© copyright 2003 Michael P. Hamilton, Ph.D.


On the trail to the electronic museum


October 4, 1984:

Climbing Black Mountain from the James Reserve is normally

a sweaty, scratchy, deer fly in your face kind of experience.

Today would prove to be no different, particularly for my

companion, a desk-bound video engineer who admitted he smoked

too much and was entirely out of shape, even for a flatlander.

In fact, it would probably be worse as we were carrying nearly

100 pounds of video recording equipment to locations that would

require some rock climbing. I just wish Jim had warned me that

he was afraid of heights.


During our first two years at the James Reserve my wife and

I kept busy renovating Harry James's old cabin (our new home),

installing solar photo-voltaic panels, plugging holes in the log

walls, entertaining visiting scientists, raising a new baby and keeping

warm. I also spent a lot of time writing a plan for an electronic catalog

of the flora and fauna of the Reserve, based upon the research from

the Virtual Aspen Project. My proposal was completed after about a

year of work, and I had a great deal of naive confidence that my

idea of an "Electronic Museum" would win over potential grant

agencies by its sheer level of innovation...was I wrong! After dozens

of polite "no thank you" rejection letters, there was finally a brave

foundation willing to give me a seed grant to build a less elaborate

demonstration of the concept, and use it persuade another agency

to give me my major grant.


The venerable Apple II computer


The mini-grant let me buy a brand new Apple II computer, a laserdisc

player, and software. Later, I constructed a "black box" that would

allow the computer to directly control the laserdisc player. I had just

enough grant money remaining to rent for a single day a broadcast

quality video camera and portable VCR, plus a technician to operate

the equipment. My script required we videotape approximately fifty

locations between Lake Fulmor and Black Mountain, in the format

of a spiraling panorama. Imagine looking down at your feet through the

viewfinder and slowly panning all the way around until you reached the

same point you started. Tilt the camera up a few degrees, and repeat

the pan. Continue this process until eventually the last panorama is

one of pointing nearly straight up at the sky. The videotape records a

"view map" of that location which, when controlled by computer and

laserdisc, can be used to simulate standing and looking in any

direction you choose.


We continued to travel around the Reserve, videotaping panoramas

at all fifty locations, and collecting hundreds of close-up shots

of wildflowers, lady bugs, woodpeckers, lizards and anything

else that caught my young naturalist eye! Working our way up

Hall Canyon, the locations became increasingly steeper and more

exposed, thus affording overviews of the same forests we had been

videotaping earlier in the day. My assistant was very quiet during

these highly precarious shots, and I thought he was simply exhausted

from lack of stamina. As I scrambled up the last few feet on a 50 foot

cliff face, and pulled out a rope to help hoist the equipment, I

noticed that Jim's face was nearly white and dripping with sweat.

He was shaking and was barely able to tell me that he had acrophobia

and felt as if he was going to die. Once I helped him down, I

completed the shot myself and we headed back to the

main Lodge to recover.


screen shots from the first MACROSCOPE interactive laserdisc


After four months of videotaping maps, photographs and

stuffed museum specimens, and later editing the tape so that the

entire collection would fit on a 30 minute videocassette, I

hand-carried my precious tape to a post-production company in

Burbank to be transferred to a single laserdisc. Within a month of

indexing the laserdisc and programming the little Apple computer,

I had completed a demo of the world's only computer-based interactive

multimedia nature walk. Later that month, after a successful

demonstration, I received the first of several major grants to

develop an Electronic Museum of the San Jacinto Mountains.


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