Despite exhibiting some species that have existed long enough to earn distinction as “living fossils,” the Tennessee Aquarium is no stranger to being on the leading edge of technology.
From virtual reality immersive learning and the region’s first IMAX with Laser projection system to the world’s only tweeting electric eel, the Ocean Journey and River Journey buildings have long served as test beds for new technologies.
With the Friday opening of its newest exhibit — Tiny, But Mighty Important — the Aquarium pushes even further into the virtual (or perhaps “the final”) frontier with a display employing holographs. Guests visiting the new exhibit will be able to watch a short presentation appearing to float in mid-air that illustrates the devastating impact that silt and erosion can have on freshwater ecosystems.
The imagery hovers in a kiosk over a bed of actual river rocks and is viewable from all angles. As the animation begins, viewers see a 3-D projection of life in a healthy stream, with fish laying eggs and aquatic insects crawling among the stones. Later, erosion from nearby hills sends silt into the water, clouding the scene, smothering the eggs and eventually causing the animal life to disappear.
The use of holographic technology in an aquarium setting is unprecedented, which should increase the impact it has on guests, says Jim Bowhall, the creative director and vice president of Atlanta-based production studio Magick Lantern, which created the animation sequence. "Whenever you introduce something ‘never before seen’ you get people's attention,” he says. “Once they are captivated by the imagery in 3-D space, we can then show them something that is not only memorable and fascinating, but hopefully will teach them something as well.
“The concepts we are conveying about the environment and the impact of poor land use on that world are not easily seen on film or read about in a book. The visual hologram does a much better job of showing and teaching concepts like this one.”
The holographic water quality display is just one component of the newly designed River Journey attraction, which replaces the Aquarium’s Barrens Topminnow lab exhibit. Guests couldn’t enter the previous exhibit, but the new space is fully explorable and emphasizes education through interactivity.
Tiny, But Mighty Important focuses on the role humans play in water quality and celebrates the importance of animals such as shiners, darters and minnows. These miniscule fish inhabit Southeastern streams in greater diversity than anywhere else in the world and serve as “indicator species,” meaning their health can reflect that of the entire aquatic ecosystem.
As they enter the new exhibit, guests are greeted by a large screen with stunning, looping footage of Southeastern aquatic wildlife. Below the display, guests can select from a trio of videos documenting a young person’s pathway to a career in science, the work of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and a special message on the importance of small fish from aquatic ecologist Dr. Zeb Hogan, the host of “Monster Fish” on Nat Geo WILD.
Visitors also will be able to get an up close look at tanks exhibiting Barren’s Topminnows, interact with a rotating display that offers another simulation of silt in a waterway and read graphics discussing topics such as the negative impact of nonpoint source pollution such as urban and agricultural runoff.
By telling the story of freshwater life in such a novel fashion, the new exhibit will more effectively show guests that even small species can be hugely important, says Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education.
“Hopefully, using this new technology will help us show guests that small fish like the Barrens Topminnow and Logperch are worth protecting,” Dr. George says. “People need to understand how vitally important smaller species are to the health of the rivers and streams we all rely on for recreation and clean drinking water.”