The future of mobile interpretation redux

Eh, just because I can’t get enough of this particular subject, I thought I’d do another quick post ’bout mobile interpretation in museums. As I was gearing up to write the Future of Mobile Interpretation paper for this year’s Museums and the Web conference, I did a few informal surveys via both Twitter and Yammer to see if my gut feelings on multimedia/audio tours were even close to correct. The interesting side effect of this “flash survey” was that I found that microblogging platforms were a really interesting means of acquiring quick survey results, if you’re not interested in being particularly scientific (perhaps I’ll post more on that subject in the future). Primarily, though, I was pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness (and pithiness, given the format) of the responses. I thought I’d post them here, since some of my Twitter peeps have expressed some desire to see the results of my survey. So basically, I asked the question, “To those of you who don’t pick up audio guides in museums, why is that?” A random sampling of the responses follows:

Most people and especially younger ones carry in their pockets much more powerful appliances (i.e. cellphones)… I can do much more about getting intersting information with a blackberry, palm or iphone by typing in name of the artist or work or genre in wikipedia.

With audio guides if you are wearing headphones, then you are disconnected for a time from the person you came in with, while you otherwise would be possibly discussing the artwork. I think there is something to audio guides being exclusively one way interaction device, apart from entering numbers.

audio guides make a museum experience feel too solitary.

Talking too slow for saying too little.

Cause I like to do things at my own pace, choose which info to absorb (I rarely read entire labels), and hear the surroundings.

Not usually for the main collection, yes for special exhibits, if it’s free and the crowd isn’t nuts. Probably because of where the guides are handed out – at the controlled entrance to the special exhibit. generally, special exhibits have a single path, so i’m thinking linearly & the guide can build a narrative, whereas in the main [galleries] I like to wander and anything gleaned from the guide will be a one-off. That said, if the guide was, already in my pocket in the shape of my mobile phone, I’d be more likely to call up info on a particular piece in the main [galleries].

I’m not usually at a museum by myself, and I want to have a shared experience with whomever I’m with. Headphones disrupt that.

Because I don’t like things in my ears.

I think we can glean a few things, even from a small sample like this one. The first (and I point this out in my paper) is that museums really don’t know much about this new audience. What studies have been done (in particular Peter Samis’s excellent survey of visitor response to the Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint interpretive devices) are largely analyses of visitor preference between given devices, and don’t therefore tell us much about the majority of our audience that never picks up a device in the first place.

The follow-on from this, then, is of course that museums don’t yet know whether the approaches they currently employ in the development of interpretive technology strategies in galleries will produce results that satisfy this new audience. Given that most multimedia handheld devices in museums still employ what is basically an audio tour model adapted to a new device, my assumption (particularly in light of the kinds of responses like the ones above) is that this will not be the case. It’s time to figure out a new way.

Before I leave this post to go catch up on some Battlestar Galactica, I thought I’d point towards a few interesting resources. The first is a post from New Curator with a discussion about iPhone apps that might be useful for museums. Another is the Museums and Mobile Adoption Survey by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Of particular interest to me were the responses to the “Are you evaluating visitor usage of the device?” question. And lastly, but never leastly, the Mattress Factory dudes have made excellence happen again in the form of an aggregated MF Twitter feed viewable in the MF’s gallery space. Aside from this just being a great idea, I point to it because I mentioned making something similar to this available via handheld devices in the MW paper, and it’s nice to see this already happening. Word.

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4 thoughts on “The future of mobile interpretation redux

  1. Koven,
    I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot recently as I review the book Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience, which is mostly about mobile tech. They have plenty of nice studies about how people who use the systems respond to them, but I can’t shake the fact that these folks represent such a small percentage of visitors. For most people, anything but on-demand can feel oppressive.

  2. I agree — shoving the audio shaped experience into the new handheld form factor is certainly a good way to make a mediocre experience. It’s a good point for museums to step back from what they perceive as a good experience or, more importantly, from what they think they should be providing visitors and watch what’s actually succeeding in the rest of the world. Consumers every day are making clear their preferred ways of learning about things and how they want to experience new technologies. Museums need to spend more time out of their own perspectives.

    I’d suggest a handful of things:
    1. Find a local venture capitalist and build a friendship. You want to know what they’re looking at, what they see, and why. The important thing is to learn to see trends like they do. At the worst, you’ll talk to a bunch of really smart people that challenge your ideas without the same prejudices you have, better, you might find new partners and collaborators.

    2. Treat every project that you do as a potential money-making business, pretend it’s a startup. This forces you to think about audience, how to potentially see a return on an investment, and how to be smart about potential development. But you’re always creating a product and you learn how not to orphan something. It doesn’t mean that you’re always monetizing everything in real life and sullying your institution’s goal, but it enforces an interesting discipline.

    3. Look at every experience you have or enjoy, try and figure out what makes it compelling for *you* or *others* and then see if there are experiences your museum provides that can be parallel. For example, you talk about relevant iPhone apps — take a look at the app. It’s entirely about fashion and seeing the latest bits off the runway, but how different is that really from looking at works of art and finding stuff you like? Think of how to pervert existing systems and examples. Reach out to them to see if their experiences contain useful nuggets for you.

    4. Define the one or two sentences your experience is trying to do — share information? let visitors interact with the museum? with each other? Whatever it is, get that simple purpose and whittle away everything else.

    … hm, but I digress a bit from audio — but that’s my point. You’re not solving the audio in a handheld problem. That’s the delivery mechanism. What’s the more fundamental content and experience question and then see if the handheld or audio help with that problem.

  3. Koven,

    How do you do? I was co-founder of the ill-fated WiVID Systems which developed the even more ill-fated SIguide system. Are you familiar with it’s spec or GUI? It was in the nose bleed territory of cutting edge at the time, 1GB SD cards cost $250 dollars!

    Anyway, it was designed in collaboration with the participating SI museums (SAAM, NPG, Postal, Castle, A&S, NMAH, and NatHist) and given your ideas, I think you would have been appreciative.

    Like you, I was and still am, uneasy with the notion of “simple is better” and I define K.I.S.S. differently: Keep It Sophisticated, Simply

    To accomplish this I advocate different interface MODALITIES. Simplicity results from a user being comfortable having chosen their level of interface complexity.

    SIguide had 3 basic modes to choose from:

    AUTO mode, where you could wander and information was pushed, you didn’t have to do a thing.

    NEAR ME mode which published a list of all interpreted objects that were near you.

    TOUR mode, self explanatory although we had a breakthrough in wayfinding that hasn’t been exploited since.

    Of course, one could also navigate using Maps or Text lists, and their was a FIND feature that allowed users to build their own tour plus a scapbook feature to send information home.

    The Messenger was drawing based and you could send or receive messages from within your group, (even if they were in another building) or send comments to the museum.

    While there are several members of this wiki(hi Bruce, I chuckled at your “Find a venture capitalist” and “be like a startup” comments)familiar with the problems WiVID had, I strongly feel the device delivered a fully featured experience using web standards, that was totally data driven.

    The interface software worked fine and we did hundreds of audio, video, and hotspotted QTVR clips; but in the end, location awareness was our achilles heel and still is indoors.

    Let me know if you are interested in any images from that era around 2004-5. I get a sick feeling that all the mind maps and talk is the result of a loop in time back to 2002 when we first started thinking about this stuff.

    Currently I’m working on an iPod tour and a new notion: Digital Interpretopias.


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