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Medical Museum Seeks Bucks for Touch-Screen Walls, Other High-Tech Goodies

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | April 8, 2013 6:25am | Updated on April 8, 2013 12:03pm

THE LOOP — Walking through the doors of a new museum bound for the Loop in 2015 will be kind of like stepping inside an iPad.

The first exhibition room at 175 W. Washington St. — which will house the satellite location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine — is a prototype for creator Mike Doyle's dream museum. Right now, thin touch screens are fitted with Kinect motion sensors built by Microsoft for the Xbox gaming system.

Eventually, those features will be embedded in the walls, nearly identical to a sketch Doyle made years ago on a "Panang curry-stained" placemat of his ideal exhibit space.

Established during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum, the Silver Springs, Md.-based museum is home to a massive collection of about 24,662,515 medical specimens, photos and documents, with an emphasis on military medicine.

 Museum mastermind Mike Doyle in his office, which used to house James Petrillo when the building was home to the Chicago musician's union. A private, all-marble bathroom and thick bulletproof windows hint at "how they did business then, in the Capone era," Doyle said.
Museum mastermind Mike Doyle in his office, which used to house James Petrillo when the building was home to the Chicago musician's union. A private, all-marble bathroom and thick bulletproof windows hint at "how they did business then, in the Capone era," Doyle said.
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

The similarly named Chicago version will be its first satellite site, and is also the first national museum to open in the city — a factor Doyle hopes will help attract the $40 million he needs to open it.

"The hope is to find a major donor who'd like to name the building," Doyle said. "You only get the chance to put your name on a national museum once or twice a century. ... So it should be a good opportunity for a philanthropist to leave a legacy.

"We're optimistic about being able to raise what we need."

Their second strategy to generate the money they need for the high-concept, interactive digital museum is what they've been focusing on since they bought the former Chicago musician union's building: digitizing the Maryland museum's expansive collection to make its artifacts available online, a project Doyle's been a part of since the late 1990s.

During this work, "We asked ourselves, how can we make this data widely available? We didn't want it to be entirely online, entirely virtual, because we need to have a connection back into the community."

"So the satellite locations," starting with the flagship Chicago site, "will be sort of nodes on a private cloud," Doyle said.

Doyle's team had a recent victory with an iPad app they developed as a byproduct of their research.

One of the Maryland museum's most prized artifacts is Albert Einstein's brain. Doyle's imaging team digitized the whole specimen, nearly 350 brain slices, to create an interactive 3-D rendering.

They hosted the brain image in an app, and it sells for $9.99 in the iTunes store.

"If a million of your readers went out and bought the iPad app today, we'd be well on our way," Doyle said.

The 1920s building that will house the museum came with a bonus: a two-tiered ballroom with a small stage that can hold a crowd of hundreds, which they've already made available for meetings, events and concerts.

"This is one of the better acoustic spaces in the city," Doyle said, "which is no surprise considering who it was built by."

He's referring to James Petrillo, the president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians Local 10 from 1922-62. The Petrillo Music Shell at Grant Park bears his name.

When he's done with it, Doyle said that space will look "like a big virtual-reality cave," with inches-thick "display surfaces" that wrap around the walls, making the entire room customizable, and offering a floor-to-ceiling digital screen "that will blow IMAX away."

The third leg propping up the plan these days is Doyle himself, the museum's fairy godfather.

In 1993, "when PCs were about as powerful as the computer in my watch today," Doyle made a small fortune from a computer program he developed while working in biomedical visualization.

"Today, when you go to a Web page and you can play a game, or look at a 3-D model of a car, read your email, write documents — you name it, that all came from that technology," Doyle said. "The first streaming video, the first cloud computing and the first interactive Web pages came out of that project."

He could probably fund the whole project himself, but Doyle says he's content to stay behind the scenes, nurturing both the research and the operations behind the scenes. For the past year, he's been building the museum piecemeal, purchasing facilities updates, like a much-needed new elevator, as more funds become available.

In the opulent back offices that used to house union executives, researchers are now doubled up in wood-paneled rooms conducting medical imaging research and developing the collections that will soon fill the museum.

On a recent visit, Doyle popped into one office to squirm along with two researchers watching magnified footage of skin mites crawling between someone's eyelashes.

"Now imagine that skin mite the size of a wall," Doyle joked.

With his ideal opening date two years away — April 15, 2015 — Doyle sees one huge advantage that makes him confident the museum will succeed: the sudden ubiquity of touch screens, tablets and smartphones in a city with Groupon kiosks and a cupcake ATM.

"The timing's amazing," he said. "We've had the idea to try to do this 'museum without walls' project for a long time."

"We started thinking about it and sketching out the basic plan in the early '90s. But it's only now that we've had this convergence of resources being available, technology maturing to the point where it's possible to reach people, either in the museum, or outside through things like iPads and mobile devices. It's really this harmonic convergence of the factors that made it possible to take this on today, as opposed to two decades ago."