Making the Most of Museum Touch Screens


Touch screen are making their way into museums as a hardware foundation. Many are installed as general-purpose interfaces that can be moved and re-tasked as exhibits evolve. Although this is a great future-proofing strategy, the realities of budgeting are that the hardware can sometimes be acquired without a firm software mandate, leaving some units in storage or simply looping video.

So, what is next? Here are 3 steps to leveraging your new touch screen ecosystem:

3 Steps to Leveraging a Touchscreen Ecosystem

  1. Move beyond content navigation+consumption

    Text and imagery – content development has traditionally been oriented towards these formats, now with some video mixed in. The touch screen can default to simply being  a navigation tool for these pieces of static content. The computer under that touch screen is more powerful than that, and has the capability of being more than just an bigger, better interpretive panel. Examples? Why talk about water crystals when you can let a visitor design and grow snowflakes using a simulation? Why show text about an art piece, when the visitor could learn to virtually mix paints? Why show artists’ renderings of a fleshed-out dinosaur when a visitor could choose their own markings? People learn and get engaged by doing something and getting feedback from it. Is it daunting? It shouldn’t be, now with the right subject-matter experts

  2. The touch screen is speaking to multiple people at the same time, not just one user

    Watching interactive technology get used, it becomes readily apparent there are at least three types of visitors crowded around: The user(s) who are hands-on at the moment, the motivators and waiters who are waiting their turn and offering suggestions, and the supervisors, who are those that are simply enjoying the experience vicariously, often parents and grandparents. The touch screen has to speak to all of them. There must be access to the area, a wide viewing angle, and ideally, a second “repeater” display mounted above to show the interaction taking place. By addressing these different audiences, the experience is not just a lineup, but a communal engagement. Since most software  systems are developed in Flash, unity3D, or a similar multi-platform framework, there is also a fourth audience: those who have internet access. Every display should be made to be ported to the web as part of the ‘inside out’ museum model.

  3. Get connected

    Putting the interactive on the web is one way to leverage the new asset you’ve created, however there are more possibilities. The touch screens can be networked within the facility using WiFi, which provides the unique opportunity to track and measure a user’s individual progress through the exhibit space.  Not just as a performance metric of who-used-what-when, but as an interactive tool. A user, on entering the facility (or before-hand through the web site) can register their name and some basic details, such as interests and age group, or even teacher name. On entering the facility, each touch screen can be aware of that user, either through a keyword, face recognition, or machine-readable ID nametag. This would allow the system as a whole to know where the user has been and where they might want to go next, and tailor the experience at any given touch screen. For example, a teacher could register their class in advance for an ‘explore marine life’ 1-hour exploration program, ages 10-14. Each student would be presented content and challenges specific to that data, and the results of their interactivity can be sent back to the teacher. Students could be given specific ‘missions’ within the museum, in the role of biologists or even as the animals.

In conclusion,

This sounds complicated: coordinating, producing, vetting. Granted – a new set of skills is needed to turn static content into interactivity. However, the museum space has the prerequisite of simplicity and speed in any given engagement – the simulations need not be deeply involved to get the message across in the time allowed, and therefore development budgets need not be on the high-end. Simply, effective ‘mini-sims’ can work very well, articulating a single concept effectively. Moreover, as the museum becomes well versed in production of these elements, they will generate a set of ‘patterns’ that can be reused and tailored for new exhibits, allowing reuse of the ‘engine’ component of the software. Most importantly, minim-sims and interactivity provide something that static content cannot: a different experience every time.

Your feedback would be welcome!

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