Air and Space Museum puts you in the cockpit

The fact that it's possible for remote viewers to explore otherwise inaccessible museum exhibits online is, of course, a good thing. But as well as overcoming geographical limitations, some Web technologies also allow virtual visitors to do things that would get flesh and blood guests thrown out of brick and mortar museums - things like sitting in the cockpit of the Concorde, for example. The National Air and Space Museum's QTVR Project allows surfers to do just that, and at the same time, follow the progress of a new kind of online exhibit as it develops.

The project itself is the result of a rare opportunity - arising from the installation of more than 200 artifacts in the Museum's new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (which opened in December of 2003). As aircraft were assembled upon arrival and prepared for hanging from the Center's ceiling, curators took the chance to photograph them in great detail and record the data necessary to later construct QuickTime Virtual Reality interior and exterior images. The plan is to eventually photograph every artifact on display in new Center, and more than 100 air- and spacecraft have been photographed to date.

As a work in progress about a work in progress, the QTVR Project 'website' doesn't yet have any splashy opening pages, and even it's first panorama file has a bit of a bug in it. (At the time of writing, a 360-degree view of the rather cramped quarters of a Concorde cockpit was also designated as a link to a still image of a WWII-era Japanese float plane - so as soon as you release your mouse button during the Concorde exploration, the site loads the unexpected jpeg.) Of course, encountering the occasional glitch is both a price and privilege of the behind the scenes sneak peek, and, while not a webmaster's goal, intermittent imperfections can make some visits a bit more interesting.

If you'd prefer to avoid the automatic leap from supersonic cockpit to wartime exterior, you can also view the Concorde file in the gallery of spherical QTVR interiors available at New QuickTime Movies. (Again, not the most elegant title, but for the moment, function overrules form.) Here you'll find 10 early samples of the museum's long-term plans, ranging from a World War I Spade through Gemini and Mercury space capsules and the SR-71 Blackbird, to the new X-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (Most of the QTVRs have had backgrounds added to give the impression that the aircraft is in flight - a nice touch that makes the virtual reality a bit more real.)

In the standard QuickTime manner, the 360-degree field of view is enhanced by the ability to zoom in on any area you wish - which can reveal surprising detail (such as the labels for the dozens of thruster controls above the heads of the Gemini pilots). A pair of exterior, 180-degree, "walkarounds" on the introductory page don't hold up as well under magnification, but there's not as much detail to see on the outside. (In another case of teething pains, or perhaps just to keep things interesting, the walkaround for the J-3 Piper Cub rotates in the opposite direction of the visitor's mouse movements.)

Further down the "Further Information" index is a link to Artifacts Photographed. These pages list the 30-plus aircraft posted to date, some with broken links to "Learn More" pages. About the Project and Tools and Techniques explain the intent and the process used in photographing the aircraft - including the use of industrial-strength 'lazy susans' to rotate the aircraft at 10-degree increments for their walkaround portraits. Tools also touches on the museum's use of "blue screen" technology (though it's a blue tarp in this case) to more easily separate the aircraft from the background, and presumably, more easily insert additional attractive backgrounds at a later date. A Project Status Report keeps regular visitors up to date on changes on the site as well as at the museum itself.

Finally, each page has a link to the official home page of the Center, where surfers can find a floor plan of the museum, and a list of the museum's aeronautical and space-related artifacts (with working links to more detailed information). The Air and Space Museum's main home page also has links to a pair of live webcams, in case you want to keep tabs on the Center's exhibition area.

In it's current unfinished state, the QTVR Project is not likely to win any design awards. But its promise is impressive, and even the 10 cockpits online to date are 10 more than you can sit in if you're in Washington.

The Air and Space Museum's QTVR Project can be found at http://www.nasm.si.edu/interact/qtvr/uhc/.

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