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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is blessed with a plethora of museums and exhibitions celebrating the country's history, culture and accomplishments. Nearly every major (and some not so major) city and town has a museum presenting its history. There are museums dedicated to the country's historical heroes, like Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion. There's a museum celebrating Egged buses (Holon) and the Israel Police (Kiryat Ata). There's a museum dedicated to wheat (Haifa), and even one with a display on the historical development of theatrical lighting (Hod Hasharon).
All worthy of exposition, no doubt; but how about a museum dedicated to one of the country's biggest industries, hi-tech? It's not just a good idea - it's overdue, and at long last, Israel has an interactive museum exhibition dedicated to educating the public on the latest in hi-tech, and maybe even inspiring the next big start-up success. The exhibition, called NetRix (http://www.madatech.org.il/NetRix/Default.aspx), opened in February, and according to exhibition directors Sharon Yanai and Eyal Amir, visitors are raving over the interactive displays and revealing demonstrations and discussions that are giving them a new perspective on the industry.
Through games, hands-on activities and enlightening discussions, visitors learn about the history of the Internet and how firewalls work, and experience some of the best and most innovative technologies invented here and used the world over.
NetRix is a part of Haifa's National Science Museum, called Madatech. Housed in the building that was the original site of the Technion, Madatech is perhaps best known for the Patagonian dinosaur exhibition it hosted last summer, which was visited by more than 60,000 people during July and August. Besides dinosaurs, Madatech has exhibitions on road safety, optical illusions, "the magic of science" and space travel, featuring the tragedy of astronaut Ilan Ramon.
MOST MUSEUM exhibitions deal with the events of the past, or with the natural world, says museum director Yanai; NetRix is the only one that deals with the future, even when it ruminates on the past. "The Internet has already had such an impact on the world, and on Israeli society, and we are just at the beginning. Hopefully NetRix will give visitors a perspective beyond just surfing the Internet for their favorite sites, opening up the idea of a technological future they can be part of."
The exhibition is broken up into several areas, spread out over three rooms - one for interactive displays and activities, a second for video displays and activities and a third dedicated to informal education, where participants analyze what they've seen in the other displays and hear more about the technologies behind them.
"What makes us different is the educational aspect of the interaction with technology," says Yanai. "It's possible that visitors may have experienced some of what we show them, but chances are they never looked beyond the surface, understanding what's behind the technology and how it impacts them and the people around them."
For that reason, visitors are admitted to the exhibition in smallish groups and given guided demonstrations of the technology, with experts helping them better understand the various nuances of what they're experiencing - which they go in to more depth about during the discussion portion of their visit.
The exhibit features a display on the history of the Internet, following its evolution going back to the 1970s, when the US government wanted a way to connect its defense computers. Although history may sound dull to some, the display uses graphics and sound to completely envelop the viewer - you feel like you're inside the network, growing together with the system as ARPAnet evolves into the Internet as we know it today.
One don't-miss NetRix activity is the Wii station, where visitors can play interactive games with a TV display. Wiis have been among the hottest consumer products in the US over the past couple of years - in fact, until just a few months ago, they were extremely hard to get, with people paying huge premiums to get their hands on one. Using a remote control setup, Wii systems (http://wii.com/) let you play tennis, golf and bowl against avatars you create. If you've never tried it, believe me - it's the next best thing to being on the playing field.
Along with the sports activities, NetRix allows visitors to participate in Wii Fit activities, where you follow an avatar "personal trainer" in a series of aerobic and other exercises and games. You can buy Wii systems right here at home, and although they aren't that well known yet, your kids may have heard about them - and after you've experienced one, they may just be able to convince you to shell out for one at home.
Another activity introduces visitors to the art and practice of listening to streaming Internet radio - which you would think is probably well known enough already. But despite the tens of thousands of streaming stations around the world, there are still plenty of people who don't even know about Internet radio, and have never had the pleasure of listening to whatever they want, whenever they want; for example, only 13 percent of Americans listen to streaming radio on a regular basis.
"The Internet radio area is a good example of how we try to make technology more accessible to visitors," says Yanai. "Anybody can tune in to Internet radio from their home computers, and once they learn about the phenomenon here, they can go and try it at home."
AND THAT, says Yanai, is the whole point of NetRix. "Just about anything you can do here you can do at home," he says. "All of the technologies, as advanced as they are, are accessible to the average computer owner who has a broadband connection. What we're offering is the ability to look at and use these technologies in an innovative way, and to plant the seeds of technophilia, especially among the younger generation. Once kids and young adults see these technologies in context, they get excited about them, and begin to see themselves as being a part of the hi-tech future."
And that inspiration is further fueled by the made-in-Israel technologies and products featured at NetRix. At the Famillion station, visitors can use one of the world's most popular on-line "social genealogy" systems where you can build a family tree, and discover other people you have a connection to. NetRix has several terminals dedicated to Famillion (http://www.famillion.com/), and users who have never used the site can register, build their family tree and use Famillion's unique software to discover long-lost relatives they never knew they had. And at the Gizmoz (http://www.gizmoz.com/) station, you can create your own 3D avatar, suitable for e-mailing or embedding in video clips, social media sites like Facebook or instant messengers like AIM, using made-in-Israel avatar technology.
As far as I was concerned, though, the coolest station was the one using Israeli-made CamSpace (http://www.camspace.com/) software. CamSpace lets you interact with your computer without using the usual tethered input devices - mouse, steering wheel, joystick - to play games on your PC. Once installed, the CamSpace software hooks up with your computer's Webcam to let you interact with applications, with your hands taking action on-screen where you would usually use a "regular" input device - sort of like a Wii, but cheaper. The NetRix exhibit uses CamSpace to let you navigate a larger than life Google Earth display - just move the big stick around and zero in on the location you want. It's kind of like flying a plane and aiming for the runway, and it will give you a good idea of just how hard it is to fly a plane.
THERE'S LOTS more to see at NetRix - all of it educational, as a museum exhibit should be, but fun too. Even walking around the place is a hi-tech experience, literally. Below you, under a plexiglass floor display, is a "virus" running around a big processor, trying to get into a computer's hard drive; but it can't, because it's stuck behind a wall - a firewall, of course.
"The firewall display gives kids - and adults - a better idea of what the firewall in their own computer does," Amir says. And, he adds, don't be alarmed by the sirens that seem to go off randomly every few minutes.
"One thing Internet users need to understand is that they need to be careful where they tread on-line, and that's a lesson we try to teach at NetRix. So, if you step onto a 'dangerous area' on the floor of the museum, you'll set off an alarm."
Adding to the sensory experience is the "Totem," a tower of 24 screens that flash out news, photos, movies and Web headlines from the top sites in Israel and around the world. The Totem is watching you, too - and you may just see yourself on one of the screens that upload photos of visitors to Flickr.
The NetRix exhibition was established as a result of the efforts of the Lichtman family, in memory of Dr. Gershon Lichtman, and with the help of StartupSeeds (http://startupseeds.com/), an Israeli organization dedicated to helping teens realize their hi-tech futures. The exhibition is open throughout the year, although most of the visitors on weekdays are kids on field trips with their classes (Amir says that "civilian" visitors are welcome during school hours as well). On the weekends, the place is frequented by families from all social strata and backgrounds (from secular Israeli to Arab to haredi, Amir says). Families with kids are especially welcome, and Madatech has discount tickets for whole families - although, both Amir and Yanai told me that "no one has ever been turned away from Madatech because they couldn't afford the entry fee."
The NetRix staff is expecting a large crowd on Pessah, as families seek out new and interesting Hol Hamoed activities (reservations to join a group at a specific time might be a good idea; you sign up at the entry desk at Madatech. The museum has a kosher-for-Pessah restaurant, too).
"NetRix is one of the few places in Israel where learning is fun," says Yanai - and not only is it fun, but it may inspire your kids to come up with the next big Internet thing.
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