Episode 39: Creating an Immersive Tech Museum…From Dinosaurs to Spaceships

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Imagine you began your career as a humble web developer for a small museum in Miami. Now imagine being tasked to design systems to support a $330 million, 250,000 square-foot new museum. That’s what Brooks Weisblat was up against when he helped design the new Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. Listen to hear how Brooks, VP of IT, melded creativity and technology to meet the challenge, and ultimately help create a state-of-the-art modern marvel.

Listen In To Learn:

    • How to choose durable, reliable technology for years of use
    • How to build more efficient data centers
    • How creativity and technology combined to create a $330 million science center

Creativity and Technology Combine to Power a $330 Million Science Museum

Brooks Weisblat started his career with a degree in biology and an interest in a promising new technology: The world wide web. He started work as a web developer at a small science museum in Miami… and two decades later, he was planning the technological backbone for a $330 million new building.

The Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science is a 250,000 square foot state-of-the-art marvel. Every part of it, from the exhibits to the wildlife tanks to the gift shop, uses the latest technology to keep it running smoothly and efficiently. Building these interconnected systems was a massive undertaking for Brooks and a small team of developers.

In this episode, Brooks talks about the challenges he and his team faced in planning these systems. Brooks and his team had to get creative to build robust, redundant, but also space and resource-efficient systems for everything from shark tank life support to mobile point of sale devices.

Featured Luminary: Brooks Weisblat, VP of IT, Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science (Frost Science)

A 20-year member of the Frost Science team, Brooks Weisblat manages the Museum’s technology infrastructure and website development projects, and leads technology research and planning, with a focus on keeping technology current, efficient and within budget.

Prior to his time with the Museum, Weisblat worked for Florida State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University teaching biology and computer classes as well as managing computer labs and audio/visual installations.

In the local community, Weisblat is a Leadership Miami graduate, has assisted Kristi House and the Junior League of Miami with its website and technology needs as well as served on the Technology Advisory Board for Keiser College.

Weisblat has a Bachelor of Science in biology from Florida State University and also studied viral immunology on a post-graduate level at the University of Miami.

My vision for technology is to breakdown the human to device bandwidth limitations with direct brain to device communications and artificial intelligence.

— Brooks Weisblat, VP of IT, Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science (Frost Science)

Luminaries Hosts

  • Mark Schaefer Author, Consultant, College Educator. Mark is a leading authority on marketing strategy, consultant, blogger, podcaster, and the author of six best-selling books, including "KNOWN." He has two advanced degrees and studied under Peter Drucker in graduate school. Some of his clients include Microsoft, GE, Johnson & Johnson and the US Air Force
  • Douglas Karr Technologist, Author, Speaker. Pre-Internet, Douglas started his career as a Naval electrician before going to work for the newspaper industry. His ability to translate business needs into technology during the advent of the Internet paved the way for his digital career. Douglas owns an Indianapolis agency, runs a MarTech publication, is a book author, and speaks internationally on digital marketing, technology, and media.

ANNOUNCER: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech.

MAN: We are technologists, and we share an awesome responsibility. The next three decades will hold even more progress coming more quickly than ever before. A new age of miracles is literally just around the corner.

NARRATOR: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.

MARK SCHAEFER: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Luminaries, where we talk to the brightest minds in tech. This is Mark Schaefer, and my co-host Douglas Karr is here beside me. We have a great opportunity to actually do a live podcast discussion today. And how are you doing, Doug?

DOUGLAS KARR: I am energized.

MARK SCHAEFER: Energized?

DOUGLAS KARR: Yeah.

MARK SCHAEFER: Were you a science geek as a kid?

DOUGLAS KARR: I was. My grades didn’t reflect it, but I’ve always been a geek, so.

MARK SCHAEFER: Science was a big deal to me. When I was a kid– I grew up in Pittsburgh. And my favorite day of the year was when we would take a field trip to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. And it just turned my life around. Just getting a chance to go to that museum just opened my eyes, opened my world. I’ve always loved science. And it’s literally changed my life.

And we’ve got a life-changing discussion today. Sitting on four acres within downtown Miami’s Waterfront Museum Park is the 250,000 square foot Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. It’s a unique campus-like setting that takes guests on a journey from the ocean to the Everglades and from Jurassic dinosaurs to outer space. It investigates life as we know it while exploring the underlying processes of science and innovation.

Leading all the technology to support this epic venture from ticketing to controlling a giant shark tank is our guest today, Brooks Weisblat, their Vice President of Technology. Welcome, to Luminaries, Brooks.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Awesome. Thanks for having me.

MARK SCHAEFER: This sort of sounds, to me, like the coolest job ever. So tell us a little bit about how you got there.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Sure. So always been a science kid. Technology and computers was things that I just grew up with. Tearing things apart, learning computers and such. Thought I wanted to be a doctor, so that was always my goal. I went through college. I went to Florida State University, got a degree in biology, did all the things that I was going to do to be a doctor.

But as I was in school, I was still developing my technology skills. So back then, which is a long time ago, the web just started coming about. And it was like, when a new web page came out, you were like, wow, look. There’s a new web page. It’s a new website. Somebody just did something. And whatever it was, you went and looked at it. And if it was good or bad, didn’t really care because there was something new out.

That being said, that intrigued me. Picked up a couple books and just looked at the code and started learning HTML. So I was always pretty entrepreneurial as a student in college. And I started developing web pages for the Department of Biology and the Vice President’s office at the school and just started really kind of learning this new technology–

MARK SCHAEFER: Oh, I bet they loved you.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: –not realizing where it was going. I was just like, this is super cool stuff. This is what I’m into. So just developed my technology skills from there. Long story short, got into University of Miami, and I was going to go to get a PhD in molecular biology and immunology and do an MD PhD program.

When I got to University of Miami, I took over the computer lab because it was in shambles, and I started doing other tech things there. And quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be in school for another eight years. So at that point, the web was blowing up. This is a few years later. Jobs were everywhere for web development.

And that was my skill at the time. I was like, yeah, I can develop web pages and make a decent amount of money back then. Threw a couple applications out there and landed at the Museum of Science in Miami, Florida, which at the time was a really small museum, like 55,000 square feet, been around for 60 years.

So I left school, which was a full scholarship. Told my parents I was doing that. They were not too thrilled, to say the least. Oh, you’re going to go work at a science museum instead of being a doctor. Nevertheless, everything happens for a reason. And it worked out really well. I started there as a web developer on a three month contract.

MARK SCHAEFER: So is this the same museum?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: It is.

MARK SCHAEFER: Just like an early iteration?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: A very early iteration. Exactly.

MARK SCHAEFER: Cool. It’s a great story.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: So I started there, and I’ve been there ever since. 22 years.

DOUGLAS KARR: 22 years?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yeah. Crazy.

DOUGLAS KARR: That’s absolutely incredible. Well, it amazes me. When I read about the museum online, and basically, I went through the entire website and just experienced everything that I could. You’re in charge of a museum that is covering everything that’s constantly changing. What kind of challenge is that to basically keep up and keep ahead of technology?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Well, I mean, development of the building was the first thing, right? So coming from a small museum, I developed all my technology skills just redoing the entire building. So starting off as a web developer, I progress to Director of Technology, director of all these different positions until they came out and said, hey, we’re outgrowing the building. We’ve got this goal to build this $330 million science center.

And I was like, this is the time where I was like, I’m either leaving or staying in this position because obviously, I was outgrowing it and I’m like, well, this is an amazing opportunity.

MARK SCHAEFER: Chance of a lifetime.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yeah. I mean, you don’t get this opportunity. And I was in charge of it all. And they’re like, Brooks, we want you to pick out all the vendors, do all the RFPs, pick out the technology, the store, the networking, the infrastructure, the security systems, the ticketing, the life support systems that monitor the tanks, I mean, the list just goes on. Because it’s not your normal kind of business. This is like a bunch of businesses packed into the one building.

MARK SCHAEFER: It’s like a biosphere.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: It really. Is there’s a ton of stuff. So that was an amazing opportunity for me to go ahead and develop all the technology that was going to be. Now, that took a long time because while we were developing, we didn’t have the money to build the building. So you need $330 million, right? So we went out for public funding. We got some of that, and the rest, we raised privately.

So as this went on, a lot of planning took– I mean, it took a while. It took a while to get it all together.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s a heck of a vision.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yeah. It’s pretty incredible. So…they want me. Well, I was the only technology person in the building at the time to hiring a couple of people, and then a couple more, and a couple more. And now we have a staff of 10 at the new museum, where we had a staff of 1 and 1/2 or two at the old museum. So it’s definitely come a long way.

DOUGLAS KARR: You were literally building the plane as it was flying.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Pretty much.

MARK SCHAEFER: And what was the time frame of this?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: So I believe 2004 is when we started developing the plans and going after funding. They don’t have to look at the edits. We can look back at those dates. And then once we got the funding, we hired a design firm and then design architect and then moved along from there.

Actual construction of the building was about five years.

DOUGLAS KARR: Wow. Wow.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. I love hearing about these stories because to me, it just seems sort of magical how all this stuff comes together and how you have to look at the art and the design and in your case, living beings in these tanks, and then practical things like water supply and ticketing. And just to have the imagination and the creativity to bring this together, that’s one of the things that stood out for me about you is that you’re an IT guy, but, boy, you were really in the heart of this creative process.

And I saw a quote that you had on one of the Dell videos about how technology really enables you to be creative. So I’d like to hear a little bit more about that. It’s an interesting idea.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yeah. I mean, the creative process– I was involved in a lot of the exhibits that were being developed. So when you want to develop an exhibit and there’s technology behind it, you got to think about who’s using the exhibit, and this isn’t your standard little kiosk that adults are using. These are kids and adults and families who are hard on this stuff. So you’ve got to pick the right equipment.

MARK SCHAEFER: Wild kids.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: It can be. You’d be surprised what you see during summer camp. They just they pile on and then beat on these things, so you got to pick the right kind of technology that’s robust, that’s reliable. One of my things was I didn’t want any spinning disk in the entire museum. That was one of my technology requirements.

So as exhibit art piece came in, I’m like, take the spinning disk out, put Flash in. I don’t want to worry about extra heat. Those things break all the time, they’re slow. The advantage of the Flash, you can’t really compete with it. So enabling those kind of things to happen.

The creative team, obviously, as far as developed the exhibits and the planetarium and the tanks. Obviously that’s a whole different ballgame. But I was involved in all those meetings to make sure that whatever they had in mind was doable from the technology side, whether it’s from the networking perspective or the audio visual perspective or the servers that power this planetarium that we have.

So it’s a 250 seat, 3D, 8k planetarium. It’s powered by eight 4k projectors, which have digital alignments. So there’s cameras around the entire dome which take pictures and grids and then does alignments and get it all in sync to sync those four projectors into a seamless, very immersive experience that when people watch these shows, they’re clapping at the end. They’re really, really impressed.

MARK SCHAEFER: Man, I wish I knew someone who could give me tickets to that thing.

[LAUGHTER]

Wow.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Come and see me in Miami.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s exciting. That’s exciting. So now you’re in the middle of this thing and you’ve got all these moving parts and now, there it is. It’s built. What do you look back on and say, wow, this is really cool. This was my part. What are you most proud of? What’s the piece of you that’s part of the legacy of this building that you love?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yeah, I’ve got to say in the data center, which combines all the technologies into this one thing that powers the entire building. So it required a lot of careful planning and thought process because, well, we didn’t want the old legacy system that we came for, which was a server for every function. And those are operating at like 10%, 15%. You’re wasting all those resources.

But at the same time, if one server goes down, you don’t bring down the whole building. Of course it takes time to bring that back up. So it was interesting that when the building was planned, virtualization and all those kinds, it was there. But it wasn’t really what everyone doing. Either it was too expensive, it was too hard to implement, or you didn’t have the resources to really push for that.

So the data center was huge. I mean, it was, like, 2000 square feet, it was 24 cabinets. And when we got to the path and were like, hey, I don’t need anywhere near that with the new plan because I’m building in on this redundancy and to put this all into one cluster in the virtualization environment. So I think that combining everything and making it efficient, cost effective, being able to deploy new applications within just minutes, I think that’s something I’m really proud of.

When someone comes and says, we need a new life support server over here, or, we forgot we need three more servers for security, or, we need this and that. I was like, yeah, it’s no problem. I’ll bring that up. And they’re like, what do you mean? That you used to take you a week.

I’m like, no. I can bring that up in, like, a half an hour. I got templates built out. We had everything prepared and ready to go. So I think it’s just the core system that powers everything. Along with monitoring, too, there’s over 3,500 devices that we’re monitoring throughout the building at any given time.

MARK SCHAEFER: 3,500. Wow.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yeah. So from life support devices to electrical panels to securities to cameras to Wi-Fi access points to ticketing systems, the POSes, the exhibits, all that kind of stuff. And with a team of nine, you’d never be able to get on top of it.

MARK SCHAEFER: Do you have a person from IT there 24 hours a day or do you do it remotely?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: No. I mean, we’re open normal business hours, which would be 9:00 to 6:00. Of course the tanks and all the rest of the stuff, we’re always on call if something goes wrong. So if something goes wrong in the middle of the night, I’m notified. Either I go down there or someone goes down there.

Hasn’t happened very often. After deployment, we got things up and running pretty smoothly. But yeah. I mean, we don’t have to have IT there all the time with this application.

DOUGLAS KARR: I mean, this is mind-boggling from a scale standpoint. You built a building, you built a company at $330 million dollars, basically, you have ecosystems for life, for data. All of these different pieces coming together and with a handful of people. I mean, that’s– and then just listening to your attention detail, going all the way down to a flash drive requirements on RFPs. I mean, that’s incredible.

What kind of collaborative process helped you put all of this together? Because this is your first museum that you’ve built, right?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: That’s right, yes. Yes. Well, I did a lot of research. So I’m that kind of guy who can learn very quickly. You know what I mean? I haven’t had a lot of computer technology training background, but some people don’t need that. They can learn on the job.

So I learned programming, I’ve learned data center– but by reading online and looking at what other people are doing and reaching out and saying, what systems did you use? What did you like? What didn’t you like? Where is technology going four years from now so we’re not behind on opening? Because that’s the last thing you want. You don’t want to open this building and be three years behind, right?

So building out the storage infrastructure to be prepared to last quite a few years, building out the server infrastructure so I don’t have to go back and redesign or ad hosts or add switches, designing the network– we have a 10 gig fiber backbone throughout the whole building, so it’s going to be plenty to handle a lot of things to come. The right kind of wiring, the CAT6A, the fiber, the single mode, the multi mode, down to every detail.

But I did have help. We hired consultants. So obviously, I’m not a network engineer, so I told them the plan that I wanted. We hire that out, they bring it back, we review it, go back and forth a few times. Same thing with some of the designing for the storage needs for the server infrastructure.

So those RFPs come out, we review them, we do our research, and then we pick those partners to help us make sure that whatever is being designed is going to work for us now and then for the future, as well.

MARK SCHAEFER: When I was trying to learn about your museum, I was looking at your website and reading some of the things that were out there about the museum. And one of the things I thought was so cool is that you’re not just teaching about science, but you’re really living science, and you are setting an example with some of your environmental policies and trying to be a LEED certified building. Can you talk a little bit about that and what your role is in that as the IT lead [INAUDIBLE]?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Sure. So we actually just got our LEED certification. It takes a while. Although we passed it, we actually got the plaque, literally, last week.

DOUGLAS KARR: Ah! Congratulations.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: And I think there was actually a ceremony, maybe, like, 10 days ago of the LEED certification, even though we’ve been open almost two years. It’s an intensive process to be LEED certified. And we were going for all the points we could, so down from the kind of toilets and faucets that you have to solar.

So we have a 65 kilowatt hour solar array on the roof, we have FPL solar trees in the plaza, so those bring in solar energy. We can monitor exactly what’s coming in every day. We have cisterns that collect the rainwater into huge tanks, which are used for irrigation of the green roof. Now I’m not the LEED expert, but I can give you an idea because I’ve been through it, of all the different things that you need.

So it’s pretty intensive. And I think we’re really proud to be LEED certified. And especially renewable energy sources, being a museum, and if we’re going to do it then we want other people to do it, as well.

DOUGLAS KARR: Hey, you’re setting the example.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Setting an example, for sure.

MARK SCHAEFER: All right. Let’s talk about something else that’s cool. So I got to read about you personally. And you run dragtimes.com.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yes. Yeah.

MARK SCHAEFER: That is amazing. And for anybody out there who doesn’t know, you had an epic video that really took off. And that was Tesla’s.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Yes. So I’m definitely into Tesla. I bought– when Tesla was– I actually drove the first electric car more modern, which is the Saturn EV1. If anyone knows what that is–

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. I remember that.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: –super cool car. I got a picture of me in that car way back in the day. So when Tesla came out, I was lined up. I wanted a Tesla no matter what. And the thing about Tesla is they’re very fast. Instant acceleration.

And I did a video and snuck up on my co-workers and kind of hit the insane button at the time. Didn’t understand what was happening. Put that video together and it went super viral.

MARK SCHAEFER: It is an amazing video to watch.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: I went nuts. I mean, CNN and Fox. And Elon Musk tweeted it out, and I was not ready for what was about to come through. And that kind of stunned– what Drag Times was how I learned programming. So it’s just a collection of data for performance cars that I built out. So I built the website, learned all the programing, which actually helped me at the job, as well, because we actually built out our own website, as well.

So we host the website, we did it with the ticketing systems, the online e-commerce and all that, came out of a hobby of mine of learning how to program that kind of stuff.

DOUGLAS KARR: Yeah. And you’re not just a casual observer of Drag Times.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: No, I race.

DOUGLAS KARR: You also have a car collection. I’m totally jealous of your garage where you are you basically have subbasement.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Lifts. You can lift them up and down to fit them in.

DOUGLAS KARR: Oh my God. That’s Amazing.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: It’s pretty cool.

MARK SCHAEFER: Who does that?

DOUGLAS KARR: (LAUGHING) Yeah. Well, you know, and what’s the– is there an intersection with that and that creative and hobby and then what you do on a day-to-day basis?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: The technology is all there. So as far as the electric cars, Tesla’s are probably the most advanced cars on the road. They’re getting ready for AI and self-driving and all this kind of stuff, so part of that was, going back to the LEED discussion we had, we have electric car charging stations. So they’re like, Brooks, well, you’re the electric car guy, go figure that out.

I’m like, OK. So here we go. We want six spots. I want Tesla to come in. I want George [INAUDIBLE] to come in. And so we have six or seven electric car spots. We can monitor how much people are charging, how often they’re being used. It’s super cool. So the car thing kind of comes into play there at the museum as far as that renewable, Tesla, electric green initiative, sure.

But on the other hand, it’s almost like the alter ego. On the weekends, I’m out racing and doing cool stuff at tracks and airstrips and stuff like.

MARK SCHAEFER: Do you have, like, a batcave?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: No.

DOUGLAS KARR: It’s close.

MARK SCHAEFER: Is that part of your alter ego?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Someday.

MARK SCHAEFER: The alter ego and the cars going down into the ground on a left.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Not yet, but I have some friends who might have that.

MARK SCHAEFER: I have some suspicions, Brooks. Well, one of the things I loved about this discussion is how when you were having this vision for the museum, you said, well, I don’t want to build it for today. I want to build it for years from now. I don’t want to create something that’s obsolete.

So I know even now, you’re thinking about three years down the road, five years down the road. So what is the technology that has you sort of excited right now that you can integrate into this museum in the next three to five years where you’re going, yep, this is going to be cool. Can’t wait to get into this. What’s coming down at the Frost Museum?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Well, I can’t say we’ve started the process, but I think my technology, what I’m looking towards, is this AI and big data. So artificial intelligence is coming a long way.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. It really has.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Being able to control things from your mind. You can see some of these test environments where they put something in your head and people struggle to make something happen with a computer. I think the big bandwidth limitation right now is how you communicate with your device.

If you just look at, like, what it takes to type a text message and how slow it is and how cumbersome it is, if we solved that bandwidth problem to somehow do bio to computer, you can think of what that’s going to open up. You could just– I’m going to think about sending a text message to my wife and it’s just going to happen instead of getting out the phone and doing this kind of stuff.

MARK SCHAEFER: Do you do the two thumbs thing? Are you that advanced?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: What’s the two thumbs?

MARK SCHAEFER: On the texts?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: I don’t really pay– No, I think–

MARK SCHAEFER: Or do you poke?

BROOKS WEISBLAT: No. I mean, I’m pretty– I’m fast enough.

MARK SCHAEFER: I’m just curious. We sort of ask every single guest that question. Sort of a tradition.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: I don’t even think about it. I have to get my phone out.

MARK SCHAEFER: It’s a tradition here on Luminaries.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: I think I do it both ways.

MARK SCHAEFER: I’ve tried. Tried. Just can’t master it.

DOUGLAS KARR: I’m with Brooks. I’m ready for the chip injection.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: I mean, this is where the big innovations are going to happen. And especially for a museum, there’s a lot of cool things you could start doing with AI and learning computers and being able to control things with your mind. It’s just going to be mind boggling where this goes in the next couple years.

MARK SCHAEFER: So exciting. Can’t wait to see it. Can’t wait to come visit you because I am a science geek and I just fell in love with your website, all the things you’re doing down there. So Brooks, congratulations on your success on this amazing four acre museum that you have and the LEEDS achievement. Sounds like all your lights are green right now. And thanks so much for being on our show.

BROOKS WEISBLAT: Thanks for having me.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. We always appreciate you and just appreciate all your kind words and reviews. This is Mark Schaefer and Doug Karr for Luminaries. We will see you next time.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANNOUNCER: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech. A podcast series from Dell technologies.