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As we start to accept that the threat of COVID19 won’t be disappearing anytime soon, visitor attractions around the world plan to re-open, cautiously trying to find a healthy balance between visitor engagement and safety from a potentially life-threatening virus. As with the virus, there is optimism this can be overcome, however, immediate and long-term change will be required.

It has taken museums decades to reinvent the way visitors interact with exhibits and content. The infamous “Don’t touch” signs associated with static dioramas and dusty skeletons were removed and replaced with signs inviting the young and old to celebrate one of our most primal senses: touch.

Whether it’s through levers, push buttons, headphones, VR goggles or the now ubiquitous touchscreens, encouraging visitors to interact with content in a hands-on manner has become a museum standard and the backbone of a successful visitor experience.
With a pandemic on the loose, clearly, we have a problem. And not just in Houston. Fortunately, for visitor attractions and the millions of visitors eager to be back enjoying them, there are several immediate and longer-term solutions to this overnight contact crisis.

Hygiene solutions

It goes without saying that regular disinfection of screens and devices is an essential first defence. We will see museum floor staff spraying and wiping like crazy, while encouraging visitors to give them a hand using sanitiser dispensers next to touch displays.

To be extra safe, visitors can be provided with gloves or a re-usable stylus. Not every touch sensor works with gloves. Capacitive technology will be problematic, subject to the thickness and material of the gloves, whereas infrared touchscreens work perfectly with almost any type of glove. Styluses have the added benefit that they can be branded as an inclusive giveaway.

Possibly thanks to COVID19, we are seeing a number of companies releasing antimicrobial screen overlays. These films do not affect the screen functionality but limit the time window in which bacteria or viruses can be infectious, with some makers claiming reduce pathogens by 99.99%.

From hands-on to touchless interaction

Even when COVID19 will be a distant memory, visitors will likely be more cautious than before the pandemic. This can create a competitive advantage for visitor attractions offering solutions beyond routine hygiene fixes. Fortunately, when it comes to touchscreens, there is tried and tested technology that can be retrofitted to existing displays to make them touchless.

Thinking on their feet, designers have come up with foot navigation controllers effectively create a small keyboard for the feet to navigate screen menus avoiding contact from anything but footwear.
Hand and finger tracking sensors attached to the edge of a screen enable visitors to touch and swipe mid-air like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. In absence of visual feedback, audio signals ensure users know when a button has been pressed.

Interactive experience design firm Formula D Interactive has experimented with touchless interaction for more than a decade but had only the interest of a few early adopters. Marco Rosa, managing director and partner at Formula D remembers: “We designed a large interactive point screen around 10 years ago, but it went straight over people’s heads. I believe the technology may see a comeback now that hygiene is a priority.”

Optical sensors that recognise movement are not new, but have advanced rapidly in recent years, with brands like Intel and Ultraleap producing products specifically designed for screens to recognise not just pointing but hand signs and gestures. These advancements allow for the development of experiences that encourage visitors to engage in novel ways.

At Wonderdal, an innovative edutainment centre for kids near Cape Town, designed by Formula D, kids interact with their virtual guide characters by tickling them or giving them virtual objects using hand gestures.

At the Frost Museum of Science in Miami Formula D demonstrated the power of gesture-based interaction in two large immersive projection environments. Visitors use pointing, hand movements, feet and even physical objects to interact with audio-visual narratives.

A simple get-around for the problems a pandemic creates is to simply have visitors only interact with technology that is exclusive to them. Conveniently, most people already carry such a piece of tech in their pocket – their smart device.

The idea of “bring your own device” (or BYOD) has been hamstrung by the need for visitors to own a suitably powerful (and charged) device and have access to an affordable and fast data connection. With increasing global internet speeds and affordable powerful mobile devices, we are seeing more and more museums investing in apps which empower visitors to use their own device at the museum for additional content and special features such as augmented reality.

Into the future

As we peer beyond the immediate and critical response to the pandemic, we may also consider what the near future may look like for interactive visitor experiences.

As interaction with technology continues to move toward more natural user interfaces, voice will increasingly become part of interactive visitor experiences. Already normalised by products like Apple Siri or Amazon Echo, using voice to interact with content will likely become second nature to visitors. “With developments in conversational AI we could imagine visitors having their own personalised museum guide, or engage in hypothetical chats with historical figures such as Vincent van Gogh or Nelson Mandela”, says Michael Wolf, creative director and partner at Formula D.

Although we currently live in a world dominated by screens, we could soon be entering the era of screen-less interaction, or what has been dubbed Zero UI. In simple terms, Zero User Interface means interacting with content or functions without using a graphical user interface. This could happen through more and more established conventions in hand gestures or voice control. Various technologies become available to create haptic feedback without users touching anything, for example, through tiny high-pressure air jets. Rather than images played out on rectangular screens, augmented reality glasses or mixed reality installations make physical and digital exhibits indistinguishable from each other through visual overlays or projections mapped onto 3D scenography.

The time to respond is now

If it’s not clear to you already, the world isn’t about to change, it has changed. Visitors experiences compete for the highest levels of visitor engagement possible, but now have to prioritise a new level of health and safety aspects. Providing this balance won’t always be easy or cheap, but it is certainly opening up exciting opportunities. And there is a host of new tech that will not just pandemic-proof attractions, but future-proof them too.

Formula D Interactive is a leader in the creation of meaningful interactive tools and experiences helping museums, visitor attractions, heritage sites and corporate spaces through the pandemic and into an exciting and engaging future.
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