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The Tech: World-Class Fair

Designed for brain-grabbing glitz, The Tech Museum of Innovation’s new facility in San Jose, Calif., is the first of America’s next generation of museums-conceived from the ground up in this age of real-time multi-media interactivity.

The Tech’s brashly colored structure, resembling a giant orange-and-blue juice press, brings to mind a pavilion at a World’s Fair of yesteryear. Inside, its highly entertaining exhibits-most of them corporate-sponsored, World’s-Fair-style-inform about the latest developments in health care, automation, telecommunications and of course computers. Aimed at visitors from about the sixth grade and up, the museum is a mutable fair of up-to-the-minute technology bursting out of Silicon Valley, at whose foot San Jose beckons.The Tech’s vice president for exhibits, Emily Routman,welcomes comparison of the 132,000-square-foot, threelevel structure to a mini-World’s Fair. Like such venues, she says,The Tech focuses “not just on technology per se, but on the impact of technology on people, and of people on technology.”

In the four permanent exhibit areas, humans and computers interact as old acquaintances.A variety of multimedia experiences await:Design, then “ride,” a virtual roller coaster-the Tech Cyclone. Sit for a 3-D digital scan of your head, which you can then manipulate for artistic (or not-so-artistic) effect. Participate in a virtual wheelchair race. Examine the inside of an actual clean room, where microchips are born.

Cognoscenti of Silicon Valley politics will appreciate the symbolic import of placing exhibits sponsored by rival chipmakers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices on different floors.The Tech’s basement gallery for temporary exhibits-called “Center of the Edge”-provides additional fodder for amateur Valley-ologists.The initial exhibit this winter and spring gave the public its first glimpse of work by Interval Research-the usually hush-hush tech think tank funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The firm’s emphasis on human-factors research showed in an exhibit allowing viewers on a giant turntable to see their virtual surroundings in any of several remote locations on earth.

True to the character of the industry from which it was born,The Tech continually changes. It began as an initiative in 1978 by members of the Junior League of nearby Palo Alto. In 1990, the museum made its debut in temporary quarters in an old warehouse building downtown.The new quarters, which opened last October, were made possible by the efforts of Peter Giles, president and CEO of The Tech since 1987. Even the more permanent exhibits are works-in-progress. By the time these words appear in print, for example, the Tech Cyclone will have been upgraded to incorporate the latest software from Silicon Graphics to yield more detailed imagery.

Occasionally, in making technology accessible,The Tech may gild the microchip. An exhibit examining the scientific viability of video clips from sci-fi movies, for instance, features superfluous commentary by a team of pseudo-Siskel-and-Ebert movie critics (rendered obsolete by the real Gene Siskel’s recent demise). Still, this museum sets an elevated standard for showing high-tech to be intriguing, engrossing, even aweinspiring-thanks to the very technologies it invokes.

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