The iPod tour at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

January 29, 2010

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 There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic).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

I just came back from seeing the “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation ” show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design museum, and taking some time to check out its much-ballyhooed iPod Touch tour, which was designed by New York design house 2×4 . I was curious to see the device in action, after first hearing about it through the #museummobile Twitter stream and then via the positive review of the tour in the New York Times. I arrived with somewhat high expectations. Would this finally be the mobile handheld implementation that I and others have been dreaming about?

Well, yes and no. I found myself somewhat frustrated by the experience–the tour does so many things right, that it makes the things it does poorly just that much more glaring.

I’ll start with the good stuff first (for a change). First, the amount of content available on the device is absolutely staggering. For each of the 78 designers with work represented in the show, there was some kind of multimedia content available. At minimum, a slide show of the designer’s work was presented, but more often than not this slide show would be accompanied by an audio interview or artist statement. Many of the profiles featured YouTube videos illustrating aspects of the designer’s work. In some cases, there were multiple videos, multiple interviews, and multiple slideshows. The devices were light on text content (there was virtually none at all, as I recall), but this didn’t feel like a critical omission, given the inherently visual nature of much of the work on display. Given that my call has always been for more, more, and more content , the amount of stuff to get into here was fantastic.

I was also excited that much of the content on the devices was not (as far as I can tell) created expressly for the exhibition. Some of the most interesting content on the devices was delivered via YouTube videos, most of which I think were not created for the exhibition or even posted by the Museum itself. I would love to see more museums start to do this–taking content that’s freely available from other sources, and incorporating it into an in-gallery interpretation strategy.

The devices also handle comments quite well. Visitors are given the ability to comment directly on a given designer’s profile, or on the exhibition generally. These comments show up on the exhibition’s Web site , on a series of iMacs on display at the end of the exhibition itself, and, apparently, on Twitter (though it’s unclear to me how this is done). Comments received from the gallery are merged with comments received from the Web site pretty seamlessly, which is a nice feature. My only real dissatisfaction with the comments feature was the inability to respond directly to previous users’ comments. I guess I’ve become so used to the idea of an @ reply that I expect a little more asynchronous conversation than was really possible here. That’s a pretty minor point, though.

And generally speaking, the interface works nicely. After a moment or two of playing with it, it was pretty clear how to get around, how to search, and how to comment. I’d be curious to test this with someone who is less familiar with the iPhone model; I wonder if to an iPhone newbie, the navigation would have been a little daunting.

And now on to the not-so-good stuff…

Something I had not really considered before is how having to pick up a device from a museum, versus bringing in your own and downloading an app, changes how much and what kind of content one might be willing to tolerate. Many of the videos linked from the device were longer than three minutes, with some clocking in at eight minutes or more. I would guess that while I was in the exhibition, I never watched any more than perhaps a minute-and-a-half of any one video, mostly because I felt a need to move on to the next designer’s display. Had this been an application on my own device, however, I could have saved any of those videos for later viewing, or shared them with friends immediately. I wouldn’t have been frustrated by not being able to watch entire videos, because the app would have essentially been leveraging the arrangement of a physical exhibition to point me to a sea of content I could explore later. Instead, I watched pieces of a few videos, most of which I’ll never get around to finding and re-watching on my own.

This problem could possibly have been mitigated by the “send my visit” feature, in which one can e-mail a summary of his or her visit to someone else. I e-mailed my visit to myself, in the hopes that maybe there would be URLs for the videos I had viewed in the e-mail. No such luck. All that appeared in the e-mail was a statistical breakdown of what I saw (number of designers’ profiles viewed, number of videos watched, number of images viewed, and number of comments added). I’ve never been a big believer in the “e-mail me this object” features that were ubiquitous on museum kiosks for a while, but here was a situation where e-mailing this information to myself actually could have been helpful.

I think my biggest beef with the iPod Touch tour, though, and the one that the reviewer touched upon in the NYT article, is that it doesn’t seem that well-integrated into the exhibition. And here I don’t mean well-integrated in a design sense; the physical exhibition design and the app design on the iPod were well-coordinated. What I mean is that it seems that the exhibition experience and the iPod experience were separate, parallel types of engagement, in which one had to stop doing one in order to experience the other.

I found myself either focusing entirely on the device, to the exclusion of all else, or focusing on the work on display, without any of the additional interpretive content from the device. Fundamentally, the experience I had on the device seemed like it would have been more fulfilling almost anywhere other than in the gallery. Both the exhibition itself (exclusive of the device) and the iPod tour each felt like complete experiences on their own–they didn’t really appear to need each other.

This issue was probably best exemplified by the thumbnail images used in the main navigation. Each designer’s profile, when shown in the primary list-style navigation, is associated with a thumbnail image of a representative work. However, this representative work was often not the work that was on display in the gallery. There was thus no visual shorthand one could use to assist with finding the appropriate profile. This seems like such an obvious integration point between the physical exhibition and the iPod tour, that its absence was striking.

Aaaaaanyway, there you go. On the whole, the handheld tour was a good effort, probably the best of its kind I’ve yet seen, but not quite ideal. I’d be really curious to hear others’ thoughts about this, particularly if you’ve seen the show and had a different reaction to the handheld tour.

Of possible further interest: