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TECHnical Difficulties

[whitespace] Tech Museum of Innovation
Christopher Gardner

In 1998, at long last, the Tech opened with a mango bang, but some bugs have found their way into the fruit

SINCE THE NEW Tech Museum of Innovation opened on Oct. 31, almost 100,000 visitors have gazed up in awe at the mango-and-lapis portal, asked themselves, "Is it finished yet?" and paid their $8 for admission, give or take a couple of bucks. That puts Tech revenue at close to $1 million for just two short months and a tickle in Frank Taylor's trousers, to be sure.

Now, the Tech cost the Redevelopment Agency and its many corporate sponsors (whose names and logos double as Tech decor and exhibits) $96 million to build. Was it money well spent?

Perhaps a clue lies in this little fable: Not long ago, a Tech visitor went to the ladies' room to powder her nose and do other unmentionables. On the stall floor at her feet she spied a folded-up $10 bill, a gift of the fates. Eureka!

Then the woman's brow furrowed. The money had been dangerously close to disappearing down the Tech's toilet. Could this incident suggest something about the very nature of the Tech Museum itself?

We hate to point this stuff out, but the technical capital of the world deserves something more polished than a beta-release. If this is America's showpiece of technology, we'd better be buying lots of canned goods before the year-2000 problem hits. Here are our findings from the past two months ...

This is as much fun as rocket propulsion, isn't it, kids?

Three weeks after the Tech's grand opening, the jet pack simulator exhibit finally opened. Aggressive mobs of children, looking for something to ride, lingered anxiously around the circular display hoping for a chance to sit in a fancy rocket seat and use hand levers to move themselves across a frictionless surface. The hand levers, however, were broken, so a technology expert spent the day pushing the chair around the circular exhibit. Say "Wheeeee," kids!

What can we say? They worked in the plumbing store

Our crack team of privy detectives also found some problems with the Tech's fancy loos. On a recent visit, one woman encountered the Phantom Flusher when the automatic toilet in the ladies' room sucked down a toilet seat cover before she could even take a seat. On second try, she laid down the cover and whirled around to sit, making it just in the nick of time. Then, in mid-stream, so to speak, the pesky toilet flushed for no good reason. When she finally stood up, waiting for it to flush, no such luck. Others among our number report automatic faucets that don't turn on in the men's room and hand dryers--also automated, of course--that don't sense wet hands. Sanitarily speaking, that lands us right around the Middle Ages. The Tech has mastered time travel!

What can we say? They worked in the lab

Media night in late October caught the museum with some buggy exhibits. The 3-D scanner on the Cyberheads exhibit sputtered, coughing out freaky fractured images where a man's head should have been. One of the robot exhibits (now discreetly gone) featured small wire-and-wood contraptions under glass that were supposed to cruise around when viewers pushed a button. Instead they wheezed, fell over and twitched.

And they don't unionize or expect Christmas parties!

From a Tech exhibit hailing the mighty robot: "Robots work faster and longer than people. We give them dangerous and boring jobs, and they don't complain. They don't take breaks or vacations, and they rarely make mistakes."

What can we say? It worked when we took it out of the box at the hobby store

"Back to the Moon," an interactive exhibit in the Where to Next dome, is a humble design: a plastic lunar-replica surface with a few magnets hidden underneath that ring a bell when detected by a wand. But lately, visitors stand in front of "Back to the Moon" running one piece of plastic over another and wondering for whom the bell tolls, for it surely doth not toll for them.

I see I've stumbled onto a trade show. Can you point me to the Tech Museum?

The Innovations section features company logos prominently displayed, it seems, on every available surface, most notably the looming screen of the Miniature Revolution exhibit. There museum-goers can use a laser pen to scan a bar code (sometimes it works, sometimes not) and learn all about how Apple, IBM, Silicon Graphics and Hewlett-Packard have contributed to the splendor of the Valley.

Things the Tech Forgot

This anonymous email has been zipping around the Valley since the museum opened in October--the List of Things They Missed at the Tech. Although we'd like to salute the wit who wrote this piece, we don't know who that person is. But we'll happily share his or her work for the greater good.

1. The Silicon Valley Virtual Commute Racecourse: You have two hours to go 15 miles. Think you can do it? Well, buckle yourself into our simulator and give it a try!

The Tech Museum offers several racecourses to choose from: Try the "880 Endurance Course." Hey! You finally made it past the Winchester Mystery Puddle at The Alameda onramp, and you're finally up to 25 mph. You'll make Brokaw Road in no time.

But look out! 101 merges into 880 and the freeway goes down to two lanes at the same time. Who designed this nutty course?

Or try the "17 Face-Off of Doom." You're behind one truck in the right lane going 21 mph. The truck in the left lane is going 20.5 mph. Calculate how many hours it will be before you can pass both trucks.

Or try the 680 "Trail of Tears." You've got to make it from Pleasanton to Fremont on only a full tank of gas! Sound easy? Don't forget the inept CalTrans contractors who block off lanes for no reason at all!

2. The Unreasonable Expectation Work Week Simulator: Ever wonder what it's like to work 80 hours a week? You can now experience blurry vision, diminished reaction time, the health effects of eating nothing but Doritos, and the heart-racing excitement of Jolt Cola addiction with the Unreasonable Expectation Work Week Simulator. Hey, who are those strangers claiming to be your family? They're just part of the mysteries you'll experience at the Tech Museum!

3. The "Find Help at Fry's" Cyber-Challenge: Don your Virtual Reality goggles and take a tour in the Valley's favorite electronics chain! Your challenge: find someone who can help you. It's not as easy as it sounds, though. If you do find someone, you still have to somehow get them to make eye contact. And once you get help, the challenge isn't over--you still have to avoid the "Let me get my manager" monster, endure the perpetual "Humans as Cattle" cash register corral, and make it past the paranoid door Nazi without getting a body-cavity search. Youch!

4. The Valley Fair Mall Parking Space Scavenger Hunt: Your mission: get in our car simulator and find parking at the Valley's most congested mall! Extra points for finding a space within a one-mile radius of the mall itself.

Next year we hope to make this scavenger hunt even more challenging when we violate the laws of conservation of mass with the addition of the Town and Country Monument to Bad City Management.

5. Sell or Die: Kids will learn valuable lessons playing this interactive game designing and marketing superior, technically advanced products that fill a niche and meet a need. But wait! The fun is just starting. It's time to play "Sell or Die." Kids get to choose whether they will let themselves be bought out by the "innovative" Microsoft, or whether they will resist the urge and have their products undersold by Microsoft's inferior competing products. The fun is in seeing how long you can last in the face of unfair marketing practices. The last player to go bankrupt paying their legal bills wins! Extra points for kids who survive long enough to testify in front of the Justice Department.

6. Mr. Jobs' Wild Ride: Get in your Apple Stock Rocket and experience the wildest roller-coaster ride of your life! Just when you think the Rocket is about to hit a wall, swerve wildly and unexpectedly to one side and avoid certain death (for now). And the best part is, your fate is completely in the hands of one all-powerful and unpredictable hippy-turned-power-player- turned-exile-turned-interim-CEO-for-life. And look out! The Larry Ellison Hot Wind Machine will try to blow you off course. You'll lose your lunch on abrupt policy changes and scream your lungs out as you freefall on the final Mac Clone Maker Betrayal Drop of Death.

7. San Jose Mercury News Wall of Premature Apple Obituaries: Get up close and personal with Valley history by reading over 15 years of stories lamenting the imminent death of everyone's favorite fruit company! With all that circling, don't buzzards ever get dizzy?

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From the December 31, 1998-January 6, 1999 issue of Metro.

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