Ottawa firms put their stamp on Canada Science and Tech Museum revamp

Science and Tech
Locomotive 6400 continues to be one of the stars of the show at the new-look Canada Science and Technology Museum, which reopened to the public last month. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

For 50 years, Locomotive 6400 has been an iconic symbol of a bygone era in Canadian transportation for visitors to the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Designed and built in Montreal for Canadian National in 1936, the giant engine was a technological marvel of its time, using wind tunnel testing pioneered by the National Research Council to help create its aerodynamic shape.

As part of the revamped museum’s drive to become more interactive, visitors will now not only get to see Locomotive 6400, they’ll get to experience what it was like to drive thanks to virtual reality technology from local startup SimWave Consulting.

Users wearing a VR headset feel every rumble of the tracks beneath them and smell the scent of burning coal as the whistle blows in their ear and steam shoots past their face – effects created using compressed air.

“It’s a multi-sensory experience, which is really, really cool,” says Matthew Thomas, director of business development at SimWave.

“It’s a very immersive way to complement the locomotive that’s actually there. You get to see how big it is and then you get to go drive it, which is really cool.”

The VR booth is the second major museum project in Ottawa for SimWave, which was launched in 2013 and now employs seven people at its Kanata office. The company also created a virtual reality experience for the Canadian War Museum that lets visitors feel like they’re advancing with the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917.

The company developed both projects at the same time after receiving $975,000 from the Canada Media Fund, a partnership between the Department of Canadian Heritage and the cable industry.

Mr. Thomas says the exposure the young firm received from its association with such high-profile organizations has been invaluable as it carves out a niche in the rapidly expanding field of virtual reality. Since then, SimWave has completed a simulation for Discovery Place Science in Charlotte, N.C., that uses specially designed software to give make users feel like they’re travelling through a human’s digestive tract and cardiovascular system.

“We really wanted to make this thing to take off and really bring VR to Ottawa,” Mr. Thomas says. “Being able to say, ‘We’re in this prominent museum and look at the work we’ve done,’ definitely helps.”

For Gatineau custom-design firm Expographiq, working on arguably the museum’s most popular and enduring attraction is a feather in its cap.

The company won the contract to engineer, design and install the revamped Crazy Kitchen. The tilted room has been messing with visitors’ sense of perception for decades, and Expographiq vice-president Todd Arnold says it was an honour to be involved in its restoration.

Crazy Kitchen
Museum director Christina Tessier shows off the Crazy Kitchen. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

“It’s such a landmark piece in the science and technology museum,” he says. “We were thrilled to be asked to do it.”

The 35-year-old firm and its sign-making division also worked on several other elements of the museum’s makeover, including the way-finding signage, but the Crazy Kitchen is clearly the star project. The company plans to promote its involvement on its website and social media channels in an effort to cash in on that cache.

“It’s always good to be able to brag a little bit about something that people know about,” Mr. Arnold says.

Still, the project had its challenges. Finding black-and-white tiles and rust-coloured wallpaper to match the original 1940s-era decor took a bit of digging. And of course, constructing a room that is basically engineered to induce vertigo isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

“For some people, I guess, it’s not a problem,” Mr. Arnold explains. “Others, you feel a little uncomfortable when you’re in there. I’m one of those people that I get in there for 15 seconds and it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get out of here.’ Some guys couldn’t work on the project. It just got a little uncomfortable.”

But that’s a small quibble when it comes to helping reinvent a place that pays tribute to the power of invention itself.

“We’re showing off technology from the past with technology from the future,” Mr. Thomas says. “I think that’s the coolest thing.”