The future of mobile interpretation

February 13, 2009

Old-ish Content Warning!

You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

Well, it’s been an exhausting few weeks here at kovenjsmith HQ. In addition to reading through scores of accolades over my recent interview with Paul Miller (thanks to all two of you that wrote in–your copy of the Koven J. Smith home game should arrive via parcel post in six to eight weeks), I’ve also been working on a new score for the great NYC choreographer Daniel Charon , which will be premiered in April at Joyce SoHo . I hope to have some mp3s of the music up here as soon as I can excerpt everything into palatable chunks.

While all o’ that has been going on, I’ve also been working on a paper for the upcoming Museums and the Web conference about the use of multimedia handheld devices in museums. The seeds for many of the concepts in this paper were planted during the two-day “From Audiotours to iPhones ” symposium on handhelds at Tate Modern last September. The symposium, organized by Jane Burton of Tate Modern and Nancy Proctor from SAAM, assembled some of the leading minds in mobile interpretation, including Peter Samis from SFMOMA, Chris Alexander from SJAM, Allegra Burnette from MoMA, and Daniel Incandela from the IMA for two days of spirited debate.

While the paper I just completed for MW is in some ways a reaction to rather than a distillation of the symposium’s content, the symposium was incredibly helpful in bringing focus to the idea as a whole. My overwhelming feeling, coming out of the symposium, is that museums still have yet to make the big leap necessary for these kinds of technologies to really take hold, and the paper pretty much expands on that. From the introduction:

The last several years have seen museums carefully moving away from outmoded audio technology towards richer multimedia devices. However, while there have been a handful of successful museum installations of multimedia guides, these devices still have yet to take hold in museums in the same way that audio guides have. The failure of the majority of handheld projects to date has been blamed on their trying to do too much, using technology that is too complex, too expensive, or “not ready for prime time.” The resulting best practices, as witnessed in the recent symposium on handheld devices at Tate Modern, have emphasized simplifying handheld applications and devices, in effect bringing them into line with traditional audio tours but adding a few visuals. Although a few of these devices may have individually failed as a result of poorly executed complexity, simplification as a broad solution is not the answer. If anything, the failure of these devices to find a voice in museums is because museums are, by and large, not taking full advantage of the capabilities of this new generation of multimedia devices.

Multimedia devices represent a break, a sea change, in both content and platform, from audio guides. That is to say, if one thinks of the evolution of mobile interpretive devices as a straight line from AM/FM devices through personal cassette players to the now-ubiquitous random-access mp3 players, multimedia guides do not represent the logical endpoint of that evolution, but rather a parallel and altogether different development. Multimedia guides bring with them a suite of opportunities and difficulties that only occasionally overlap with the opportunities and difficulties associated with audio guides. Although the technology has changed, the mindset that produces content for the technology has not.

UPDATE: The final version of the paper can be found at the Archives and Museum Informatics site.