Museums and Science Centers are, in a way, burdened with content.
Too much of a good thing: science, history, people, places, demographics.
The bottle neck is not creativity and it is not volume of things to say –
It’s creating experiences.
Here’s a great way to fail to engage a visitor to a new installation:
- Grab some photos from the archive and scan them
- Have the researcher write up a large, self-contained block of text describing the photos
- Have the interactive developer create a thematic interface to present the photos
- deploy to a computer in the installation area so that one person at a time can view the photos.
What’s wrong with this? Money:
A good way to measure success of an interactive is effective use time per session and total sessions. How many people spend how much time getting what they want out of an interface. If the app sits idle, it’s zero. If a Visitor spends 48 seconds figuring out the interface and then leaves because their interest threshold drops, it’s again zero. And with low interest and high cost, you are losing a game of dollars per engagement.
This interface loses to a dozen books printed on plastic paper and secure-wired throughout the display area (and in a cheaper version, available in the Shop). People don’t read screen text if they can avoid it, and people already know precisely how to use a book with its rich touch interface with tactile feedback.
However this hypothetical interface does win on some counts:
- it is flexible – you can measure the most popular images and the way people use it using analytics, same as a web site. You can then adapt the content so that the most popular stuff is up front. If the developer used an engine-content model, it is even easier to modify the content using junior help.
- It is redistributable – hopefully you’ve instructed your interface designer to make the app in some platform like HTML5 or Flash or Silverlight or Unity3D and work for multiple screen resolutions. Now your content is on your web site, and can be distributed to schools and shared across the broader museum/science center community.
So what CAN you do to improve the content and still leverage the advantages of digital media? How can you break out of the very common mindset of ‘publishing to the screen’ ?
A great way to start is to describe what your plan is to someone at the Center – maybe a guide or interpreter. They know the Visitors up close and personally.
If you find yourself comparing it to some other medium that already exists physically, you better back up and reevaluate the content strategy. Here are a few examples:
- For our Human Body exhibit, we are using a touchscreen so that Visitors can assemble the organs like puzzle pieces.
But: A real puzzle is potentially more satisfying that a virtual puzzle (tactile constraints are the basis of puzzle fitting). Simulating a puzzle in exchange for being able to put some sound or text on the screen is not winning any real advantage, and losing aspects of group interactivity
- For the Beaver Dam exhibit, we’ll use the computer station like a video player showing clips of how the animals interact from that documentary we got permission to use.
But: simply creating a video player is a one-day job for your developer, and they know that of all the things that can be done with good footage, this is the most basic. An interface used as a playback interface would almost be eclipsed these days by the novelty of placing real tapes in a vintage VCR.
- For our aerodynamics exhibit, we’ll make an animation of a wind tunnel, sort of like that real wind tunnel that is out-of-budget for this fiscal.
But: Animation is at it’s heart engaging and interesting for a time, but the interface is about interacting, and an animation is ‘hard coded’ – the Visitor can never change it, never get a feel for the variables that create the airflow.
See where this is going?
In each case, the idea is not at all bad – it could be interesting and engaging if done properly. But is it harnessing the computer behind that touchscreen? One that can do more computations in a second that all those performed by humanity from 5000 years?
One can. Let’s look at those same scenarios a bit differently: we will remove the ability for us to say “like”
- For our Human Body exhibit, we are using a touchscreen to show a skeleton which can be directed to do certain tasks, like run up stairs eat a hamburger. The Visitor can try attaching various organs and musculature to the skeleton and see which parts are needed to get the job done. They can also try and make a superhuman by adding extra or hypothetical or synthetic organs to the body to see what could be possible with prosthetics.
- For our Beaver Dam exhibit, the Visitors gather around a table interface that simulates a river and lake system. Multiple visitors can simultaneously take the role of the animals, building dams and gathering food for the winter. The dams affect the simulated watershed and Visitors’ actions will affect one another.
- For our aerodynamics exhibit, Visitor can fold paper airplanes using specially marked paper which can be tracked by a standard web camera system. The Visitor can put their airplane in a virtual wind tunnel that is made by projecting wind flow patterns as video on top of the model. If the visitor moves their model in the virtual wind flow, the patterns will immediately respond. The same camera system can then track the flight of a thrown airplane and calculate speed, distance, and flight path.
Sounds complicated? Yes, maybe, but for the computer system, with the right software, it is not. And the difference between great software and average software can be an engaging simulation – it’s the understanding that an interactive should not have one or two or even 100 ways of ending.
It is a collaboration and feedback loop between Visitors and model of the knowledge you want to share with them. Encoding that model means a bit of math, a bit of thought on creating a canvas on which visitors can create and collaborate. But it is possible with the right people and the right initial direction.
Simulate rather than tell, because learning is collaborative at its heart; it is understanding feedback and it is letting go of the steps of the process so that the much more valuable model of the process can be shared. So take that extra step beyond simulating a book or a VCR or a Puzzle or a piece of paper with writing on it. Make full use of the incredible capabilities that of-the-shelf technology offers to allow creation. Offer some rules, offer some feedback and offer some encouragement, and above all, be as surprised and pleased with what Visitors come up with as they are with the opportunities you gave them to discover.