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People tend to be fascinated by the other – by the stranger on some far horizon, whose differences (and eerie similarities) may conjure threat or opportunity, friendship or danger. 

In these late-modern times, as all peoples on Earth start to share a common culture, is it any surprise that our sense of otherness has started shifting toward new vistas? If this planet swarms with people very much like ourselves, there remains a vast cosmos out there to ponder.  No wonder the notion of alien, or extraterrestrial life grabs the public imagination.

Science fiction authors have long plumbed an ocean of concepts about alien life, ranging from humanoid to bizarre, from friendly to malign.  Now comes an exciting opportunity for anyone to share the adventure, in an experience that’s guaranteed to be both exciting and educational, by generating their own alien species and characters.

Combining state-of-the-art simulation and visualization systems, modern design, plus the very best ideas from astronomy, physics, chemistry, ecology and other sciences, this innovative exhibit will let visitors create vividly plausible extraterrestrials and then test them in a realistic first contact scenario. 

At the Exorarium, visitors will get a chance to mix and match the same ingredients that brought about human life, shaping their own unique intelligent life forms.  For example, you might start with a hot or cool star, a heavy or light planet, one with lots of water or a desert world, and so on – till a unique ecosystem takes shape before your eyes… a family tree leading to the ultimate outcome, a species of intelligent life. 

Perhaps it will be a squidlike being, pondering deep thoughts in a watery realm. Or a slender, forest-dweller with large, nocturnal eyes.   Or a ponderous dinosaurean creature, who communicates with her fellows by radio waves.  Even personality traits can emerge, for example depending on whether a species descends from carnivores or herbivores.

Games like The Sims and Sim City show that this general type of experience can be wildly popular.  Yet there is nothing – on the market or in a museum environment – that applies genuine science, letting users simulate whole worlds, ecologies, alien cultures. The Exorarium will do all this, then help visitors live and learn through a vivid first contact experience.

The General Concept

The Exorarium combines two dramatic elements. 

One is a scientifically well-grounded system for generating alien species that was developed by astronomer and science fiction author David Brin, refined by years of play-testing worldwide. Enhanced with new modeling software, the system should produce a vast array of wondrously varied creatures, depending on visitor choices ranging from sun to planet, to ecosystem.

Bringing all of this to life will be a startlingly vivid presentation conceived by renowned tech-artist  Sheldon Brown, whose audio-visual exhibits can be found in locales such as the Seattle Center and the San Diego Science Museum. The very latest optical and digital methods will make stars, worlds – and the aliens themselves – seem to come alive.

And there’s more.  It’s one thing to generate a new and never-before-seen extraterrestrial species of your very own.  But can it survive… and even thrive… in the rough and tumble place that is our galaxy?  During Phase Two, a user or visitor may take his or her creation to the Contact Arena – a special environment erected at the galactic core – where bright new aliens may test their mettle, or make contact with others, even with humanity itself!

Phase One:  Making your alien.

Any visitor, or group of visitors, may build a new species at the Creation Station, developing physical traits, gross morphology, intelligence, social tendencies, etc. Results may be not at all what you had in mind -- tweaking the conditions of evolution can involve many factors, including chance! One designer may seek a species with 12 legs, only to get snakelike creatures, or spiders, or rolling balls that are adapted to tumbling across vast, flat plains.

First, a user is asked to set initial conditions.  A cool star lasts longer, for example, and has a more stable life zone where planets can have liquid water.  But small stars may tug nearby planets with strong tides, locking one side of a world in perpetual daylight and the other in endless night! These factors can be cleverly conveyed, playing themselves out amid a brief tour of the many sciences involved in intelligent life, from astronomy and geology to chemistry and biology.  A truly educational experience, with a flavor of hands-on experimentation as a whole ecosystem unfolds, climaxing in the ultimate fruit – a unique alien species and civilization.

Of course, not every visitor will have time or patience for such detail. Children, especially, like to roam quickly among exhibits, getting the gist while punching big buttons, seeking quick and exaggerated effects. Creation Station will accommodate the full range, from thoughtful students who wish to explore detailed scenarios at leisure (when the museum is uncrowded), all the way to large buttons that quickly cut to the chase – giving rapid satisfaction – producing sample aliens on quick-demand for children, or when the museum is crowded.

One option will be to offer visitors – for the cost of a quarter – a printout of their created creature or species.  Each may also get a unique online address, so users might continue the experiment, fiddling with their creation at home, or in an online game.

The real prize is a ticket to convey your alien onward, to phase two. Invitations may be easy to come by online, or when the museum is uncrowded, or precious and selective on busy days.

Phase Two:  The testing ground.

For many people – especially on crowded days – Creation Station will suffice.   They’ll depart knowing more about the factors that came together to bring about us.  (Well, after all, the study of aliens has always boiled down to a discussion of ourselves.)

For those who receive an invitation, however, this is just the beginning.  Creatures that seem like suitable candidates are then sent into the exorarium proper – a virtual extraterrestrial terrarium -- where species may compete or cooperate with each other under simulated conditions that bring their particular traits into stark contrast!

In a simulated voyage, the visitor carries a sample group of his or her creatures from the planet and star where they emerged, conveying them toward the grand testing arena.  In the full scale Version A of the Exorarium, this journey is physical as the visitor descends down a spiral ramp resembling arms of a galaxy.  In the more compact Version B, this voyage is virtual, consisting of a rapid swoop of onscreen images. (See descriptions of Version A and Version B, below.)

Whether the journey is physical or virtual, a voice intones along the way:

“Down, deep within the galactic core, there awaits the testing ground, where candidate species come to see what they are made of.  Do yours have what it takes?  (and so on…)”As we approach the star-filled galactic center, a gigantic virtual  space station appears in view, featuring dozens of domes, each one containing a separate environment.  (Envision the domed habitats of the film Silent Running, only vastly larger, some featuring chlorine atmospheres or filled with water.)  Depending on the nature of the arriving species, one habitat rotates into view – soon filling the screen of Version B, or the entire dome of Version A.

Virtual creatures from the new species are set loose in this new environment, to play with (or possibly against) either house-generated denizens or other visitor-generated candidates! 

Yes, this will have many aspects of an online game.  Indeed, commercial possibilities for home and online versions are riveting!  But there can be much more.  Ideally, the Exorarium will have its own simulated, homeostatic ecosystem. (This is in reach of current technology.)  Creatures who enter will take from or add to the system. They may form a new balance … or else force it out of whack, to a premature end.  The prize sought by each species may be something crude – such as victory in combat…

… or it may keep with the theme of the earlier stages – learning and intellectual adventure – as the species unveils its own nature in a process of self-discovery that reveals even more about science.  Of course, among these species may be included variations on humanity itself.

The Exorarium can take different physical forms. In “Version A” - a large scale implementation - visitors who have aliens in play will sit around the edge of a dome-like terrarium, looking into the simulated world.  The Terrarium itself consists of a large rear projection onto a domed screen inside a clear hemispherical container.  The curvature of the screen both gives a sense of dimensionality and allows for multiple perspective views – each a ‘godlike’ viewpoint onto a created world.  Observers overlook from behind or above.  (See illustrations.)

The global view of the terrarium can be controlled by the whole group of users, possibly zooming in to different parts of the globe, “checking up” on the creatures that have been set loose in this arena, selecting particular creations, learning their history or following their development.  One option is that the process of controlling the overall view depends on consensus choices of the total group. If they all are trying to look at different things, the view is from quite far away – a planetary view.  A more sophisticated alternative would allow each user to access small areas independently, by calling up sub- projections, that is, magnifications viewable only from their stations.

What sorts of interactions are possible in the arena?  Simple competition, even combat, may arise under certain scenarios.  Or species might be encouraged to find common ground, understand each others’ diverse natures, or achieve cooperative success by forming a ‘federation’.  Often, the focus will be on a classic “contact” scenario, using some of the wonderful techniques developed over the years by groups such as CONTACT.

In a Contact Scenario, several species – including perhaps one or more human cultures– will be thrown into an encounter in which all they know about the other species are outward appearances, as they come into view.  Will this be a peaceful episode of mutual discovery and understanding?  Or one fraught with errors, like so many in our own age of exploration? 

What better way to go through a myriad thought experiments  about first contact, before we ever have the real thing?  Isn’t this what science fiction is all about?

Another option is to allow continuing evolution within the Exorarium… perhaps even cross-fertilization and hybridization!  Creatures may come equipped with a genome that can mate with some others to produce offspring, allowing genetic combination of traits.  These creatures will be more or less successful in the environment and evolve accordingly.

Each created species or creature may have a unique name or code, letting them be sorted and inspected.  Changes will be limited to creators while others can just look, see their stories, traits, whether they were successful, what their offspring may become.  All of this information can be shown on your local  - and possibly your home - display.

Specifics:  Version A – The Full-Scale Exorarium.

Figure 1 portrays a potential full-scale implementation.  Visitors stand at Creation Stations where they build their aliens in a guided process that is either lengthy and educational – building it brick by scientific brick – or else abbreviated and quick, depending on visitor preference and museum crowding.  Fat buttons let children – or the impatient – ‘cut to the chase’ and roll up bizarre extraterrestrials completely at random.  Otherwise, the process starts with picking a home star and planet where the new creatures can evolve.

In full Version A, the Creation Station is placed so that visitors can also look down upon the Exorarium proper, the virtual realm where their creatures may go next, if they dare! Journeying to the testing ground takes a spiral ramp that simulates a voyage from the galaxy’s periphery down to its star-filled core.  Optical effects give the feeling of galactic vistas, even novas and supernovas, while starships flit past and a narration accompanies them along the way.

While awaiting a seat at the Exorarium dome, visitors may view exhibits that are arrayed along the walls that lie underneath the creation stations, thus maximizing use of space.

At the Exorarium dome, each visitor feeds in a code or ticket in order to insert his or her alien samples into the appropriate environment and begin the contact scenario.  The fun begins.

Upon departure, you are invited to revisit the aliens later, to participate in an online game, or to buy souvenirs portraying the unique beings you created.

Specifics:  Version B – The Compact Exhibit.
Obviously, full implementation takes a lot of floor space and a heavy investment. Hence, before committing all the way, it might make sense to begin with a version that can fit into a small corner of a museum, offering a more compact version of experience described above, substituting virtual space for real space.  Figure 2 suggests ways that the Creation Station and Exorarium might be implemented, using behind-the-wall space such as might exist between the inner walls of a museum’s exhibit area and the building’s outer skin.
Specifics:  Online, commercial and collaborative versions.

We have already discussed the entrancing possibility of combining the hands-on Exorarium with a virtual-online experience.  A potential for profit is quite real, while creating a game that has actual educational – and even moral – value as people take responsibility for situations of inter-species and intercultural contact.

Another possibility - the Exorarium may have ‘branches” in several locales.  Say, other science museums across the country and around the world.  If it proves popular in one locale, it might be in another.  With high-speed e-links, it would be possible for visitors at one center to ‘make contact’ with those generated at another.

Implementation issues. Technical and cost considerations.
(Sheldon Brown will provide in a later draft)

The notions described here are based on universals, such as a yearning to reach outward toward the other.  Toward the strange, be it frightening or friendly, cooperative or hostile. 

Exploring this periphery is the business of imagination and science fiction – supplemented by vigorous and interesting science.  Few other activities so distill the expansive and eager traits of our rambunctious civilization.

The Exorarium promises a way to combine vivid exposure to scientific concepts – ranging from astronomy and geology to biology and culture – with a fascinating and fun adventure in imagining the alien.


Sheldon Brown is an artist, technology developer and Professor of Computing in the Arts at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where he directs the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts and is the head of New Media Arts for the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technologies (Cal-IT2).  His artwork examines relationships between information and space which manifest as public projects and installations that combine architectural settings with mediated and computer controlled elements.

His large scale public works include: Smoke and Mirrors, a large-scale virtual reality display at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego; Mi Casa Es Tu Casa/My House Is Your House, a networked virtual reality installation for the National Center for the Arts in Mexico City and the Children's Museum of San Diego; In the Event, at the Seattle Center Key Arena, Seattle; The Video Wind Chimes at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; and Apparitions, a virtual reality environment, at the University Art Gallery at UCSD.

Brown has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Rockefeller Foundation, the Seattle Arts Commission, the Hellman Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council and others. He has previously been on the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Kansas City Art Institute.

He has consulted diverse technology, art, academic and entertainment entities such as: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, PersonaLogic Inc., Praja Inc., The Wonderful World of Oz  Inc., LegoLand, Decor Magic, Electronic Arts, Positive Video, and others.    See www.sheldon-brown.net


David Brin is a scientist, public speaker, and author.  Several of his novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards.  His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the World Wide Web.  A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was loosely based on The Postman.  His fifteen novels have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Brin’s 1998 non-fiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- deals with a wide range of threats and opportunities facing our wired society during the information age.   His chief argument, that openness is more effective than secrecy at fostering freedom, sparked controversy and garnered the prestigious Freedom of Speech Prize from the American Library Association.

David Brin's papers in scientific journals cover an eclectic range of topics from astronautics, astronomy, and optics to alternative dispute resolution and the role of neoteny in human evolution.  His Ph.D  in Space Physics from the University of California at San Diego followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech.  He was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

David's science fictional Uplift Universe explores a future when humans genetically engineer higher animals like dolphins to become equal members of our civilization.  He also recently tied up the loose ends left behind by the late Isaac Asimov, bringing to a grand finale Asimov's famed Foundation Universe. Kiln People is a fast-moving and fun noir detective story, set in a future when new technology enables people to physically be in more than two places at once.  A 144 page hardcover "The Life Eaters" is "the most exciting graphic novel since Watchmen." Reaching to a new generation, Brin developed the Out Of Time series of novels for young adults. His "Webs of Wonder" Contest offered cash prizes to promote web sites that help teachers convey difficult subjects with exciting stories.

As a speaker, David Brin shares unique insights -- serious and humorous -- about ways that changing technology may affect our future lives.  Brin lives in San Diego County with his wife, three children, and a hundred very demanding trees.  See http://www.davidbrin.com/

Take the tour! | Narrative Overview | Make Contact | back to Sheldon Brown's site | back to exorarium.com