Created as part of an ongoing partnership between Thinkwell and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, WildWoods: AGLOW is an all-new illuminated forest walk-through experience designed for visitors of all ages and abilities. Inspired by the native flora and fauna that thrive in Fernbank's ten acres of featured woodlands, WildWoods: AGLOW invites guests to discover the hidden interactions of nature and wildlife through an immersive blend of the real environment and enhanced vignettes.
Fernbank Museum of Natural History first approached Thinkwell with an ask: to create a nighttime offering that would activate the old-growth forest that surrounds the museum in the cold, dark winter months — one that would engage audiences of all ages and abilities with science and nature in a fun, accessible, and innovative format.
The result was a nighttime adventure that revealed the magic and artistry of nature, which is frequently overlooked or forgotten in a busy, modern world.
The surrounding natural and dynamic environment of WildWoods was enhanced with illumination, projection and sound to inspire curiosity about important pieces of our ecosystem. Embracing the darkness of night and the glow of illumination, the outdoor trails of WildWoods were transformed into a unique portal of dynamic vistas, immersive moments, and awe-inspiring interactives.
Throughout the walkthrough experience, Earth's natural systems are shown through video projections and sculptures — depicting the electrical impulses of mushroom mycelium or the bustling forest understory. The displays wind through the woods and are accompanied by multi-colored light projections that dance through the air, creating a mosaic on the forest floor.
Not only is WildWoods alive with light, but it's also filled with 360 sound. Throughout the experience, each habitat is accompanied by soft, enchanting instrumental music inspired by the natural sounds of the environment, and composed specifically for AGLOW.
Rather than creating artificial walls and an overabundance of built structures, Thinkwell used trees, roots, and other natural elements of the forest as the canvas, allowing the forest to speak for itself. Fabricated set pieces were embedded directly into the surrounding woodlands to not disturb the surrounding wildlife and blend into the scenery in the daytime. At night, these sculptures came to life through interactivity.
This was an opportunity to redefine the museum experience in all its splendor, by using technology to make visible at night what is invisible to the naked eye during the day. In the end, WildWoods: AGLOW was a huge success, drawing in crowds of all ages and abilities to the museum, to partake in the natural beauty and wonder of the forest.
WildWoods: AGLOW reveals the wonder of nature through five interactive tableaus, following the journey of seed to forest. Along the path, guests watch as roots magically spread into towering trees via LED light fixtures, "pollinate" the surrounding forest with orbs of light, play hide and seek with interactive projections of nocturnal animals, and engage with larger-than-life singing mushrooms.
The experience begins as guests step through a portal and are transported into the hidden world of the forest. Guests enter a large, oversized poplar seed which glows with light, signaling the origin of forest growth. In this interactive station, guests are encouraged to touch one of five seed petals and watch as their counterparts light up on the ground. When multiple visitors touch the seed petals in unison, a center light illuminates.
As guests continue down the path, they come face to face with Fernbank's forest creatures, displayed as interactive projections. Custom animation brings these creatures to life as guests are encouraged to play hide and seek with the animals. Musical sounds are also triggered by guests' presence.
Next, guests venture underground as they encounter the hidden circuitous system of roots and mushroom mycelium that help trees and mushrooms gather nutrients and communicate with one another. Root-shaped LED strips connect to the trees, as projections depict energy pulsing from one tree to the next – the "woodwide web" in action.
The path then leads guests to a magical garden of larger-than-life mushrooms. These colorful incandescent mushrooms play a sequence of musical notes as guests walk by, triggered by movement. All together, the mushrooms create a beautiful barbershop quartet-style symphony of sound.
Past the mushrooms, guests encounter an immersive auditory experience as the darkness of night is paired with the sounds of nature. Hidden speakers placed along the path play sounds of unseen nighttime critters jumping into puddles and scurrying around as guests transition to the final tableau.
In the last scene, colorful lights illuminate the path as the forest "blooms" and pulses with energy. Lasers, projections, and a climactic musical crescendo work together to create a breathtaking finale to the experience, as guests depart with a deeper understanding of the forest ecosystem and their place in it.
Because the museum remained open during the daytime, Thinkwell was presented with the challenge of designing an experience that would be "invisible" even in daylight.
As a result, the team used ambient technology to enhance the natural surroundings, rather than distract. The lighting infrastructure was hidden all throughout the forest with cables running underground and equipment hidden in foliage. Lighting fixtures were carefully selected and installed in a manner that would not impact the existing wildlife.
The Thinkwell team visited the site frequently to make several adjustments, gradually adapting the concept to blend into the surrounding wildlife. Thinkwell also worked hand-in-hand with Fernbank's science team to ensure every image, color, and sound was an accurate extension of the Fernbank Forest, and had little to no impact on the forest's living species. The experience was completely curated for the old growth forest surrounding the museum, as technology was used to bring the "hidden world" of the forest to light.
The limited-run nighttime experience ran from November 17, 2022-March 5, 2023. Due to its popularity, this will not be the last season. It will continue to run during the winter months through 2026.