Unravelling the mysterious Mr. Bates

The owner/creative director of Mystus Interactus Inc. – a Toronto-based designer and developer of interactive exhibits – watches people wherever he goes. It could be at the grocery store, the public library or on a street corner. From the actions of strangers, Bates draws his influences.

It is with the same silent, meticulous eye that he has developed interactive exhibits since 1981, when he joined the Ontario Science Centre (OSC) upon graduating from the University of Toronto with an honours degree in Physics and Astronomy.

“The Science Centre is one of two museums in the world that are forerunners in making interactive exhibits and developing that whole mode of museum presence,” the Shawinigan Falls, Que.-native explained. “After 10 years of that, I started making exhibits on my own in museums…I have all this knowledge of how to make interactive ones, now it’s become the way to go for all museums…even art galleries and classic museums like the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) are going with interactive exhibits now because the public is demanding it.”

Bates was an integral member of an exhibit development team at the OSC that created several major exhibitions. He has also designed traveling displays over his decade-long tenure.

“The public wants to be more involved now, they don’t want to just read and look, they want to participate,” he continued. “[The public’s interest is] a part of a global consciousness that is interactive exhibits, it’s the Internet, everybody is more conscious.”

Fast forward to present day: Bates’ latest creation is now enshrined in the hallowed halls of the Canadian Football League’s Hall of Fame in Hamilton, Ont.

Bates’ virtual field goal kick was created in conjunction with Compaq Canada’s assistance – the company donated over $250,000 worth of new technology to the Hall. While the Hall’s board of directors may have dreamt up the virtual field goal game, it was Bates and Mystus Interactus they called to give their vision the breath of life.

“[The Hall] wanted to get a couple of interactive exhibits; we took their idea and made it into reality,” Bates said. “People who work here (the Hall) are very connected to their mission, they’re very dedicated, and they’re generally very easily connected to a lot of resources.”

Bates said the virtual field goal kick exhibit was developed over an eight-month period. As with all of Mystus Interactus’ projects, the client is heavily involved in the prototyping aspect, ensuring a smooth design and outcome.

“But the basis of it is trying something, seeing if it works, before you spend a lot of money on housing (the project),” he said. “In this case, one of the bigger things for us to solve was ‘how do you get a good screen but also a good football shock absorber?'”

A peek at the Mystus Interactus repertoire reveals an impressive list of past projects including the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Sci-Port Discovery Center in Shreveport, La., and the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich.

The company’s services range from interactive exhibit development and prototyping to computer programming, multimedia authoring, microprocessor and electronic controls, audio/video editing, concept development and scriptwriting.

“There’s a fairly well-established market for any new science museum; they’re going to be doing an interactive exhibit,” Bates remarked. “It’s a less established market, but starting to become prevalent, in traditional museums like art galleries…it stands to reason a lot of our work comes from science museums but now we’re starting to work closely with the Ontario Museum Association, the Canadian Museum Association, and there’s a lot of interest with small, local museums (like the CFL Hall of Fame).”

Mystus Interactus – the name derives from a combination of themes: mystery, magician, intrigue, interaction, and the “us” thrown in to give it a nice, Latin feel – is currently working on the prototyping and fabrication of a new science museum in Glasgow, Scotland – which will keep Bates occupied for the next six months.

“All of our exhibits are computer-based, we do a lot of multimedia presentations and microprocessor control,” he said. “One of the things about the interactive business is you get these huge projects coming through and then in between there might be significant downtime before the next one starts up.”

The affable Bates looks the part of the genius scientist with his lengthy, graying hair and trim goatee. But behind his cool, blue eyes and calm exterior runs the fervour of highly creative individual in search of instant gratification.

“What I found out in the research field is the lag time between the work that you do [is too long] and when the information you work on gets out to the general public in, for example, astronomy it’s like 50 years,” he smiled. “I was looking for something a bit more immediate, I want to be involved with people, and get feedback sooner…when you retire you get to do the things you’ve always wanted to do, so I figure I’ve retired already.”