Hurrairah bin Sohail finds out how the parties involved in creating the Bicentennial Experience strove to move away from the conventions that dictate the staging of historical, museum exhibitions and create an experience that won the Visitor Attraction Inavation Award.

In 2019 Singapore celebrated the 200-year anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival. To commemorate this milestone, the Bicentennial Experience: From Singapore to Singaporean was conceived and staged within Fort Canning Centre.

Michael Chiang and Beatrice Chia-Richmond served as the creative directors for the Bicentennial Experience while Kenny Wong was the technical director. Kingsmen was appointed as the turnkey solution provider and Electronics & Engineering, together with Ctrl Fre@k, were tasked with deploying and commissioning the AV systems and technology.

The Bicentennial Experience had the ambitious aim to portray the entirety of the Singapore story. Kenny Wong details: “The vision was to create an experience that would pique the curiosity of the visitors about the 700-year history of Singapore. My involvement in the creative process from the beginning, plus the collaborative approach of the creative directors, meant that I had a hand in crafting the vision with the exploration of how we could realise this vision.”

The breadth of the subject matter was not the only challenge and Wong continues: “The content, drawn from history, can be very dry. Thus, we tried to create an experience that was visceral rather than taking a more cerebral approach. This was done in different ways, for example by adding tactile experiences in every part.”

Wong says: “The initial challenge was about breaking the mould and overcoming preconceived notions on how history is to be presented. Once we got over the notion that history has to be presented in a ‘museum mode’ we liberated ourselves to come up with something that defied the genre.”

From these conversations, the Bicentennial Experience took shape and came to be spread across five acts. Each act is meant to engage the visitor and guide them along a significant story arc from Singapore’s history and Wong details how this was achieved: “We treated each act of the experience as an individual theatrical show first and foremost. Then we found the solutions to integrate all the acts into one cohesive whole. This meant that we were not limited by technologies used in exhibitions. We drew from different sources, from how theme park rides are controlled. This theme park-like experience was part of the creative directors’ vision as they wanted the Bicentennial Experience to be more engaging than other museums.”

Joe Fong, deputy managing director at Electronics & Engineering, details the directions given to the integrator: “The brief for the team was to curate an experience about the history of Singapore that would be exciting and engaging for a wide spectrum of visitors, from pre-schoolers through to seniors. This meant translating the well-researched and comprehensive historical materials, provided by the Singapore Bicentennial Office [SBO], under the Prime Minister’s Office, into a 50-minute journey that was more visceral than cerebral. So, each of the five acts offers visitors a wide array of different sensory experiences with the use of theatrical effects and multimedia platforms culminating in a fully immersive experience.”

How the ‘immersive experience’ would be achieved was a topic that was explored thoroughly at the beginning. Wong provides more information: “The main challenge in creating the sense of immersion was not in selecting the equipment but figuring out how the products would be used especially when ensuring that the content we made suited the environment we wanted to create. We looked at virtual reality and augmented reality but decided against them because they required visitors to wear a device which we felt would create a barrier between the visitor and the experience. Effective holograms of a person or an object require a very dark environment which meant that we would not be able to convey the richness of the content that is Singapore’s history.”

Across the five acts, sound, light, video, mechanics, automation and tactile effects are used to deliver a multisensory experience that hits the brief of being immersive. A range of Epson projectors and CLT LED tiles are used to create the displays. JBL and d&b audiotechnik speakers are used to provide sound as the situation demands. The show control system is based on ETC Paradigm with integration of ETC Eos, Green Hippo Hippotizer and Timex Soundhub. Throughout the whole Bicentennial Experience, the AV and show control systems come together to create truly impressive moments for the visitor. In the Atrium, the visitor is shown Singapore’s progression through its formative years. They are also introduced to the motif of rain, which runs through the entire exhibition. In particular, Epson projectors allied with creative lighting and water pearls are used to create the effect of ‘reverse rainfall’.

Moving forward, Act I: Beginnings shows how all the parties involved with the project worked together to push the boundaries of what a museum experience should be. Five hundred years of history are condensed into 11 minutes. A 19m long travellator is used where live actors perform. The travellator can be precisely controlled at specific moments to start, stop, accelerate, decelerate or move at the exact required speed.

The live performance is significantly augmented with the addition of AV. A 15m by 3m LED backdrop provides the canvas for the live performers and in front of the actors is a scrim material onto which Epson projectors cast visuals. The end result is a spectacle that features depth, realism and immersion.

Fong details the challenges that the integrator faced to create the setup for Act I: “Merging together two different display technologies and catering for the live performers was not easy. There was a specific requirement for the LED wall in Act I. It had to be able to function at low intensity without losing any colour integrity as it had to work in tandem with the projectors and the scrim as well as all the lighting for the actors. In the end, we were able to bring all the elements together to make a layered, complete image.”

Act II: Arrival and Act III: Connectivity are staged in the same space. But to give the visitor a sense of progression the base of the room, where visitors are seated, rotates giving the viewers a chance to experience the 360-degree projection screen and the visuals.

All automation elements were supplied by Stage One from the UK and these are controlled using a Qmotion automation control system.

Fong explains how the visuals were achieved: “The delivery of video content is done primarily with laser projectors. The Epson ELPX01 ultra-short throw ‘periscope’ lens was chosen as it is able to give maximum image height with the constraints of minimum ceiling height and lack of throw distance which we had to work around in this space. These were integrated with Epson EB-L1100U and EBL1405U laser projectors. As all overhead equipment could not be hung from the ceiling, trusses were brought in place to achieve this.”

Wong talks about why projectors were chosen: “For Act III: Connectivity, we had a moving screen and that meant that any kind of LCD panels of LED tiles would add additional loading to our rigging system and also add complexity. The rotating base didn’t impact the AV system, but its effect was mainly felt in matching the timing of the movement with our video content.”

Special attention was also paid to the audio for Act II and Act III as Fong further details: “The multi-channel Panspace tool within the Timex allowed our technical team to synchronise the panning of the voice together with the revolving movement to ensure that the voiceover is always in ‘front’ of the audience within the 12-speaker discrete channel, 360-degree design.”

Panasonic flat panels and d&b audiotechnik loudspeakers, with accompanying power amplifiers, create the experience for Act IV: Occupation. The space is reminiscent of an air-raid bunker and the audio is the main component creating the atmosphere. JBL Control 60 series pendant speakers bolster the sound.

The Bicentennial Experience comes full circle in Act V: Destiny, with the visitors learning about Singapore’s modern development and its future as they hold umbrellas and stand under ‘rain’. The rain effect itself was not hard to achieve. But it posed interesting challenges for the integrator. Fong says: “In this rectangular room we have reflective glasses protecting the LED screens from the water during the ‘rain’ effect.

To ensure that audio was distributed effectively and not affected, the technical team used a distributed surround sound system to achieve more focused coverage in order to ensure the audience could enjoy a truly immersive experience. All speakers have been installed above the water nozzles so that they are not compromised.

Specially designed NeonFlex lighting was also integrated into Act V to further enhance the visitor’s immersive experience together with the rain effect.” The Bicentennial Experience ran till the end of 2019 with 50 shows per day. Fong says the integrator had to prepare for the rigours of this schedule: “Maintenance concerns had to be taken into account for all the equipment with 50 shows running non-stop through the day to accommodate 50 visitors per show each day. This breaks down to a show every 12 minutes and all the Acts have to run simultaneously. A weekly maintenance schedule was put in place every Monday where general preventive maintenance was carried out to ensure that all systems were in perfect functioning condition for the shows to run smoothly.”

Looking back at the project and its execution, Fong says: “The need for perfect synchronisation was a key element that could not be compromised on. This meant that there was a need for immaculate precision for sound and video outputs to support the immersive experience for visitors. Given our vast experience with system integration projects, our team from E&E was able to deliver the ‘perfect synchronisation’ required for this immersive experience to come to life. This was a combination of integrating all the audio and video elements of the show with the design of a show control system which allows the gallery guides in each Act to trigger the fully automated show with the simple push of a single button.”

Tech-Spec
Audio

d&b audiotechnik loudspeakers
JBL Control 60 series pendant speakers

Video
CLT LED tiles
Epson EB-L1100U, EB-L1405U, projectors
Panasonic 80-in LCD flat panels

Lighting
ETC lighting, Eos console
Martin lighting

Control
ETC Paradigm lighting control
Green Hippo Hippotizer
Timex Soundhub