The future of mobile interpretation redux

March 2, 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 There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic).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.

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 interesting 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.