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Live Streaming Sets Exploratorium Apart With Immersive Learning Experiences

We use Brightcove to publish our video online to millions of users simultaneously and to provide access points from our website, our mobile app, and through sharing embedded streams on other websites.
Rob RothfarbOnline Project Director at the Exploratorium

1.69 Miillion Viewers Watch Videos Of The Total Solar Eclipse

The New York Times once described the Exploratorium as one of the most important science museums of the mid-20th century, because while most museums prohibit visitors from touching installations, this one does the exact opposite, it encourages people to explore exhibits with a hands-on approach. Located along San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront, the Exploratorium shines as an example of a truly unique learning institution.

Without a doubt, the theme driving all of the Exploratorium’s educational endeavors is innovation. In 1994, the museum was one of the first adopters of the internet and one of the first 600 websites, and has since been steadily building a robust digital media collection. In fact, digital media has become a prominent focus of the Exploratorium, as it allows the San Francisco-based learning laboratory to not only deliver experiential learning experiences on site, but also to provide educational materials for people across the globe via live streaming and on-demand video.  Their website even contains pages devoted to “Science Snacks,” projects that allow people anywhere in the world to build small-scale versions of exhibits using materials that cost less than ten dollars. The museum has also its own webcast production studio, complete with audience seating, so visitors can see exactly how the Exploratorium creates video content for the web.

As a non-profit museum, the Exploratorium receives part of its funding from private and federal granting organizations, including NASA. It’s this particular partnership that’s helped the Exploratorium create one of its most visible educational ventures to date—live streaming solar and planetary eclipses through its website and mobile app. In 2011, the museum partnered with Brightcove, implementing its video platform to distribute content and provide viewers an uninterrupted, unparalleled view of planets in motion.

DIY Spirit Leads Exploratorium Down the Path to Digital Video

Since the early 1990s, the Exploratorium has had a digital presence, and it’s all because of its DIY spirit.

“We are a very DIY kind of place,” says Rob Rothfarb, Online Project Director at the Exploratorium. “We create our own exhibits, and we make our own digital media stories. So, putting together the infrastructure for creating and publishing live and on-demand videos just seemed a natural step.”

Initially, the Exploratorium operated its own streaming media servers, which led Rothfarb and his team through a rigorous process of trial and error to determine the best technology possible for streaming live video. Early iterations unveiled some key challenges, including latency, dropout, pixelation, and audio problems. However, as new technologies emerged, the digital video publishing team at the Exploratorium realized how much better cloud-based services were at managing video distribution.

“For things like live streaming the eclipses, we really didn’t want to take a chance,” says Rothfarb. “We knew we could run into scaling problems with what we had set up on our own.”

What they had set up on their own included third-party video players, which were either licensed for use or available as part of the streaming media servers they were running. Recognizing the need to improve the scalability of their video publishing infrastructure, they knew their next step would be to transition to cloud-based systems through a content delivery network.

Brightcove Live Stream Capabilities Are Key to Exploratorium’s Video Initiatives

In 2011, the Exploratorium partnered with Brightcove to deliver its on-demand and live video streaming. When asked of the deciding factors for this choice, Rothfarb touched on the museum’s need to focus its efforts on content creation. By leveraging Brightcove’s content management and video player solutions, they could spend less time wrangling the details of video streaming technology and devote more time to creating content and creating unique experiences. In Brightcove, the Exploratorium found a partner that equally valued modernization and advancement, and could also provide the new technologies so necessary to the Exploratorium’s live streaming initiatives.

“It’s certainly been a key reason for why Brightcove has made sense for us,” says Rothfarb. “It’s not just for distribution; it’s also for the practicality of publishing web content. We get a lot back from that, and it’s great.”

In addition to Brightcove’s innovation, Rothfarb noted the platform’s easy workflows and integration with Drupal’s content management system, which have both helped streamline Exploratorium’s video publishing process. By integrating Brightcove’s video platform with their Drupal CMS, the Exploratorium’s Online Media and Moving Images teams are able to manage video content, players and program metadata from a single interface.

“We were able to connect the Drupal CMS to Brightcove’s platform,” says Rothfarb. “You can now see the result of that in the way videos appear on our website within our newly-designed video portal section.”

The Exploratorium was also taken with Brightcove’s digital security and online privacy features. The museum didn’t want to impose third-party tracking on its website and mobile apps for video viewing. Using Brightcove allows the Exploratorium to publish and distribute content within a native player, eliminating the need for an outside distribution platform, like YouTube. This way, viewers can watch uninterrupted video and stay safe from phishing scams and unscrupulous advertisers.

Solar Eclipse Drives Mobile App Downloads and 1.69 Million Views

In an effort to extend its live stream content to more diverse audiences, the Exploratorium debuted its mobile app, Total Solar Eclipse, in early 2016, just in time for mobile viewers to watch an exclusive live stream of a total solar eclipse from Micronesia. Although the event wasn’t widely recognized in the Western Hemisphere, huge numbers tuned in from Indonesia, India, and other parts of East Asia, all on the mobile app. By the end of that week, “Total Solar Eclipse” managed to rack up over 65,000 downloads.

Afterward, the Exploratorium created on-demand assets from the live stream, distributing the video content to its website and social platforms. Remarkably, the solar eclipse footage attracted over 1.6 million video views and an equal amount of social impressions.

The Exploratorium delighted people once again in 2017 with its live stream footage of the Great American total solar eclipse—one of the rarest astronomical occurrences. In fact, the last time the contiguous U.S. saw a total eclipse was in 1979. Before the event, the Exploratorium’s mobile app recorded over 400,000 downloads, with 95% of them coming from North America alone. Rothfarb reported 228,000 app downloads during the month of the event, with a total of 591,000 people watching the event on mobile, and a cumulative 1.69 million video views between mobile and desktop.

Impressive Engagement Metrics Help Exploratorium Continue its Educational Pursuits

Since using the Brightcove player to distribute video content, the Exploratorium has enabled a new capacity for third-party distribution. Users can easily embed Exploratorium video content on their own website and blogs, which subsequently extends to increased brand recognition and amplified viewer engagement. Plus, with the Brightcove platform providing exceptional viewability for digital audiences, the Exploratorium’s content is highly inclined for third-party public sharing.

NASA, for example, shares Exploratorium’s live stream content directly to its own website and OTT channel, NASA TV. From there, footage is often picked up by news agencies like Reuters, AP, which both extend claim massive viewership.

Another example: in 2012, the Exploratorium live streamed the Transit of Venus, a rare planetary eclipse, distributing the video through the Brightcove player on their website. Wired and Space.com jumped on board, embedding the player on their own websites and pulling in tens of thousands of additional live viewers.

Ultimately, the Exploratorium’s goal is to reach diverse audiences with stories and live viewing experiences, which is why Rothfarb puts so much emphasis on video engagement metrics; they validate the efficacy of the museum’s video initiatives, which translate into donor and sponsor support. With video at the core of its online experience, Exploratorium is well-positioned for continued sponsorship to provide immersive learning opportunities for all.