Force of 'Star Wars' comes to the Anchorage Museum

Posted: Sunday, February 14, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Few images in cinema match the first on-screen appearance of Darth Vader in the original "Star Wars" film. The faceless, insect-eyed mask, black body armor, commanding cape and flared helmet were reminiscent of a Nazi stormtrooper's gear. Everything screams, "This dude's dangerous!"


Darth Vader's uniform is among roughly 80 props and related objects from the six "Star Wars" films included in the traveling exhibit which runs through April 25 at the Anchorage Museum. "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination" originated at Boston's Museum of Science in 2005 and is presented by the Bose Corp. In addition to the props, video footage and a number of related classes, talks and special children's programs, the exhibit comes with a number of ultra-cool hands-on exhibits.

While the costumes of characters from Darth Vader to Princess Leia, puppets like R2-D2, models of spacecraft and actual movie props - including Luke Skywalker's battered, hovering landspeeder (it has wheels!) - are fascinating, the interactive displays may prove downright addictive.

"We wanted to get people to think about technology in the real world," said Ed Rodley, who developed the exhibit for the Boston museum.

To that end, he worked to create an exhibit that would appeal to a broad spectrum of learning styles: seeing (as in looking at the displays), reading (there's a lot of information supplied in text form) and "fiddling" (touching, moving, doing).

The "Star Wars" connection supplied a familiar gateway to showcase discoveries and cutting-edge, but practical, technology in ways that most people would find enticing.

Take that landspeeder, for example. How might such an invention work with the technology we already have?

"Just saying 'superconducting magnetic levitating vehicles' can be a turnoff," he said. "But when you can go through the exhibit's Maglev Engineering Design Lab and make one yourself - out of Legos - and see how magnets can be used to float and propel objects, suddenly it all makes sense."

In fact such technology exists, though it was all theory back when "Star Wars" first came out.

"Today the fastest trains in the world are in Japan and China, and they use magnetic levitation," Rodley said.

Another experiential display is a one-seat hovercraft. "It's like a three-wheeled motorcycle," he said, except it looks like someone mounted the wheels parallel to the ground. "It's in a 12-foot circular enclosure, big enough that you can try it out and get a feeling for what it would be like if you had a car that floated. Long enough to realize that you don't have much control without friction and gravity."

"Anticipate a line," says the pre-publicity material, for this and other "full body experiences," like the replica of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.

Four people at a time can take a simulated ride that includes the jump to light speed. The museum suggests guests plan to spend at least 90 minutes with the displays, but many will want to hang out for hours.

Transportation of the future is one of the big themes of the show. Another is robots. Again, the "Star Wars" elements are used to supply what Rodley called "an entree into talking about the technology."

Robots have been a feature of science fiction for almost 100 years. Recently small steps have been made that let simple models, like the floor-cleaning Roomba vacuum, get a toehold in domestic life.

But making them as responsive and adaptive as "The Jetsons' " ''Rosie or "Star Wars' " C-3PO remains elusive.

"It's what modern engineers call an integration problem," said Rodley. Computers have supplied a lot of the smarts needed for single tasks and humans minds have answered any number of design questions. But making them work together (and figuring out how to power them for more than a few minutes) remains out of reach.

Just how far out of reach is illustrated by another of the interactive displays, the Robot Engineering Design Lab, where visitors are invited to try and design a single robotic component - bipedal motion.

Robots with legs that walk like people are what we've come to expect from Hollywood.

For one thing, to be lifelike the mechanical men have to be played by costumed actors.

Even cute little shuffling and rolling R2-D2 was derived from the "drones" featured in a 1972 film, "Silent Running," which were animated by small flesh-and-blood actors who were crammed into the stubby pods to supply motion.

But there's another reason for the legged robot, Rodley noted. "We walk on two legs. Our world is designed for us, our vehicles are designed for us to sit in. It's a logical form to engineer if you want the robot to interact in the human world. But walking is far more complicated than you would think."

So visitors can try to create a robotic set of legs that will take even two or three steps. "It's harder than you'd think," said Rodley.

I fussed with it for a while before successfully getting the gizmo to take one step - backwards.

Other components include exploring how robots see and take social cues, how they might be made easier for people to understand and use.

"The culminating experience is putting together a vaguely-shaped R2-D2 robot," Rodley said.

"You pick the wheels, design and debug a program, make your robot navigate a simple course."

If that sounds like something you might try then just have to try again, it is.

"There are projects I've worked on that, by the time they opened, I didn't want to set foot in them again. Others you just can't stay away from. 'Star Wars' is that kind of exhibit."

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