How South Dakota’s Custer State Park Is Convincing Tech-Savvy Folks to Get Outdoors

Second Story wants you to explore nature sans smartphone

Second Story, SapientNitro's interactive studio arm, was presented with two interesting challenges to solve for Custer State Park—71,000 acres of beautiful land located in South Dakota. The park, while breathtaking itself, is often overshadowed by other major attractions including Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial and Badlands National Park. Custer State Park needed to convince travelers to get out of their cars to explore the park, sans technology, but it needed to use technology to do it.

The second challenge revolved around Custer State Park's bison—an animal recently named the first national mammal by President Obama—which can be found roaming throughout the grounds. There are herds of them constantly on the move, and while many may think of bison as subdued, gentle creatures, they actually have the potential to be very dangerous. 

"While [the bison] are an amazing asset for the park, it also presents this really important safety challenge because these are wild animals that can run up to speeds of 40 miles per hour and they're between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, for adult bison," David Waingarten, story director at Second Story Interactive Studios in Portland, Ore., said.

After spending roughly 30 hours swimming, hiking and exploring the park, Waingarten and his team came up with a number of ways to make the newly-opened Custer State Park Visitor Center interactive and educational. The space needed to be inviting enough to draw curious adventurers in, but simplistic enough that it would get people out the door, ready to explore in under 30 minutes.


        The bison safety interactive installation allows park visitors to learn how much distance to keep between themselves and the animals. Photo: Second Story

Inside the Visitor's Center, Second Story created a bison safety interactive installation (featuring depth-sensing technology) to teach people how to interact with the animals should they come across them on their travels. 

"We created an interactive depth-sensing technology that could track where you were in proximity to the screen that was delivering that content," Waingarten said. "We knew when you were 30 feet away and we knew when you were three feet away."

The screen changes depending on your distance from it. There are three different zones a person can stand in. In zone one viewers see footage of how bison act when people are a safe distance away, when the animal does not feel threatened. As you step into zone two (70-150 feet away) and three (less than 70 feet away) the footage changes. The bison begin to demonstrate certain warning signs that you may be getting too close—from stomping their feet and arching their tales to inhaling or exhaling loudly.


        Second Story designed this interactive table to help travelers digitally map out their park visit. Photo: Second Story

The second piece of technology was designed to not only act as the welcome desk for the visitors center, but to also help visitors plan out their time in the park based on the experience they're looking to have. Three interactive touchscreens surround the full-scale map, which shows either iconic journeys you can take —like a path on the way to Mount Rushmore, taking you through the Cathedral Spires trail—or activities you can spend time doing, like swimming, fishing or even Bison-spotting.

As you explore the different routes on the touch screen, the path you're exploring lights up on the table in front of you. "We offer the opportunity to preview what's on that road and when you do the journey, it is lit up by LEDs that are embedded underneath the map table," Waingarten noted.

Paper copies are available to take on the go, to again encourage people to connect with the outdoors and keep the smartphones away. Plus the center is staffed with park rangers to answer any questions you might have.


        Visitors can use the interactive table to find fishing, swimming and hiking spots. Photo: Second Story


        One of the paths from the interactive map takes you through the breathtaking Cathedral Spires Trail. Photo: Second Story

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