and gesture sensors, making each game interesting and different. Adults and children alike were captivated.


I think the Ocean Odyssey experience was a really well designed information environment which allowed users to experience information in a fun, experiential, and dynamic way. It proves that learning doesn’t have to just be cognitive and challenges traditional approaches to learning by allowing users to engage with information physically and emotionally. I think this kind of experience, when curated as well as the Ocean Odyssey, can have great impact on education and edutainment.

But I’m not sure whether or not the information environment was designed with affordances in mind. Users were guided by a trained guide throughout, and were given instructions on how exactly to interact with each aspect of the experience. Of course, interactive experiences that blends digital with the physical are still very new so there isn’t as yet an established semiotic system that can allow users to know exactly how to interact with exhibits without a guide. I can imagine, in future, when more experiences incorporate interactive digital elements in physical spaces, there will be a need for the design of a standardised semiotic system that is well understood by the user to act as navigation.


Norman, Don. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Event Attendance: Designing the Connected City @ Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

By: Michelle Kung
INFO 601-02 Assignment 3 Event Attendance

Cities like New York are notorious for congestion and pollution. It often takes the same amount of time to walk somewhere as it does to drive somewhere. But big tech companies are reimagining urban mobility with connected and autonomous vehicles (AVs). On the 25th of February, 2019, leaders in the field of autonomous vehicles or driverless cars came together at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum for a panel discussion. Moderated by Cynthia E Smith, the curator of Socially Responsible Design, the panel consisted of Sarah Williams, the director of Civic Data Design Lab at MIT, Ryan Powell, the head of user research and UX design at Waymo (Google’s self-driving car project), and Jack Robbins, the director of urban design at FXCollaborative. With diverse backgrounds, the three panellists debated topical issues engendered by AVs.

A World Unknown

One thing that the three panellists agreed on was that no one really knows how technology will impact mobility in urban spaces. The field is still new and concepts have only been tested on limited scales. Jack Robbins called this ‘a new era of mobility’. Indeed, we have no idea how the way we move, not just within cities but across the country, is going to change. All we know, and all leaders in the field know, is that autonomous vehicles will be the biggest drivers of change.

Heaven or Hell Scenario

Jack Robbins illustrated two opposing scenarios: a heaven scenario and a hell scenario. In the heaven scenario, after autonomous vehicles have replaced standard vehicles. There will be fewer vehicles on the road, fewer vehicle miles travelled and more spaces freed up in cities for other things. Without the need for parking (i.e. temporary storage of private vehicles) within the city, there is a tremendous opportunity for the creation of more green spaces and open spaces which will increase the liveability of any congested and densely populated city. On the other hand, in the hell scenario, there will be more vehicles and more vehicle miles travelled. Autonomous vehicles will be on the road driving around with or without passengers, which would be terrible for inhabitants of cities as well as the health of the planet. 

Will companies deliver on their promises?

Companies developing autonomous vehicles are of course promising everything detailed in the heaven scenario. But Jack Robbins cautioned event goers against trusting these companies too much.  After all, the way they make their money is incompatible with the promises they are making. For example, Google sells advertising but is promising increased road safety, mobility equity, easy parking, transit support, and less traffic. But how? By gathering an increasing variety of information on humans and on built environments.

Human Behaviour is Information as Thing

Waymo, Google’s driverless car company, purports to take a human centred approach to create a ride hailing service. Their primary goal is physical safety. In order to achieve this, Waymo collects an incredible amount of data on people and human behaviour in order to program the world’s most experienced drivers. According to Ryan Powell, 94% of road accidents are caused by human errors and Waymo’s aim is to eliminate this altogether. Waymo has managed to collect the data of behaviour patterns of adults, children, and cyclists in order to teach their fleet of driverless cars how to react safely in each scenario.

On the surface, treating human behaviour as information as thing is not at all revolutionary. Psychology, anthropology, and a whole host of other social sciences have studied the behaviour of humans for decades. But the monetisation and capitalisation of this information on such a large scale is new. Speakers in this talk were more interested in talking about the information regarding the space and infrastructure of a city than information about the people living in them, which is slightly alarming.

Public Space as Private information

A huge topic of debate in this design talk was the importance of the public nature of public space. Speakers Sarah Williams and Jack Robbins both challenged Ryan Powell on Waymo’s current practices of keeping information about the public space private.

As Waymo gathers more and more information on public spaces, their data set becomes more valuable. Sarah Williams advocated for city governments to leverage their power to ban companies like Waymo from operating in their cities to negotiate data rights. Both Sarah Williams and Jack Robbins argued for the importance of public governing bodies to step up and play a more active role in this sphere rather than passively hoping for technology companies to do the right thing by citizens. Autonomous vehicles pose real dangers in deepening and widening the digital divide, privatising public data, and decreasing equitability in cities. It is up to cities to set boundaries, guidelines, and regulations so that data collection and ownership of cities contribute to the public good and can benefit the many rather than the few.

Conclusion and Reflection

This design talk was fascinating and helped me conceptualise the new forms of information this emergent technology creates. The panel discussion really encouraged me to think more deeply about the data rights of citizens and city governments. It is already inconceivable, the amount of data big software companies have on our digital behaviour. It is entirely unimaginable, for the average user, what information companies developing autonomous vehicles will have on our behaviour in physical environments once AVs become more mainstream.

In the meantime, it is clear that city governments need to catch up to big tech players in order to ensure that public spaces are protected, new infrastructure built is adaptable to unforeseeable changes, that cities become more liveable in the long term for all its inhabitants, not just a select few.


Buckland, Michael K. “Information as Thing.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science42, no. 5 (1991): 351-60. doi:10.1002/(sici)1097-4571(199106)42:53.0.co;2-3.