Responsive Environments: Denver Botanic Gardens


The result of calm technology is to put us at home, in a familiar place. When our periphery is functioning well we are tuned into what is happening around us, and so also to what is going to happen, and what has just happened…This connection to the world around we called “locatedness,” and it is the fundamental gift that the periphery gives us.

                                                                                                                     Mark Weiser, 1995


We fix our gaze on screens to work, to stay connected, to capture and share our lives, and to be entertained. Screens are good, but there is a problem: for all of the access that they provide, these surfaces create a harsh divide between our physical world and our digital experience. When we look at our computers, we tune out. We disconnect from our surroundings and retreat into ourselves.

As technology becomes smaller, more malleable, and more integrated into our environment, we have a great opportunity to refocus our gaze, to draw it upward and outward with light, sound, and tactile interfaces that respond to presence, social engagement, and natural data. These experiences should be subtle and empowering. They should live at the seams between the physical and digital, smoothing the boundary in between and enabling us to more fluidly navigate our world.

At Second Story, we use technology to create spaces for learning and exploration, places that breathe, allowing stories to unfold and evolve over time. These responsive environments are designed to inspire and delight through the activation of the body, the senses, and the periphery. They extend the impact of the content that we deliver through traditional screen-based media. Our mission in building these environments is not to bombard visitors with sensory stimulation but rather to provide another layer of experience, one that draws people into an active dialog with their surroundings.


Learning to See, an exhibit we created last year for the Denver Botanic Gardens, is an example of our work in building experiences in which stories are revealed through a responsive environment. The exhibit seeks to cultivate a deeper relationship between people and the natural world. We designed a system that immerses visitors in scientific research and teaches them about the diverse ecosystems of Colorado. A collection of interactive “boulders,” LED light pylons, and haptic interfaces facilitate learning and exploration. These distinct experiences are unified through a responsive light environment that changes in texture and tone with daily and seasonal shifts in weather.

To design and develop the exhibit while the Pyramid was still under construction, we assembled a virtual model of the space. Our team experimented with a variety of light effects and animations, which were visualized in the model and tested in our lab on a single full-scale mockup of one of the pylons. This end-to-end process allowed our motion designers and software developers to collaborate quickly and iterate on new ideas. Most importantly, it enabled our full team to have a clear expectation of how the environment would look once we arrived in Denver.

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Nature is an active participant in the exhibit. As the outside temperature changes throughout the day, so do the colors of the interactive experiences and the ambient light environment. To create a varying spectrum of light, we divided the thermometer into segments that reflect the broad range of air temperatures experienced each day in Denver. Each segment has an associated color palette that was carefully selected to complement the transition from cold to hot. Repeat visitors notice a marked shift in the mood of the space during the day, between seasons, and over the course of the year.

Changes in the measured wind speed outside the Pyramid trigger digital pressure fronts that flow through the columns of LEDs embedded in the pylons. These animations evoke the patterns of sunlight that filter through the leaves of Aspen trees blowing in the wind, adding texture and life to the space through the interplay of light and shadow.

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While the connection between temperature, wind speed, and the ambient light environment in the Pyramid is simple and direct from a technical perspective, this subtle digital gesture enlivens the physical space and connects the stories of the Denver Botanic Gardens back to their natural source. Visitors do not have to be told that this mapping exists – they simply experience an environment that is alive and responding to the pulse of nature.

As we continue to develop responsive environments at Second Story, we look to a future in which the boundaries between our digital and physical experience are increasingly blurred; an age of spatial media that connects people and place rather than creating barriers. This is how we will tell the stories of the twenty first century.

– Chris Carlson, Interactive Developer


Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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Posted in Design, Technology