The making of “Hollywood Dream Machines”

A new exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum uses mixed reality to showcase iconic cars from sci-fi and fantasy. Go behind the scenes to see how this landmark experience came together.

There’s no question that in sci-fi and fantasy, vehicles often play an essential role in the plot—sometimes more important than the human characters.

Bryan Stevens, Exhibitions and Creative Director, Petersen Automotive Museum

It all started with a simple question. What are the most iconic cars in movies, videogames, and TV that have captured people’s imaginations? As the team at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles searched for an answer, they kept coming back to the worlds of science fiction and fantasy. Batman. Knight Rider. Halo. Back to the Future.

The goal was to showcase these vehicles in a way that would appeal to hardcore fans while bringing in new audiences to the museum. But the team at the Petersen faced a challenge. “In these films, games, and shows, the worlds that are created for the characters and vehicles are so unique and dynamic that displaying them in an exhibit doesn’t do them justice,” says Michael Bodell, Deputy Director of the Petersen.

And of course, there’s the issue of the cars themselves. Everybody wants to go inside, get behind the wheel, or touch their childhood favorites… just this once. But as Bryan Stevens notes: “These aren’t necessarily real cars. They’re often prototypes cobbled together to look good on screen that are actually fragile… The cars from the Mad Max movies have thousands of little pieces that could break off.”

The solution? A mixed reality experience for the HoloLens that would bring some of the most iconic cars to life for visitors and give them a closer look.

So how, exactly, do you make a mixed reality exhibit about iconic cars from sci-fi and fantasy? It all begins with the cars. First, as Michael put it, was identifying “the heroes.” After doing A/B testing of vehicles that would be on display, the team developed a list of potential cars to include in the exhibit. Then, Bryan began tracking down the vehicles and seeing which ones they could find and get permission to use. The bulk of the process took six months.

“It was a real sleuthing project,” says Bryan. “We had to search the planet. Where was it last seen? A studio lot? A car show? An auction? Then we’d have to convince owners to lend them to us and get permission to put them on display.”

As the exhibit came together, two vehicles emerged as the centerpieces of the mixed reality experience. With Microsoft as a technology partner, the Petersen was able to secure the IP to feature the Warthog from Halo. And thanks to a longstanding relationship with Universal, the Petersen already had the DeLorean on display at the museum.

The Halo Warthog at the Petersen Automotive Museum
The Delorean Time Machine at the Petersen Automotive Museum

Getting the Warthog into the museum was a massive undertaking. The team had to deflate the tires and create a new opening into the exhibit.

The Back to the Future car on display at the Petersen is the one and only DeLorean from the movie, permanently loaned to the museum by Universal Studios.

The museum turned to Microsoft and the mixed reality developers at Zengalt to create the actual HoloLens experience. Once the cars were in place for the exhibit, a large team spent days testing the software over and over again. As Bryan puts it, unlike with a traditional museum exhibit, mixed reality requires the extra step of “trying to align the digital experience with the physical one.”

“A big part of the user experience is moving between objects with the HoloLens visor on,” adds Bryan. “You have to think about the physical space differently—where are the railings and columns? Also, the two featured vehicles aren’t near each other, so navigating that and getting visitors to stand in the right place was a challenge.”

Michael is acutely aware of these challenges from a visitor standpoint. “How do you make sure the flow of the exhibit is right? How do you ensure it’s seamless from check-in all the way to the end?” For him, the answer was training a group of facilitators to help set visitors up with the devices and explain how to use them correctly. With eight devices available at the museum, they’re able to curate the visitor experience, too.

Since its high-profile renovation in 2015, the Petersen has emerged as a technology pioneer among museums, tripling its attendance. “Hollywood Dream Machines” is its most successful exhibit to date, bringing in a diverse audience, and it sets the stage for the museum to tap mixed reality for future exhibits.

“This technology offers a way to elevate storytelling … it lets people dig deeper into the stories they’re curious about,” says Michael. “And as a museum, we are storytellers.”