Earthquake Simulators, Jet Packs, And Music You Can Touch at Silicon Valley’s Tech Museum
BY AISLYN GREENE // PHOTOGRAPHY BY SEES THE DAY
Chirps, warbles, and scratches mingle in what sounds like a conductor-less orchestra riffing in a nightclub. A few steps into the main atrium and it’s clear, The Tech Museum of Innovation is alive with sound. The source is ReBoot Music, a new exhibition that explores the art of digital music. Mini maestros can whiz through the exhibit—interacting with lasers (yes, lasers) that play different sounds when triggered, and a digital music table that’s activated by turning cubes—leaving a cacophonous trail in their wake.
Bright lights, tiny innovators. The Tech is dazzling, interactive fun for all.
For The Tech, which has been steeped in Silicon Valley tech culture since its founding in 1990, these hands-on exhibits are what make the museum so unique—and just plain fun for kids of all ages. “We’re the only innovation museum in the United States,” says Lath Carlson, the Vice President of Exhibits.
“We’re not a historical institution. We want visitors to actually create something here.”
And there’s plenty to create inside the 132,000-square-foot temple of science and technology. Want to build a mini skyscraper that can withstand an 8.4 quake? Check out the Exploration Gallery’s seismic exhibit. Curious about human-robot interactions? Build your own ‘bot in the beta version of the Social Robots program. There’s also a breakdown of the microchip—you’ll never look at your Smartphone the same way—a 280-seat IMAX theater, and an exhibit about the museum’s Tech Awards program, which honors those who improve lives through innovations like self-adjustable glasses and mesh screens that collect water from fog.
Move through virtual landscapes—or challenging labyrinths—with the hands-on Tilty Table.
The Tech’s origins, however, are fairly humble. As the Valley emerged as the epicenter for technology and venture capital in the 1970s, a group of volunteers from the Junior League of Palo Alto—and later the San Jose branch—dreamed up a center to showcase the ideas coming out of the region. It took 12 years to develop and fund the original space in the San Jose Convention Center (an informal exhibit called The Garage) but, as technology made rapid advancements, so did the museum. It moved into its current space in downtown San Jose in 1998, added solar power in 2008, and, last year, built out the Tech Studio, an open lab inspired by Silicon Valley neighbors like Google X and stocked with everything from 3-D printers to CNC routers.
The studio also contains the seed for the museum’s reinvention, dubbed The Tech 3.0. It’s a lab where employees can create new exhibits (Social Robots was one of the first) and a community playground, offering classes on Valley-born technologies like digital fabrication and LED origami. “The Internet really changed what museums should be,” Carlson says. “If everyone has access to this information in their pocket, then what are we good for? What we’ve landed on is that we can provide space where people can learn and increase their skills. It’s about changing the visitor, not a visitor passively looking.”
Reach for the stars in a ride-able jet pack chair, and feel the earth move under your feet in the earthquake shake platform.
A revamped mobile experience is a big part of the 3.0 rollout, Carlson says, and will include an app that will collect data as you explore. This fall, visitors can test out the museum’s first Tech 3.0 exhibit, a journey through health and wellness through the lens of wearable technologies.
“We’ll outfit visitors with a wearable device, which will measure everything: heart rate, muscle tension, brain waves, light levels, the faces of people nearby,” Carlson says. Visitors will then design missions for themselves within the museum—maybe something physical, or a social mission, “like seeing how many people you can make laugh,” he says. Afterwards, a large-scale installation will piece the data together into a story about their health. “We’ll run a data-mining algorithm that will look for interesting correlations,” Carlson says. “Like ‘Why was my heart beating faster when I tried to make someone laugh?’ or ‘Was I more likely to make someone laugh if there were fewer people around me?’”
Human-machine interactions at The Tech bring out colorful creativity.
But the experience won’t end there. Visitors will be able to access content tailored to their missions—tips on upping their physical activity, for example—via the mobile app from partners like Kaiser Permanente.
That’s because The Tech’s number-one goal is to inspire people to think differently about their capabilities, Carlson says, whether it’s learning a new skill or reconsidering personal habits. “The most gratifying thing to hear—and you hear it once a day in Social Robots—is a kid yell out, ‘Look what I invented!’ because you know they did not come in thinking they were a robotics engineer.”