Two Ohio zoos implement the latest audio technologies
by Joe Kleiman
ABOVE: The Wild Africa show in the Heart of Africa area of The Columbus Zoo. Photo courtesy The Columbus Zoo.
As zoos continue to transform to more robust environments themed to specific geography (the Amazon, the Congo) or broader biomes (rain forests), they are also employing tools of themed entertainment design, such as modern sound systems, to provide a more robust visitor experience.
Two Ohio properties – Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden – recently upgraded their audio systems with state-of-the art, networked installations spanning large outdoor areas.
Today, a single audio system can be powerful and versatile enough to perform a number of important duties across a zoo’s property, such as providing ambient sound and background music as well as dispatching zoned or parkwide public announcements that are a necessary part of the public safety objective. Such a system also supports program expansion such as festivals and holiday events, which both the Columbus and Cincinnati facilities have turned to their benefit.
Columbus – Dante Connects
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium sits on 580 acres on the shore of the Scioto River. With annual attendance of more than 2.3 million, the zoo’s property is split into three distinct zones – a golf course, the Zoombezi Bay waterpark, and the zoo proper, which houses over 10,000 animals. As the property expanded over the years, zoo staff discovered that the different independent audio systems it had installed to control ambient audio and public announcements were insufficiently integrated. According to Kevin Bonifas, Director of Technology Services, “We decided to bring it all together into a single platform. We looked at a number of different options…”
Christopher Dittman, the Zoo’s Audiovisual Administrator, recommended the zoo implement the Dante media networking solution from Audinate. Dittman is a Certified Technology Specialist by AVIXA, the professional audio-visual integrator association that organizes the InfoComm and ISE shows.
In June 2015, Zoo executives discussed their needs with Audinate staff during the annual InfoComm show in Orlando. It turned out, serendipitously, that Audinate CEO Lee Ellison hails from the Columbus area. The project was funded in 2016, with implementation beginning in 2017. Additional integration took place in 2018, primarily with the waterpark, where the public announcement system is critical for moments of inclement weather, and the golf course, where the audio system is used in the events pavilion.
One of the advantages of Dante is that the solution is integrated into products from hundreds of manufacturers. However, this presents the issue of how to monitor and control those various components. Working with Ed Walters of Holland, Michiganbased The Solution LLC, Dittman brought in Audinate’s single system control platform, Dante Domain Manager, with the Zoo acting as a beta site for Domain Manager’s integration with the Dante system. Dittman says, “Walters works primarily with educational venues, so he understood the needs of the Zoo.”
The system has a variety of uses throughout the property, including ambient music, parkwide public announcements, the annual holiday light show, and keeper talks.
Within the zoo itself, the system provides music within some exhibit areas, helping to transition the viewing experience from being a passive one to a more immersive environment. According to Dittman, “In some areas, we added speakers to maximize the enjoyment for shows. One of the key areas that features the new sound system is Heart of Africa, a 43-acre region that is split between an African village and a fictional African National Park. Within the village, visitors hear drumming and the sound of a busy marketplace.
Moving forward, Dante will also be integrated in new exhibits, such as Adventure Cove, a seven-acre seal and sea lion habitat opening in 2020.
Cincinnati – Wireless DEVAs
The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has implemented Powersoft’s DEVA technology. DEVA is a networked multimedia system comprised of egg-shaped units, each capable of a variety of applications. According to Dutch Mulholland, the Zoo’s Director of IT/Audio Engineering, “I first came across DEVA when visiting the Powersoft booth at InfoComm. A few years later, I went back and was impressed with what they had done with the system. We decided to implement two DEVA units for a year as a test and were so impressed that when it came time for our annual Festival of Lights, we brought that number up to 50.”
Unlike the wired network option selected by the Columbus Zoo, the DEVA system at Cincinnati is fully wireless. “It resolved a number of issues we had,” says Mulholland, “including squirrels chewing through our cables.”
The DEVA system provides ambient audio and music throughout the facility, with the ability to create specific audio zones and for audio to trail from one DEVA unit to the next without lag, something Mulholland points out exists within most wired networks.
The system also becomes a public announcement system where all zoo visitors can be notified at once in case of an emergency, an important consideration following recent events at the Zoo (see “The Zoovolution”, InPark issue #76).
Zoo lights and remote access
A big trend within the zoological park community is holding an annual holiday light festival to extend the season and give the public a different way to experience the property. In Columbus, it’s known as Wildlights. In Cincinnati, it’s the Festival of Lights. At both zoos, the new audio networking systems play major roles in the festivities.
According to Columbus Zoo’s Bonifas, “Dante controls the audio, while a separate show controller handles the lights. The two are synched together, which results in a fantastic show.”
In Cincinnati, Mulholland likes the fact that DEVA volume can be controlled by zone or even by individual speaker with the stroke of a finger. In the past, when the Zoo has held its Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a phone call needed to be made to a control room for speakers to be shut off. The DEVA system can be managed remotely from a tablet or smartphone over the Zoo’s wifi network. Now, when the lighting ceremony commences, all it takes is a swipe of the fingers on the spot to silence individual or groups of DEVA units.
Likewise, Dante Domain Manager at the Columbus Zoo features a wireless functionality for control, enabling remote access through handheld platforms. Bonifas points out, “We have a centralized control room, but our staff is always on the move, so that remote access is very important. We have a lot of tablets, especially Microsoft Surface, that are integrated in with the system.”
One key aspect of Dante and Dante Domain Manager that Bonifas likes is its variability. “Our attendance fluctuates throughout the year, so it’s good to be able to easily increase or decrease the audio levels based on crowd size.”
Cincinnati currently has over one hundred active and passive DEVA units in place. The next step for the system’s implementation at the Zoo is the installation of HD video units, capable of shooting video and photos at 1080p. These will be used to monitor potential visitor intrusion. The DEVA unit can be programmed to automatically recognize a trespass and give an audible warning, while at the same time transmitting images to the park’s security officers.
Choosing the best solution
Each of the two solutions offers a unique approach. Columbus Zoo’s wired Dante network helped unite a large property with many open areas. The Dante solution being enabled in products from more than 100 manufacturers also empowers the zoo to utilize those components best suited to its needs, such as the BOSE speakers that make up 90% of the Zoo’s overall speakers.
In contrast, Cincinnati’s choice of DEVA achieves versatility via the system’s infrastructure, which provides a myriad of services including easy control and volume access on individual and zoned speakers, wireless connectivity, and multiple ways of providing public safety. • • •
See “The Zoovolution” (InPark Issue #76) for more on the Cincinnati Zoo and a complete list of InPark’s coverage of zoos and aquariums.