Products Designed for Themed Entertainment

SimEx-Iwerks and Alcorn McBride Technology Create 4D Antarctic Experience at Detroit Zoo

The Detroit Zoo recently unveiled the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, the largest penguin facility in the world. The new iceberg-shaped building features an immersive 4D Antarctic experience created by SimEx-Iwerks Entertainment. The space also uses Alcorn McBride audio/video and show control equipment.

The Detroit Zoo was the first zoo in North America to have a Penguinarium. The innovative 33,000-square foot Polk Penguin Conservation Center takes penguin habitats to a new level. Visitors can see more than 80 penguins of four species in the deepest penguin aquatic environment anywhere outside their native Antarctic waters. Ramps usher visitors down 25 feet to acrylic underwater tunnels and viewing galleries where they can watch the birds swim and soar above, around, and below them.

SimEx-Iwerks, which specializes in designing experiential spaces, regarded the walls around the entrance ramps as “prime real estate for telling stories,” says creative director Richard Needham. Their goal for the space was to make the Antarctic come alive by relating the classic survival story of the ship Endurance. Against all odds, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton led the Endurance crew to eventual safety after the ship was lost to packed ice. The vessel was attempting to cross Antarctica from sea to sea in 1915.

Using CGI and still images and video, the Toronto-based company set out to recreate the journey of the Endurance. They project images of the ship’s Drake Passage onto the walls of the down-leading ramps, adding mist, hurricane fans, and a snow machine to enhance the experience. “We recreated the ship as authentically as possible, placing the visitors on deck and illustrating the ordeal of the journey – the weather, the rough seas, the animals, and the icebergs they observed,” Needham explains. “Visitors not only see the 360º content but also feel the wind, sea spray, and a light dusting of snow.” Video captured during Needham’s own Antarctic trip to acquire footage plays a key role in delivering the polar experience.

Projection mapping the space – with its “interesting geometries” – proved to be a challenge. “The exterior of the building, which evokes an iceberg, is reflected in the interior where there are no real straight lines,” says Needham. “We wanted to be as low impact as possible on the building while creating images that filled the space.”

SimEx-Iwerks turned to Alcorn McBride. They’ve been using Alcorn McBride products for the past 25 years. “Alcorn is always on the top on my list for solutions and is a good value for money,” Needham reports.

To display the story in 4K resolution SimEx-Iwerks chose three Alcorn McBride A/V Binloop Uncompressed synchronized video players and five short-throw, ceiling-mounted digital projection 4K laser projectors.

“Alcorn lives and breathes synchronization, which is very important to us,” Needham says. “The three A/V Binloop players deliver 21 channels, all in perfect sync, for the four-minute show. The content loops continuously all day.”

The first visitors to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center have been “blown away” by the exciting new building and the story of the Endurance that transitions them from ground level to the underwater viewing experience, says Needham. “The zoo is very happy with our choice of equipment. They realize that A/V Binloop Uncompressed and 4K projection make up a world-class delivery system.”

The smaller up-leading ramp area returns visitors from the underwater tunnel. The walls of this Antarctic Gallery are also projection-mapped, from a shipboard point of view.
SimEx-Iwerks selected an Alcorn McBride A/V Binloop HD to deliver the content and to provide audio to both ramp areas.

Alcorn McBride’s V16+ show controller runs all the Alcorn equipment via a pair of Alcorn McBride ShowTouch touch panels, one for each projection-mapped space.

“Our long history of using Alcorn McBride products for challenging projects provided us with cost-effective, reliable solutions for the latest innovative attraction at the Detroit Zoo,” Needham concludes.

“Alcorn lives and breathes synchronization, which is very important to us.”



Client Name: Detroit Zoo
Location: Detroit, MI


Installer: Simex-Iwerks


Video: AV Binloop Uncompressed