Tag Archives: mobile

Travels in November


Contrails. CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Wikimedia Commons user Cp9asngf

November is going to be action packed! I’m not really ready for it, but c’est la vie. I’ll be doing a whirlwind tour of North America and Europe, going to three different conferences, and finally, finally, finally going to see the Louisiana Museum and learning more about how the amazing Louisiana Channel runs.

Oct 31-Nov 4,New Orleans
Museum Computer Network Conference 2016

This year, Bruce Wyman, Kate Haley Goldman, and I are repeating our “Experiencing the Visitor Experience” workshop on the 1st.  The inimitable Suse Cairns and I are also hosting an informal book club to discuss “Post-Critical Museology”. Time and place TBD, so check Twitter for updates. Other than that, I’m free as a bird and looking forward to attending sessions!

Nov 10, Copenhagen
Louisiana Museum

I’m visiting the Louisiana Museum and talk to the folks at the Louisiana Channel before heading across the bridge to Malmö attend Alibis for Interaction.

Nov 11, Malmö
Alibis for Interaction 2016

Nordic LARPing anyone? Alibis for Interaction is a one-day masterclass on the craft of designing human interaction, participation and narrative experiences. Because participation can be hard. Talking to strangers is hard. Receiving attention is hard. Doing new things is hard, Even when whatever you’re being invited to do looks fun or really important issue. I’ll be doing research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting some run-n-gun interviews.

Nov 12-13
Up in the air. There’s tons to see in Copenhagen. Suggestions?

Nov 13-16, Köln
Clash of Realities 2016

At Clash of Realities, experts from the academy, science and research, economics, politics and the game industry will discuss pressing questions concerning the artistic design, technological development, and social perception of digital games, as well as the spreading of games literacy. I’ll be doing more research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting more formal interviews with our intrepid videographer, Mr. Chip Van Dyke.

So if you’re in New Orleans, Copenhagen, Malmö, or Köln, hit me up and we’ll have coffee or a drink! DMing me on Twitter is probably the safest bet, email also works.


Review: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One – Part Two

So here is part two of my review of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. If you’re just joining us, check out Part One of my review here. It has important introductory material you should have in mind as you read.

The Collection Wall

Visitors using the Collections Wall

For me, the Collection Wall was the centerpiece of the Gallery One experience. A continuous 40-foot long multi-touch screen (that’s 150 Christie MicroTiles for you hardware dorks) visually displaying images of over 3,000 works of art at CMA, the Wall is an impressive piece of technology, but it’s more. The effect of standing before it as the collection slowly slides by and regroups itself around themes is a visual exclamation of bounty. “Look at all that’s here for you to explore!” it practically shouts. And I know the amount of work contained in just providing decent images and descriptive text for 3,000+ objects. I hope they can use this experience to really generate a kick-ass CMS full of data and metadata, because let’s face it, many of our institutions have a long way to go to provide the kind of experience one gets at the Collections Wall.

A familiar sight for a select few. A typical view of images in a CMS (In this case, TMS). Image from http://www.gallerysystems.com/sites/default/files/screenshots/2012/english/display.png

Closeup of the Collections Wall

The Collection Wall is meant to be an introductory experience to visiting the rest of the museum, and a lot of functionalities (or lack thereof) flow from this decision. At the Wall, you can look at art, grab pieces that pique your interest and drag them to you, see other objects with similar metadata (time period, medium, locale…) and many of the things you can do looking through any other image database. What makes the Collection Wall a bit different is that interfaces with CMA’s ArtLens app to allow you to save images you like, construct your own tour of the museum, or take someone’s else’s. You can borrow iPads from the museum, or bring your own and set them on a stand in front of the Wall, which, through the magic of RFID tags (make sure to ask for one if you bring your own iPad) will glow blue when it detects your device and will sync up any objects you flick downwards towards your iPad and show you what you’ve gathered. When you pick up your iPad, it’s got your objects already on it, and your device will tell you which galleries they’re in.

Their user scenario seems solid enough. Visitor comes to Gallery One first, checks out iPad, looks at Collection Wall to find interesting objects, gathers some, maybe assembles a tour or chooses an existing one, and then goes off into the museum with their personalized map. I, of course, wanted to try something different. I saw an image of a flintlock pistol go by, and thought, “Ooh, I wonder if they’ve got more flintlocks?” (good thesis topics never leave you). So I grabbed it and tried to wring more information out of it. The options for browsing similar items were for serendipitous browsing, not real searching. I didn’t want to see other things from Italy, or from 1620, so I tried Arms and armor. Still too broad. Grr. Was there a search feature? No. So I ended up stepping several paces back from the wall and visually scanning for other flintlocks. I did manage to find a couple and dragged them (one quite a distance!) over to my area and flicked them down to my iPad.

And here’s a classic design dilemma. If your goal is to make an experience that will propel people into the museum, then leaving out a search function makes sense. You don’t want them spending precious time in front of a wall of screens. The obvious solution is to limit the number of functions one can perform at the Wall. But, what if the experience is so compelling that visitors want to do more than the system is designed to do? I don’t know which way I’d go if it were up to me. As a visitor, I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t use the Wall as a way to learn more.

ArtLens app

I will admit I started out predisposed against the ArtLens app before I even landed in Cleveland. When it first came out, I was one of those people who read the reports on Gallery One and knew I needed to take a look. So I went and downloaded the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. The ArtLens app was a normal sized download, so I waited for it, and then I launched it, only to find that it needed “resources” to run and it would be twenty minutes (!) before it downloaded all the images, etc… it needed. Grr.

Later that day, I finally explored the app and poked around at it, but it became very clear that the app was designed solely to aid you on a visit to the physical museum. Most of the main features like Near You Now, Scanning, and Today, meant nothing to me in Boston. The other two Tours, and Favorites at least rewarded my poking around with beautiful images, but they were still completely site-specific. It was one of those moments when it was clear that the app was not made for the likes of me.

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The combination of the Lenses, the Collection Wall and ArtLens are supposed to provide visitors with a set of experiences that help them learn how to “do” a visit to CMA. The integration between ArtLens and the Wall was therefore an important piece to get right since the ArtLens was the only piece of the Gallery One experience that could be carried out of the gallery and into the rest of the museum. I was particularly interested to see how well the two components worked with each other and how well the ArtLens worked out in the wild, since location-finding in museums is still one of those issues that still hasn’t been solved well. Or had it?

The Collection Wall/ArtLens interface. When you place an active iPad on a station, it glows blue. Any objects you flick down, get saved to your device.

When it came to using the ArtLens in the museum, I had no luck. The signal dropped on me almost immediately and despite my unauthorized fiddling with the device, I couldn’t get it back. Having walked a good ways into the building, I gave up on it, and toted the iPad around while I enjoyed the art. Upon returning, a group of us sat down (collapsed?) at the cafe for a final chat and found that for one person the Wifi had worked fine. She was delighted with the experience and happily told us about her adventures “scanning” objects and ideas for how she’d improve on it. The second person at the table had had intermittent signal losses, but had managed to restart the device and find the network again. I, as you know,  had a total failure of the device, and couldn’t add much to the conversation, other than the observation that if three seasoned professionals who weren’t afraid to try anything and everything could have such wildly different experiences of the device, what must it be like for a visitor who happens to have a hard time?

In short, I’m still not sold on any Wifi-based location finding system.

The Workshops

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Looking back on the two days I spent at the MW Deep Dive, the most important lessons I took away from the workshop have less to do with the products of the Gallery One project and more to do with the process CMA had to develop in order to get the work done. It’s here that I think the format of the “Deep Dive” really shone. I’d seen CMA’s conference presentations, read the paper. And even if I’d gone to Gallery One on my own, I don’t think I’d have gotten as much out of it as I did during the workshop. Having all the key staff there, exploring their process and learning, and having the finished product right there to explore was an ideal way to really wrap my brain around what CMA had tried to do.

The day we arrived, we started out at the museum for an informal welcome and then a couple of hours to explore on our own. It was good to start off approaching it more like a visitor than a professional, and watching your colleagues and friends trying to make sense of an experience is always entertaining! We talked, wandered around, and poked at everything we could see. Dinner that night was full of debate as we compared notes and tried to put ourselves in the heads of CMA’s staff.

The next morning, there were a series of six workshops focusing on everything from immersive exeriences to staffing, to content management. And like good workshops, they were mostly discussion and not so much presentation. The attendees had tons of questions, and the CMA staff, who represented a variety of education, interpretation, curatorial, and technology perspectives, managed to answer most of those questions.

Everyone I met, from the Director on down, was able to talk knowledgeably about the project. It was clear how much of a museum-wide endeavor Gallery One was, and that may be it’s greatest accomplishment.

Creating a set of digital experiences with the depth and breadth of Gallery One required CMA’s educators and curators (and collections managers, and contractors, and visitor services folks, and…) to work together in ways that they hadn’t before. The team had to articulate a vision of how they wanted visitors to experience a visit to CMA, and then design exhibits to encourage that kind of participation. You can agree or disagree with whether those goals were the most important, but it was abundantly clear to me that they came up with goals that had broad consensus in the museum and then stuck to them. And having worked on projects that had clear goals and ones that didn’t, I can’t overstate how much better the former is. When you have goals that a) everybody can understand/articulate, and b) everybody can get behind (even unwillingly) then seemingly impossible hurdles can be overcome, like restarting the design process when the project seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, or getting multiple curators to assign highlight works from their collections to a crazy experimental gallery instead of putting them in the permanent galleries.

One of the curators in the immersive experiences workshop said something about how rewarding it was to be part of an inclusive process. Curators often tend to be cast “the other” when  we talk about new technologies and methodologies, but as I noted last year at Museums and the Web, we seem to have passed that inflection point, where incorporating digital is no longer a question of “Should we?” but “How should we?” Looking back on the Gallery One process, he said that not only  can you expect collaborative cooperation from most curators, but that you should expect it. There will be holdouts in every institution, of course.

Gallery One awaits!


So that’s my very unscientific, very personal experience of a great project and a great professional development event.  Getting a project as massive as Gallery One launched on time, on budget, and on target is a feat worthy of our admiration and respect. Some parts of it worked really well for me. Others seemed more problematic, and one just didn’t work. But that’s what happens when you’re ambitious. You try things, see what works, fix what doesn’t, and move on. CMA is already working on the next version of the ArtLens app, and I look forward to seeing what the next iteration of Gallery One looks like. CMA have firmly established themselves as a forward-looking institution, out ahead of the pack. And with Gallery One, they’ve set a pretty high bar for what will count as a “big, ambitious digital project” from now on.

You should go.

Other observations

Some other jottings from my notebook that didn’t find their way into these posts:

  • If you put touchscreens in a gallery with artworks, will people touch the art more? Yes. Better plan for it.
  • Listening to visitor research helped CMA avoid telling stories only the staff were interested in, like the history of CMA and its collections.
  • Developing  Gallery One really highlighted how much visitors want to know “the basics” about objects; the who, what, when, and where.
  • The chief curator said that a benefit he hadn’t anticipated about Gallery One was that it was now possible to know which objects visitors were most interested in by looking at which ones got “favorited” the most. It had become his habit to check in on the stats to see which objects were most popular with compared his own list of favorites.
  • Jane Alexander said that one of the most important decisions she made was hiring an AV integrator at the beginning of the project whose job was “to tell them how much ‘yes’ was going to cost.” Smart.

Further Resources

CMA YouTube video:
Transforming the Museum Experience: GALLERY ONE

Transforming the Art Museum Experience: Gallery One
Jane Alexander, USA , Jake Barton, USA, Caroline Goeser, USA
The paper of record on the project, delivered at the Museums and the Web 2013 conference.

Blending Art, Technology, & Interpretation: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One & ArtLens
Caroline Goeser
An excellent overview of the team’s approach to using digital technologies as integrative interpretive tools to drive active experiences with art in the Gallery.

Download the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/artlens/id580839935?mt=8

Storify of #mwatcma tweets
These provide a neat running commentary of how the event was progressing.

Dana Allen-Greil’s took notes in a Google Doc of what impressed her during the workshops. Maybe you should add your notes to it. My notes are all here…

Australia: MONA’s “The O” post-visit website

The “O” Part Two
This is the last post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. The second post covered the “O”, the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA. This post will specifically address the post-visit experience – what happens when you get home to find an email from MONA.

Logging in

What you see when you go to the MONA site.

MONA’s website is a bit of a tease. You can’t really get much about the MONA experience from looking at the site. They taken Koven Smith’s advice to heart and haven’t made another Conestoga Wagon for the 21st century. Their site has a very unusual purpose and audience. It exists to allow you to recall your visit to MONA in great detail. If you haven’t been, the site will be of little use to you. And the looping soundtrack might make you cranky. The merits and problems associated with this exclusivity are certainly worthy of discussion, but I found it a bit refreshing that they had chosen their audience, and it wasn’t the usual “everyone who might be interested in our collecting area, plus more people every year”  audience. Their website is not an analogue to the physical structure – it is something completely different. It’s a record of your relationship with MONA.

Visualizing a visit

Your visit presented to you in map form.

When you input the email address you entered when you got the device, you are confronted with this screen (as long as you’re not looking at it on an iDevice, hence the delay in me getting round to it) which presents you with a wireframe map of MONA, a list of the visits you’ve made, and the ability to toggle between looking at the works you saw on that visit, and those you didn’t.

The map
After reading Seb’s review, I was really keen to see the map. From a content creator’s standpoint, the ability to know what objects people were looking at, and to aggregate those data to make real heatmaps of where people were going in the museum sounded like Nirvana. From a visitor standpoint, I wanted to see how well it recalled my visit to me, after a period of weeks.  When we were at MONA, I was a bit taken aback to find they weren’t using the data they were collecting much. It’s still early days for them I suppose, but if I were there, I’d be crawling all over those data, just to see what I could learn from them.

From a visitor standpoint, I found it worked really well. The map is rotatable (though not zoomable) and the dots each represent an artwork you called up on the O. They are timestamped, so you can playback your visit and watch how you moved through the space. Given how lost I felt in MONA, it was a surprise to see how regular the floorplan is. Clicking on any dot, brings up the icon of the artwork and title, plus all it’s O content. I like the way you can build a mental model of your visit with pretty high fidelity. The use of images was helpful, since I seem to have trouble recalling titles from this visit. It might have something to do with there being no label in my visual memory of the artworks. I dunno… Always good to have pictures. I wish they led to bigger ones. One of my biggest disappointments in using the site was not being able to see big, clear images of the art. But more on that later.


Selecting an artwork you studied.

The promise of more
I loved the “Filters” and “Your tours” features of the site, because they both encourage you to think about having a relationship with MONA that lasts longer than one visit. The Filters buttons, presents you with either the list of everything you accessed during your visit (the default) or the list of everything you didn’t access. After reliving my tour in some depth, I found myself going back to see the things I didn’t look at, and thinking “Next time I’m at MONA, I want to…” The same with “Your tours”. It’s not “Your tour”. That use of the plural is the best invitation I’ve seen in a museum webiste. It invites without asking. I could easily imagine a long list of dates I’d been to MONA and imagine comparing my visits over time, what objects I kept going back to, and so on.

Brilliant thus far. But what about the content? What goodies are waiting for me?

Drilling down

I had no idea what kind of content awaited me when I clicked on an object. When I selected one, I got familiar text, and the same choices I’d had on my O. In the case of Candle Describing a Sphere, a piece that had Jen and me riveted, there was an Art Wank, and Audio. No larger image, no different content. Just what was on the O, without even the voting results to tell me how many other visitors loved or hated this piece. I tried a few other pieces and sure enough, all you can get is what you get in the museum.

The content from the O on that object.

The lack of unique content on the website is the O’s greatest lack as far as I’m concerned. Decent images is a close second. At first I was taken aback, but I understand the realities of trying to get something done in time for opening and the need to scope a project appropriately, even if it means launching without all the bells and whistles it might have. And when I look at what MONA have done with the app and the website, they’ve done a lot. I hope they do more in the next version, but what’s there is pretty impressive when you step back and compare it with what a visitor to any other museum on Earth will get at the end of their visit.

I can tell you a lot about what I looked at while in MONA, and I already feel like I need to go back. Those reasons are enough to win them some praise from the rest of us. I can’t wait to see what improvements they make on the system.

Australia: MONA’s “The O” mobile guide

The “O”
This is the second post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. This post will specifically address the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA.

Perhaps separating the O from it’s setting is a mistake, but I kept switching back and forth while trying to describe my visitor experience, so I opted to give the O it’s own post. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether it was a wise idea.

Giving it away
The O comes with your admission to MONA, along with pretty sweet headphones which feature retractable cables! Why haven’t I seen these before? There goes one of my pet peeves; cable tangle. I was very impressed with the ease with which the front of house staff dispensed units, got you oriented, and sent you off. Perhaps its a sign of the changing times that handheld devices aren’t as big a deal as they once were. I think it’s also a sign of how well thought-out MONA’s visitor services are. Seb already mentioned the signage in his review of the O. I had a similar experience. Even my lovely and talented wife Jennifer, who tends to approach touch screens as though she’s poking a venomous animal got hers going on the first attempt. The whole encounter didn’t feel like it took any extra time on top of getting our tickets and orientation.

Obviously, MONA wouldn’t work without the O, so bundling the cost in the admission and making it universally distributed makes sense. I wish more institutions would take the same plunge. In my museum career, I’ve worked on my share of audio and multimedia tours for exhibitions. And I can confidently state that as a content creator, nothing is as soul-crushing as developing content that you know 80-90 percent of your potential audience will never encounter, because it’s stuck on a device you have to pay extra for on top of museum admission, and probably special exhibition admission, too. I understand the reasons behind it, but that doesn’t make it suck any less when you’re on deadline trying to make an engaging, unique experience for the visitors. Knowing that all visitors to the museum at least have access to all the content on the O resonated deeply with me. This same dynamic applies to a lot of mobile content. Give it away if you can. Charge for it only if you can clearly make your value proposition to your audience.

This will not be a technical review, since I haven’t talked to any of the technical staff about the guts of the device. Come to MCN2012 in Seattle if you want to get the skinny from the creators. I was interested in how the device shaped my visit, and focused on that. For other reviews, check out Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s.

Having to work to get information changed the way I interacted
I have a confession to make. Most art museum object labels make me nuts. I think it’s telling that they are referred to in in the field as “tombstone” labels, because I think for many visitors, tombstone labels are where their interest in an object goes to die. Is the general public interested in the accession number? Does everyone really have to know whose bequest funded the purchase of every single piece in the entire museum? And nothing else? Aiya! Don’t get me wrong, I use accession numbers all the time in my work, and I take a certain geeky pleasure in parsing a well-formed one. I also owe my livelihood to funders and am endlessly grateful to them for their philanthropy. I just think that even a one sentence description of an object would be more useful to more visitors than all the accession # and donor/funder credits on Earth. So I was predisposed to think the O might be another way worth considering.

Once in the museum and confronted with a gallery full of objects, I found myself doing the “Where should I go?” visual scan, and without the comfort of directional signage and labels it was hard to get started. As a learner, I guess am one of those “advanced organizer” types. I want to have a map in front of me, and be able to see where I am and where I can go. Not having those cues (I did have a map in my pocket) was a bit unsettling. I wanted to be told “Start here!” In the end, I chose an Egyptian relief and went up to it and started looking at it. In hindsight, it was a “safe” choice for me, since I’ve been to Egypt, done Egyptian exhibitions before and felt able to look at the object cold without feeling the way I often feel when looking at contemporary art – confused and unsure.

I used my O to find out what the object was, tried out the summary and the “curator’s wank”, which is what the longer descriptive text are called. I had some trouble with the title, especially after it seemed clear that many of them were written by women, but the actually wanks themselves were pretty straight-up, curatorial texts by and large. About the only major difference I found was that they tended to have more personality to them and were full of personal references that gave me sense of the MONA curators that I don’t usually get at other art museums. Otherwise, they weren’t crazy and way out. That was a bit of a shocker.

Every object has a Love and a Hate button and I was eager to see what this led to, so I loved my stele, whereupon I was told that X other visitors had loved it, too. And that was it. No infographics, or breakdowns on who else in the room loved that object. Just an acknowledgment and a fact. I was a bit surprised, even having read the reviews. I guess I was expecting the Love/Hate act to be more … declarative? … public? I dunno. As I progressed through the museum, though, I found myself asking the question of an object “Do I love this? Do I hate this? How does this object make me feel?” That is not the way I usually behave in an art museum, and it felt like a useful scaffold to me as an art learner to have to go through that exercise. By the end of the visit, though, I know I was loving and hating things because I wanted to remember them, and having only those two choices was limiting to me. I really, really, really wanted a “This object doesn’t speak to me” or “Meh.” button. Maybe in v2?

As I tried other objects and found other content on the O, I listened to audio interviews with artists. Some were interesting and very raw, some of them waffled around and could’ve done with some tighter editing and interviewing. About the only content that surprised me on the O were the songs that were selected to accompany some pieces, including some that were commissioned to be “about” pieces in the collection. I loved the inclusion of poetry that somebody (the curators? Walsh?) thought appropriate. The long and the short of it, though, was that the O didn’t really usurp my experience of looking at the art, which is always the danger with interpretive media. If the interpretation is more engaging than the object, then you wind up with a room full of people looking down at their screens instead of looking around.

Perhaps the most defining moment of our visit came when we got to the entrance of the current special exhibition, “Theatre of the World”. Having dutifully used her O throughout the visit, Jennifer proudly and loudly announced she was turning hers off and not going to use it. She had gotten what the O could provide her, tried it enough, and was ready to fly solo. Being a Star Wars guy, I of course had a momentary image of “Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer! What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I’m alright.” She was going in to see what was there, and nothing else. That would be impossible in any other art museum on Earth because the labels would be there, calling out to be read. Being able to choose the level of interpretation she wanted led her to choose none. And that was her favorite part of her visit.

I also found myself using the device less and less frequently as I went along, and “loving” and “hating” things less often as I grew accustomed to what awaited me. I could have the internal conversation without the external act of choosing. I even found myself asking objects, “Do I like you enough to want to bother to find out more?” and deciding the answer was no fairly often. And that freedom to choose what I wanted to engage with and how deeply I wanted to engage with it had everything to do with the information residing in the O and not on the wall. That’s what a successful scaffold is supposed to do, isn’t it? Be useful until you don’t need it and then get out of the way.

It’s not a wayfinding aid
The O didn’t really help me find my way around MONA. This is not a surprise since MONA’s not really built to be navigable in the traditional “Where’s the Impressionists gallery” sense. Even though the device has a pretty good sense of where you are in the building, thanks to a proprietary wayfinding system, the O instead presents you with a thumbnail list of the works that are within a certain radius of your current location. It doesn’t seem to update it’s location on the fly. There’s a big “What’s Nearby?” button on screen. Pressing that pulls up images of nearby works. The system worked remarkably well. Given the nature of the building with its solid stone walls, I can only imagine what kind of brute force method was used to provide (nearly) blanket coverage of the museum. I managed to get my O lost a couple of times, but each time I moved into an adjacent space, the device managed to reorient itself. Really impressive. I was expecting most of my irritation with the device to revolve around location issues, and that wasn’t the case.

My wife and I quickly wound up going on separate paths, partly because I was stopping to photograph everything in sight, but at least partly because the lack of labels stopped us from doing the art museum waltz -step over to the object, step up to read the label, step back again, and step to the left to the next object. At least once, I stumbled upon an artwork I wanted Jennifer to see and had to go find her and walk her over to the work in question, because it would’ve been impossible to describe how to get there. I can imagine that would really freak out some people, but it didn’t really bother us. MONA is a place in which to get lost. You get unlost when you come out and that’s the important thing.

Revolutionary, and not
A lot of ink and electrons have already been spilled on how “edgy” MONA is, both in terms of its collections and its approach to interpretation. And it is, but not in the way you might think. A lot of the art is challenging, but so is a lot of contemporary art. No surprise there. The lack of wall labels is certainly a seismic shift in accepted practice, but one people have talked about forever. The O is revolutionary, but not for the reasons I thought it would be. My biggest surprise was how unsurprised I was by the content on the O. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t find it. I found an intriguing collection of mostly texts, many of which wouldn’t seem at all out of place in an art museum or gallery setting. I found an explicit scheme for getting visitors to think about art in emotional terms, and to feel that their personal experience of the art was the most important thing. But what was most revolutionary is not what’s on the device, or how people use the device, but what the absence makes possible. I can think of all sorts of ways I’d want to improve the O if given the chance, but they are all either performance improvements, or additions to the online experience. The O is at heart a way to augment the experience of what you’re looking at in MONA. And on that score, it works. I wanted more, like I always do after any mobile interpretation, and I wanted more different kinds of content. But I think the basic premise is sound, and I look forward to seeing how MONA grows the product and the platform.

Next up: Sydney and more Drinking About Museums!

Two new apps on old topics

Two of my favorite museum apps of late aren’t groundbreaking in the sense that they cover new topics or modes of interactions. In fact, they’re downright old-fashioned in terms of their content, if you can wrap your mind around the idea of an old-fashioned app. I like many things about these apps, but the reason I wanted to share them was that they both a stellar job of doing that thing that museums talk a lot about, but rarely manage to do; namely repackage existing content and design a new experience for a new medium (in this case, the iPad) that is both true to the original and feels like a custom-made iPad app, and not a retread of something that was probably cooler in the original.

1) Minds of Modern Mathematics
by IBM and the Eames Office

In 1961, IBM and the iconic designers Charles and Ray Eames presented “Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond” to the new California Museum of Science and Industry. It was the first of many exhibitions the Eames would create for IBM, and Mathematica would become so well-known that IBM would eventually create additional copies that were starring attractions at several U.S. science centers over the next five decades.

Five years after the opening of the Mathematica exhibit, IBM and Eames created “Men of Modern Mathematics” an enormous timeline of mathematical and scientific history. Copies of this timeline were added to Mathematica and posters were perennial favorites of museum shops and math department offices for years.

The Mathematica exhibit at the Museum of Science, Boston from Flickr user davepatten

To celebrate Ray Eames’ centenary, Eames Office and IBM again joined forces to take the content in the timeline and make an app out of it. The result is “Minds of Modern Mathematics” which is billed as a multimedia exploration of the history of mathematics

The timeline. It's busy, yo!

The Eames, perhaps best known to designers for their chairs and to dorks for “The Powers of Ten” film they made, were instrumental in creating the mid 20th century American aesthetic, partly for their willingness to engage in any medium they fancied; architecture, interior design, furniture, filmmaking, museum exhibitions, etc…

The surviving Mathematica exhibitions are practically artifacts themselves, living embodiments of the Eames’ design mind. They were also masters of content development, as this app makes clear.  If you’ve ever stood in front of one of the “Men of Modern Mathematics” timelines, you can appreciate why its so hard to make a good timeline. They take a (literally) gigantic amount of historical content and somehow make it all tell the story they want. It’s a hypertextual experience in physical form. Your eye can skip and jump from node to node, backwards, forwards, up, and down, as you explore math and its connections to everything going on between 1000-1950.

The app manages to capture the feeling of that experience, while rendering it in a format suitable for the iPad, which takes advantage of the affordances of the iPad in a way think Ray and Charles would’ve enjoyed. Each person or event on the timeline has both text and images and links to more information on the web.  The app changes the user interface depending on whether you’re in landscape or portrait orientation, a la Biblion. And best of all, it collects in one place the short films the Eames made for the exhibition on one screen. The Math Peep Shows are classics of educational media. Concepts like scaling and size, exponents, and other mathematical esoterica are explained and explored in a decidedly whimsical fashion.

The Timeline of "Minds of Modern Mathematics"

Leibniz’s biography. Note the Wikipedia links.

The Eames’ Math Peep Shows, in all their 1960s glory!

Get “Minds of Modern Mathematics” at the iTunes Store

And for extra credit, here’s Ice Cube, celebrating the Eames’ contribution to architecture. Watch it. You won’t be disappointed.


2) Color Uncovered
by the Exploratorium

Any app that instructs you to drip water on your iPad is OK by me! “Color Uncovered” delivers an app (though they call it an “interactive book” that captures the Exploratorium’s signature style of science experimentation in an incredibly polished and well-designed package.

The Exploratorium description of how an iPad screen works. Priceless.

The Exploratorium is justly famous for their style of exhibition design. Their Cookbook series of books have provided ideas and inspiration for countless science educators and museum builder the world over. And if you’ve ever used an Exploratorium exhibit, this book will feel immediately familiar. Each page starts with a color phenomenon and then unpack that phenomenon using essays, simple interactives or video to make their point.

One of the interactives that require you to use a real world prop.

Get “Color Uncovered” at the iTunes Store

So what do these apps do well?

Both these apps do a great job of taking existing content and delivering it in a new way through the new medium of an Internet-connected tablet. Although both of these apps contain content that already existed, neither is just a repackaging or “repurposing” of existing assets. Each app stands on it’s own as a satisfying tablet experience. That’s the lesson I’ve taken away from playing with both apps. Having great content is not the key. Great content helps, but it’s not enough to guarantee a successful experience, nor is simply copying the original, successful format. Careful design is what makes these apps both feel so pleasurable to use. Writing this has already gotten me thinking about what similar kinds of experiences we’ve got that could be translated in a similar fashion.

Reviews: museum game apps

I got a lovely email last week from the people working with the Tate to announce their newest game app, “Race Against Time.” As I was downloading it, I remembered that Dave Schaller had sent me a link to Eduweb’s latest game app “Moon Walking”. Must be time to tackle games again.

This past Summer I wrote a series of four posts on gaming and museums.  It covered interactivity, the qualities of good interactives, games and play, and finally “gamification” the process of applying game principles to non-game activities.  Now, there’s a growing crop of museum games you can try out to see what’s possible.

Apps as ways to fill interstitial time
Somebody wise said the killer apps for mobiles is that they are a way to kill time while waiting for the bus – those down times that occur while we’re between places, or waiting for something to happen are a great time to engage an audience. Three of these games fit that bill.

Race Against Time

Tate’s latest game, possesses the same irreverent spirit that animates Tate Trumps, their first game.  In it, you play the part of a color-collecting chameleon, out to save the world from having all its colors sucked up by Dr. Greyscale.  Along the way, you traverse 12 decades of modern art in the background.

Race Against Time is a classic sidescroller (think “Mario Brothers”) where you gobble up color while avoiding perils and enemies. The concept is pretty simple “Don’t get killed.” I will confess I’ve been unable to get past the Fauvists before getting killed.  You can play the game anywhere, and there’s no benefit I can see to playing it in the Tate.


Meanderthal is one of Smithsonian’s most appealing apps in my opinion.  It’s another dead easy app in terms of functionality; you take your picture using the phone’s camera, choose a human ancestor and presto, the images are combined to make you appear Neanderthal. You can also learn about the three early human species presented in the app, but clearly the thrill lies in having your picture morphed.

What I like about Meanderthal is that it is a great snack. It does one thing and does it very well. And you actually learn some paleontology along the way. It’s got rudimentary social features like email and Facebook sharing, and it actually uses a built-in feature of a mobile – the camera – which is still surprisingly rare in museum apps.


An app that goes a bit further in using the mobile platform’s advantages seems to be Eduweb’s augmented reality (AR) app MoonWalking. This app lets you overlay scenes from the first Moon landing over wherever you happen to be at the time. Thanks to GPS positioning, you can walk around Tranquility Base and use your mobile as a window into real-time recreations of highlights of the mission.

What I like about the concept behind this app is the potential it has for heritage sites, or anywhere out in the world where you might want to overlay digital content on what you’re looking at. A ruined castle could be restored, an archaeological site become a living settlement. And it is best done with a mobile device. How well MoonWalking works in the wild I can’t say. My iPhone is too old and my iPad doesn’t have 3G so I can’t get the app to work.

LaunchballI think Launchball actually predates mobile apps. This simple physics simulator-meets construction set game was launched as a website (how old school is that?) back in 2007 to much acclaim. It won awards at Museums and the Web and some other conference called SXSW, where it picked up Best Game and Best of Show awards. In 2009, it was released for iOS and is available for iPhone.

UPDATE: Mia Ridge clarified the development history for me. Thanks, Mia!

NOTE: Apparently, Science Museum and the game’s developer are renegotiating contracts, so the game has been taken down from the App Store temporarily.  Try the original Flash version to get a sense of it’s addictive gameplay.

What I like about Launchball is the extent to which it works as a great game, and as a museum game.  It lets you play loads of levels, but it also lets you build your own, and share your creations with the Launchball community. First and foremost, it’s a good game. Second, it does a great job of getting you to experiment and engage in the “I wonder what would happen if…” thinking that’s an essential prerequisite to learning how scientists and engineers think.

Apps as ways to encourage visitors to pay attention in the museum

All the games I’ve mentioned thus far could be done anywhere. Nothing about them requires a museum visit, though you probably would never find them unless you were at that museum and saw a sign directing you to download the app.

Tate Trumps

Tate’s most well-known app, Tate Trumps, behaves differently than the apps above. It was originally designed to work in the Gallery, and has been updated to work anywhere. Like the title says, it’s a way to play a simple version of the card game trumps, only the cards are various artworks at the Tate.

In each of the three different games that make up Tate Trumps, you pick a hand of cards that are Tate artworks, that have attributes, some mundane like “size”, and others wildly subjective like “strength”.  When you assemble a hand, the game picks a suit, and the players try to put out their highest card with that attribute. Winner gets points, player with most points at the end of seven hands wins.

Tate Trumps is a brilliant piece of work in my opinion. It has multiple modes of gameplay. You can play it alone, or with your friends. The attributes are strange enough that they got me to look at the artworks differently than I would’ve on a more typical visit. In Collector mode, you add artworks by going around the gallery, typing in ID numbers off the object labels, “collecting” the pieces you want before your opponents can get them. And it’s connection to the Tate is crystal clear. It’s a game that only Tate would’ve made.

So what can these games teach us?

As I said in my previous app review, trying to synthesize learning from such disparate experiences is a challenge, but there are some things that rise up when I look at these games.

Good games are fun.
Seems like a no-brainer, but as you know, so many “educational” games are educational first and games second (if at all). They’re really gamified (ack) interactives, and they usually suck. If it’s going to be a game, it has to be a game first.

Be in for the long haul
Tate Trumps is on version 5, and has not only fixed bugs, but added major new functionalities as time has gone on. That means the business model has to be a software development model with new version releases and point releases, not a museum exhibition, “Build it and it’s done” model.

Success has costs
I doubt anyone at Science Museum could’ve predicted that Launchball would have such a long life, and morph from being a website to being a mobile app. And whatever agreement they originally had with the developers, I bet it didn’t include this contingency.

Things you can only do with a phone make more appealing apps
Almost all of these apps use the mobile platform to do things you couldn’t do any other way. Using the camera, communication functions, GPS, etc… all make the experience more compelling because it’s obvious that you could only do this with a mobile.

What museum game apps have you played and enjoyed?

Reviews: four apps that look at objects

Over the holidays, between parties, blissful bouts of relaxing, and a bit of food poisoning, I’ve been catching up on apps I meant to look at but haven’t found time for.  In this post I want to discuss four apps worth examining that all try to get users to look at objects and use the tablet platform to extend that experience.  And then maybe, there’ll be questions about apps creating virtual analogues of a physical experience.

The apps in question are:

  1. The University of Virginia Art Museum’s “UVaM” app,
  2.  MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionism NY,”
  3. The American Folk Art Museum’s “Infinite Variety: ThreCenturies of Red and White Quilts”,
  4. and a non-museum example, Pyrolia SA’s “Road, Inc.”

They run the gamut from pilot project to high-end, big budget custom developed project. What links them is that they all try to use the tablet platform to get you to do engage in a fundamental museum experience: looking closely at objects. And to a surprising extent, they all managed to get me to do it.

1) UVaM

The smallest of the apps in scope is a pilot project undertaken by UVA to expand on their efforts to expand access to their collection through their Object Study Gallery, a cross-cutting display of objects from a variety of cultures and time periods. To do this, they partnered with a company called Arqball, who describe themselves as “a platform for publishing rich interactive 3D content on mobile phones and tablets.” And 3D digital scans of eighteen objects form the backbone of this app. You can rotate high-res images of objects with a swipe, zoom in to inspect details, and access fairly lengthy curatorial descriptions of the objects.

The graphic design is minimal and clean and lets you focus on the objects. The objects that have extra images embedded in their descriptions are all large and zoomable as well.

The interface design is excellent. I never seemed to be more than one tap or swipe away from what I wanted. Because of the limited scope of the app, it has a pretty flat navigation scheme. You swipe left or right until you reach one end or the other.

The image resolution suits the objects. Part of it may just be clever object selection, but objects in the app are all displayed at good resolutions, and respond well to swiping and zooming. At max zoom, you can see the image start to fall apart, but I think that’s actually useful, a sort of visual “Here’s the limit” clue. I am also the sort who will zoom as far as possible, just to see what I can see.

The texts are long, but not off-puttingly so.  I might make the paragraphs a bit shorter, but… One nice feature of the text is that the image doesn’t go away when you swipe down. It moves to the top of the screen and only moves off-screen when there’s another image in the text that you might want to enlarge.

I like a landing page that sets you up for the experience. A signed letter from the Director as the intro? I’d rather launch into instructions and let this information not be the thing I see every time I launch the app.

The rationale behind the eighteen objects is unclear to me. I have no sense of what the collection is like from which they were selected.  It might be a case where I’d understand it all if I were in the museum, but as I’m not, it feels random.

Having only one orientation seems like a bug. The objects they’ve chosen are all taller than they are wide, but I’d still like to be able to rotate the tablet and have the app reorient itself.

On the whole
I thought this app was a great pilot. It demonstrated how an app that lets you look at 3D scans of objects might look, and it left me wishing there was more.  This is also the downside of pilots. Will there ever be a more comprehensive version?

Doing one thing really well can be enough to make a free app worth trying out.


2) Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts”

The American Folk Art Museum partnered with Toura to produce this app.  It got a lot of interesting press when the show opened (like this one from Simon Schama in ft.com) because the unusual exhibition design from Thinc Design made traditional labeling impossible. Quilts were hung in towering cylinders and arcs, many meters above the ground. Having an app a visual field guide was an interesting choice, and I still wish I’d seen the show while it was up.

What the exhibition looked like. By Gavin Ashworth

This app is very much in the vein of an old school multimedia guide. It exists to help you make sense of the physical space and identify quilts at a great distance to learn what the curators have decided to tell you about them.  It seems to be built with Toura’s MAP platform, which lets museums build an app from templates in relatively little time. Sometimes, it feels like a little off-the-shelf, but on the whole, the developers made great use of the platform.

Navigation by images rather than numbers or names is very pleasing.  I’m finishing off our first Toura app, and I so wish I could come up with a better method than the little card with the number… Maybe next time.

The addition of a whole “Post Exhibition Materials” is a very smart move, especially since the exhibition was only up for less than a week.  After the initial viewings of the quilts, I spent most of my time here, looking at installation photos, timelapse videos of the installation of the show, and videos of programming from the exhibition.

The navigation really only works in portrait mode. I was getting really frustrated with my inability to find any quilts in landscape mode. It was only when I accidentally turned my iPad that the screen rearranged and the navigation appeared across the bottom. I don’t know if it’s an issue with MAP or this instance of it.

The image zoom was inadequate to make out details on the quilts. I’m not quilter, but I know you have to be able to see the stitching to really understand how the piece was constructed.  You can’t even get close enough to resolve emroidered words on the quilts, let only fine detail.

Content was scarce. I wanted more, at least something on every quilt, even if it was only bare bones provenance.

The quality of the audios is atrocious. I listened (or tried to) with both headphones and the iPad speaker. The audios sound like they were phoned in from someplace with very bad phone service, or they were overcompressed to conserve bandwidth. Either way, they’re hard to listen to.

On the whole
This app made me feel like I’d missed something special, which I think is definitely a kind of success.  I can’t say how it functioned in the space, though.

Using premade templates isn’t as limiting as you might think. And if you want it done fast, not reinventing the wheel makes sense.


MoMA’s Abstract Expressionism NY

I have no special information on budgets for any of these apps, but MoMA’s Ab Ex NY has very high production values. Slick doesn’t come close to expressing how I felt using this app. From the graphical representation of the objects on the landing page, to the navigation, to the photography, all the pieces of the app feel like they were custom-built and tuned for the platform.  It’s an interesting counterpoint to the UVaM app, since most of the works here are essentially 2D, paintings and drawings, and the 3D objects in the show are treated as if they were 2D. There’s also the (in)famous cat video for the app.

Content depth is remarkable, and broad. Across all the objects I tried, there was something more to do, so even when I didn’t follow a link, I knew I was choosing to not go deeper, rather than hitting the wall beyond which no further content exists. This is a common occurrence for me using educational apps, so it’s a noteworthy departure.

The photo quality is superb throughout, and this app is really the only one of the four that let me get as zoomed in as I wanted to be without the image quality falling apart.

Glossaries and descriptions of techniques are becoming more common interpretive elements, praise be!  Telling me what a pallette knife is compared to showing me an artist demonstrating one is a little addition that I think has huge impact. More showing, and telling please!

I tried to find something, for fairness’ sake, but came up short. I really like this app.

On the whole
I like the way the app embodies the whole milieu of the New York Abstract Expressionists, showing not only their works, but their words, their images, their hangouts. It does all the things I’d want a companion app to do, and more. The art historical information and additional content are rich enough that I’ll probably keep this app on my tablet longer than UVaM or Infinite Variety.

Having a clear vision and hiring good people hardly ever results in a poor product.  Boatloads of money often help, too, though I wouldn’t be surprised if this app cost less than many might think.


4) Pyrolia SA’s Road, Inc.

The non-museum entry here, Road Inc. was produced by a French multimedia publishing studio, Pyrolia SA, which lauds their first product as redefining publishing, and marrying the craftsmanship of traditional publishing with the latest technologies.  This sounds like so much PR bombast, but in Pyrolia’s case, it’s not far off the mark.  The amount of effort that went into creating a virtual museum of famous cars is undeniable. 50 3D models of legendary cars have been created at motion picture quality levels of detail.  Around this virtual collection, Pyrolia have collected a wealth of multimedia content, from essays, to contemporary film and video, advertising, and (a personal favorite of mine) the sounds of the engine revving for many of the cars.

The app is set up in such a way that all but one of the cars are literally under wraps, hidden under a sheet.  When you want to explore a car, you have to choose to download it and then wait while your tablet installs the new content.  At first, I was balked at how long it took, but once I realized how much content came with each car, I realized how clever this strategy is. This sucker is a really heavyweight. If everything was preinstalled, the app would be a gargantuan download that would scare a lot of people off.

I think I’m not the demographic this app was designed for. In fact, I know I’m not.  Luxury cars really aren’t my thing, and sometimes the tone of the essays can be a bit smug. C’est la vie.

The 3D models of the cars look fantastic, but you can’t zoom into them or shift your view, so if you want to look inside you’re out of luck, unless there are historical photos that show the details you’re interested in. In most cases this was true for me, but not all.

On the whole
Road, Inc. is an impressive piece of work. As an exhibition of fifty automobiles, it’s remarkably deep, easy to navigate, and a lot of fun even if cars aren’t your thing.

Another interesting convergence. When a publisher makes what is essentially a tablet version of a coffee table book, it winds up looking a lot like a tablet version of a museum exhibition. The whole digital publishing shift I wrote about in December is neatly embodied in this app.


Discussing four very different apps can present the old “comparing oranges to apples” dilemma of trying to compare things that shouldn’t be. But I think that the four all try to get at a basic feature of museum-going; looking at something worthy and learning more about it (and, I like to think, your relationship to the object) through interpretation. In the next post, I’d like to pick apart some of the questions that came to my mind as I was exploring these apps and pondering how well they let users appreciate these objects in ways that they might do in person.

What questions come to your mind about these kinds of apps?