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A graphic screen show is seen at the Battles of Chattanooga Museum at the Confederama atop Lookout Mountain.

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Upgrading history

I'm really proud of the whole project because, just in the research our company has done, it's really the first use of this type of implementation for a projection mapping project. Definitely in Chattanooga, but we're pretty sure anywhere.

Plan your visit

The Battles for Chattanooga Museum is located at 1110 E. Brow Road on Lookout Mountain. Tickets to the newly updated battle presentation featuring 3-D projection multimedia are $9.95 for adults, $6.95 for ages 4 to 12, free to ages 4 and under.

The museum is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. For more information, visit BattlesForChattanooga.com or call 821-2812.

Strat Parrott's brain is something of a neural contradiction.

On the one hand — or perhaps hemisphere — the 32-year-old is a dyed-in-the-wool techie. He's the gadget-enthused founder and chief creative strategist at Juncture, a locally-based digital marketing firm that specializes in projects that incorporate near-future technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality.

Yet Parrott is as excited about delving into the past as he is with embracing the cutting-edge.

"I'm generally into a lot of different eras of history," he says. "I like to study different cultures' and civilizations' internal strife. There have been many civil wars around the world. Those are interesting to me."

In February, Parrott and his company took on a contract that satisfied both of its founders' loves when See Rock City, Inc. approached Juncture with a request to revamp a nearly 70-year-old Civil War diorama housed at the Battles for Chattanooga Museum atop Lookout Mountain. The display long has served as a tourist attraction for novelty seekers and history buffs, but its luster has faded with time.

"With all the improvements in technology, updating the presentation to a form that would still engage people in learning history was our goal," says Bill Chapin, the chairman and CEO of See Rock City, Inc., which oversees the museum. "Strat's skills are unique and his company is local, so we wanted to capture some of the brains of Chattanooga and put him to work."

Up and down the mountain

The exhibit, previously — and colloquially — known as the Confederama, occupies about half of a darkened theater tucked into the rear of the museum, a white building located a block away from the fortress-like gates to Point Park, the site of the Civil War clash commonly referred to as The Battle Above the Clouds.

Tilted slightly above the horizontal, the 480-square-foot display depicts the landscape near Chattanooga looking south toward Lookout Mountain from the north end of Missionary Ridge. Its surface is covered in a host of minute details that would inspire envy in even the most ardent model train enthusiast. Stands of minuscule trees dot the landscape and 5,000 troop figurines are placed in positions mimicking those of the soldiers who clashed in a series of late 1863 battles that proved pivotal to the course of the war.

The Confederama was created in 1957 by the late Chattanooga Free Press publisher Lee Anderson and the late businessman Pendell Meyers. For much of its life, it was housed in a building near the entrance to St. Elmo, but in 1993 the See Rock City company purchased the display and moved it to its present location.

Decades-old advertisements for the display found online tout its use of audio narration and light and various special effects that bring the historic tableau to life. By the time Parrott was approached with refreshing it, however, the artificial smoke that once accompanied cannon and musket "salvos" had long since ceased working, and the narrated slideshow that played during the 30-minute presentation seemed more hokey than cutting edge.

"It was really static," he says, so his goal was to spruce up the exhibit without sacrificing its historic charm.

"I didn't want to remove the map or the tiny soldiers on it," he adds. "We just wanted to enhance the experience."

A bit of history projected

Coming into the project, Parrott set about retaining the qualities that made the Confederama unique — its legions of troops, the sprawling map and audio narration — while bringing it into the 21st century by employing projection mapping, a technique which uses video projectors to display digital images and animation on 3-D surfaces.

Juncture has years of experience crafting exhibits that employ emerging interactive technologies. Some of the company's past projects include displays for theatrical presentations and for U.S.-based corporate clients' events and training sessions. Juncture also has completed contracts internationally, for instance, a display at a storytelling museum in Tono, Japan, where guests can touch miniature sculptures to trigger projection-mapped shadow play-like animations that illustrate various folk tales.

The Confederama display, Parrott says, offered a welcome chance to use his skills to improve a piece of local history.

"We've done [projects] all over the country and all over the world, but I don't have any at home," he says. "The timing just seemed right with the Innovation District launching and with all the stuff happening in Gig City and with EPB. That has helped with people looking for something that is more uniquely interesting, from an augmented reality/virtual reality standpoint, and [finding ways] to engage and interact with users and build an experience for them."

The process of designing the digital update to the display took about four months of work on and off the mountain, he says.

To begin, Parrott visited the theater and created a 3-D scan of the room using the depth- and color-sensing cameras of a Microsoft Kinect, an accessory for the Xbox One video game console that enables motion and voice control in games. Using a drop cloth, a lighting rig and data from his scans, Parrott created a scale model of the theater at Juncture's headquarters in the Edney Innovation Center on Market Street.

Once the presentation space was replicated, Parrott and his team began creating a new multimedia presentation to accompany the exhibit's 30-minute narration. The troop figurines remain in the positions they've occupied for decades, but now a pair of projectors mounted to the ceiling display digital animations on the surface of the battlefield. As the half-hour presentation progresses, labels appear to float above the landscape indicating important sites, such as Brown's Ferry and Chattanooga Creek, while animated arrows indicate soldiers' movements and flashing explosions depict exchanges of rifle and cannon fire.

On a curved wall above and behind the display, Juncture edited together a panoramic video segment to accompany the exhibit's narration using licensed and public domain images and video.

"Now it's a big, visually impactful screen that is uniquely positioned so you can use the whole background to tell a story and really enhance the visual elements," Parrott says. "That's something I'm most proud of."

New and novel

Thanks to the update, the exhibit has more claim than ever to being a one-of-a-kind novelty.

"As far as I can tell from projection mapping and industry forums, no one has seen something like this," Parrott says. "It's very unique. I would go so far as to say it's the only thing like this in the country — if not more widespread than that."

The improved display opened to the public on Memorial Day weekend. So far, Parrott says, guests seem to appreciate that the diorama retains its novel charm while the additional technological ornaments bring its historic tale to life.

Last month, Southern Illinois native Brad Beard was one of a dozen guests to sit through the Confederama presentation as an end-cap to a family vacation. Although the Beards had been to Lookout Mountain before, the trip marked their first visit to the Battles for Chattanooga Museum, and Beard says he was impressed with the improvements to the display.

"It's a lot more interesting not only to see the film and hear someone talk about it but to see the troop movements," he says. "It's good that they've updated it to keep things fresh and new."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

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