28 April 02004

Mobile information appliances for museums

Earlier this month, the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) announced its support for a project to develop hand-held, touch-screen, wireless computers that will 'offer a host of relevant information including text, video, pictures and sound' when pointed at a museum exhibit.

The breathless stream-of-buzzwords tone is probably just par for the course in press releases, which invariably concentrate on technological fetishism rather than boring old human behaviour. This project is interesting for showing what's technologically possible; but it's unclear how much attention will be given to the ways in which people's habitual and preferred behaviour in the social space of a museum will affect use of the technology.

There are more details of how the technology works provided by Hypertag, the technology partner in the project. Particularly interesting in terms of simple convenience is the projection that "Within 2 to 3 years, Hypertag compatible mobile phones will be mainstream", so visitor attractions would not require so much investment in hardware.

The other benefits claimed — such as easy control and tailoring of the information — could help support the kind of 'unprogrammed learning' I mentioned recently. However, the degree to which this potential will be realised in the museums where the project is being piloted depends on the expectations and habits that visitors bring with them. These can probably only be determined through ethnographic studies (in the same way that I suggested such studies are necessary to second guess how people's music listening behaviours will change in response to new technologies).

When I was doing work on exhibits for the National Centre for Popular Music, I was a gung-ho advocate for intensively interactive applications. One of the reasons such applications were never developed for the Centre was the extended 'dwell time' that they would require: if the NCPM had ever reached its target visitor numbers, it could not have afforded to risk having people 'hogging' any exhibit for even five minutes.

Thus one factor the NESTA project is likely to hit sooner or later is how visitors feel if they find themselves surrounded by a bunch of people all pointing and clicking their handheld devices at the same painting or exhibit. Will they interrupt themselves and go and find a 'quieter' exhibit before coming back later? If they do, will they find the bookmarking support effective for managing 'interrupted' and incomplete browsing sessions?

I'd anticipate that these issues might be less acute, and less likely to mitigate the effectiveness of the handheld appliances, in more 'open' visitor attractions, like, say, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, compared with a more confined space like a traditional museum or gallery.

Undoubtedly there will be useful learning applications for mobile, location-aware devices. Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs remains the most savvy and suggestively thought-provoking book I've read on this subject.

Museums and visitor attractions will benefit from understanding in more detail what kinds of information visitors want to access before they see an exhibit, while they are standing in front of the exhibit, and then afterwards when they are reflecting on the story told by all the exhibits they have seen.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Curatorial, E-learning, Music and Multimedia, Social Software on 28 April 02004 | TrackBack
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