Critical Distance connects audiences with nature—and each other

A new augmented reality (AR) experience—an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History this fall—brings a marine ecosystem to life, allowing audiences to connect with orcas in an entirely new way.

The Southern Resident orcas are unlike any other pod on planet Earth. They have their own language, culture, food source, and territory—and display an unwavering family bond. They live in the waters of the Salish Sea, an inland sea that spans from Washington State to the coast of British Columbia. But over time, the sea has grown busy and noisy. Its once teeming population of Chinook salmon, the orcas’ main food source, is endangered. And the orcas are on a path to extinction, with only 74 remaining.

Filmmakers Adam May and Amy Zimmerman set out to create an experience that would tell the orcas’ story, explain the threats they’re facing, and help people form a deeper connection with them—and our oceans at large. The result is Critical Distance, an immersive augmented reality (AR) experience on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of National History from September through June 2022.

Creating connection with J-pod

Critical Distance blends projection and holograms to bring viewers into the world of the Salish Sea, using technology to help viewers “see” sound. Immersed in this underwater world, audiences connect with J-pod, a close-knit family of 24 orcas, and specifically Kiki—a six-year-old female who carries the fate of the pod on her shoulders.

The exhibit educates visitors on the Southern Residents orcas, their importance to the Pacific Northwest and its native peoples, and the science of echolocation—the way orcas use sound waves to locate their prey. Through the Microsoft HoloLens 2, visitors see the Salish Sea through Kiki’s eyes, experiencing the impact sound pollution has on the orcas’ ability to echolocate to hunt and communicate.

A Caucasian man stands in front of a museum exhibit on Southern Resident orca whales.
wo women wearing Microsoft HoloLens 2 devices interact with a hologram of Kiki, a 6-yr-old orca whale, in the Critical Distance experience.  
A Southern Resident orca breaching fully from the water.

The Critical Distance exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. begins with an introduction to the Southern Resident orca pods.

Inside the HoloLens 2 exhibit, visitors observe and interact with J-pod in an entirely new way. To illustrate the impact of human interaction on the pods, the holograms of the orcas glow as visitors touch them—and distort in response to sensory loss from the noise of boats passing overheard.

Each Southern Resident orca can be identified through its specific markings and shape. Similarly, each pod member exhibits unique personality traits through its own swimming and hunting styles. (Photo credit: Karoline and Gary Cullen)

Critical Distance is the intersection between the story of a family's survival, how we rethink conservation and how we engage with bleeding edge technology to create impact. This is our rallying cry to our audiences, whether you live next to an ocean or not.

Amy Zimmerman, co-creator, Critical Distance

Meet the Critical Distance creators

Amy Zimmerman, writer and producer

“I can’t just sit by and watch a species go extinct. This is a story that needs to be told.”

Amy’s love of orcas developed when she moved to British Columbia, Canada as a university student and witnessed the Southern Resident pod firsthand. Her passion quickly turned to advocacy through work with local conservation organizations, using her storytelling expertise to help tell the plight of these orca families.

Adam May, director and producer

“We wanted to turn audiences into participants.”

As a director and producer, Adam’s focus is on creating stories that lead to genuine change. He saw leveraging technology as a powerful way to translate the story of the Southern Resident orcas into interactive moments of wonder and awe—that then translate more broadly into action and impact.

Chris Campkin, creative director

“It was really important for us to make Kiki and J-pod as realistic as possible.”

As creative director, Chris collaborated with teams of experts, watched orca footage, listened to orca recordings, and read a vast amount of research to better understand each individual orca in the J-pod.  His goal was to accurately represent their shapes, markings, and personalities for audiences in Critical Distance.

Using AI to protect the pods

Amy, Adam, and Chris used HoloLens 2 to tell J-pod’s story like never before. Now, learn about ways other conservationists are using technology to help protect the orcas.

Tracking the threat of noise pollution
Scientists are using AI to listen to the underwater sounds of the Salish Sea, providing real-time data that helps them monitor orca movements and the effects of noise pollution in the Pacific Northwest.

Listen live

Building an orca health database
Find out how the Killer Whale Health Database, a resource created and powered by AI, is helping scientists work together to respond quickly to threats impacting the health of orca populations.

Learn more

A close-up image of Kiki, a Southern Resident orca

Become immersed in the world of Critical Distance

Critical Distance is now a free exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

Get to know Kiki and explore her ecosystem with data

Dive deeper with Day of Data: Orcas—a set of interactive lessons and activities for parents, students, and educators that introduces essential data science skills by analyzing an urgent problem: What are the factors contributing to orcas’ declining population?

Register your student for a Day of Data: Orcas Virtual Workshop