Science & Environment

Chelsea flower show goes digital

Exhibit Image copyright our planet
Image caption Not the average Chelsea exhibit: No plant displays to be seen here

It's not what you might expect from a flower show: strobe lighting, a gentle mist falling from above, and pretend fertilizer seeping from hidden vents.

But the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is going digital. The "Butterfly Effect" experience is the first exhibit to win a medal that doesn't include any plants.

It's not about smelling the blooms or admiring the planting. Visitors stand in a room with a wrap-around screen and surround-sound and watch an immersive 3D film.

It includes a cityscape seen from the point of view of a butterfly and a microscopic view of one of the insects' eyes.

Image copyright our planet
Image caption The Our Planet team wasn't sure it would even be considered for a medal

The exhibit is part of a larger environmental education initiative called Our Planet.

The organisation creates "bio-educational" visitor centres around the world. The aim is to highlight threatened species and the destruction of fragile ecosystems.

In the permanent exhibition in St Lucia in the Caribbean, visitors experience floods and tsunamis. In London, the focus is on butterflies and the crucial role they play as pollinators.

"People tend to be turned off by environmental issues," says Sarah Rosenthal-Almirall, who founded Our Planet. "We wanted to make it seem like climate change is happening to them. It's doing a bit of the trick of the brain, essentially."

Image caption No shortage of interest from Chelsea-goers

The award of a silver medal is breaking new ground at the show. "We understand that there was a big debate on whether to give us the medal," says Sarah. "We thought we might be impossible to judge."

"We have wind, rain, strobe and even smell machines," says Carl Miller, creative director of the Colour Project, who produced the installation. Ultra-high-definition video technology is used alongside detailed animation. He is "proud" to have got the accolade.

Dr Alistair Griffiths is the RHS director of science and, he emphasises, a passionate gardener.

"The solutions to horticulture will not just be plant breeding but also technology. To engage a wider audience, we need this to help engage people.

"Gardens cover 4% of the UK land surface area. If we don't look after pollinators then some of the things we take for granted will go. If this helps people to connect pollinators and plants, then it's a good thing."

Image copyright Our Planet
Image caption The exhibit emphasises the importance of pollinators and their role in the garden space

The digital plans are even bigger for next year.

The exhibit is set to move from a corner of the Great Pavilion - to go outside to one of the prime show positions.

The display design resembles the geodesic domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall. Seven "pearls" will be erected, ranging in size from six to 14m in diameter. It will cost in the region of £1.2m.

You will be able to go inside and jump about on an interactive tile grid to learn about biomimicry, and touch screens to test out the effect of climate change on your tulips and hostas.

There will also be a game where you can design and nurture your own garden, and a 4D cinema complete with a holographic avatar examining how some ecosystems around the world are collapsing.

But for Chelsea-goers, isn't the arrival of such technology like a weed popping up in a sacred garden?

Donna, from New York, enjoyed the experience: "It was good, but sad. Britain is much more on top of all things environmental compared with the US, so it doesn't surprise me that this is here."

Russ, a regular attendee, says: "It's really important. The scientific stuff about mobile phones is amazing. You can see this on a TV but it doesn't go in."

However, Joan and a companion, who have travelled to the show from Dublin don't intend to spend time in the exhibit, saying: "We've come a long way; we're here for the flowers!"

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