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Curators, educators and exhibition designers find a number of benefits in using new media technology in museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums. The following plead looks at 4 arguments: Adaptability, “Intelligent” data systems, Simulation, and Attraction.

Part 1: A plea for interactive digital technology in museums and Science Centres

Curators, educators and exhibition designers find a number of benefits in using new media technology in museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums. The following plead looks at 4 arguments: Adaptability, “Intelligent” data systems, Simulation, and Attraction.

1. Interactive digital displays are adaptable

Museums and Science centres more and more face the challenge of attracting and engaging recurring visitors to increase the revenue stream. Besides many other strategies, frequently updated content, themes and changing displays are known to be a necessary way to make visitors want to come back on a regular basis.  As opposed to poster and artifact exhibits, the nature of digital interactive displays allows for content updates without the need to replace costly hardware. When planned and designed correctly a software update may change the content, look and feel of the entire display. Interactive content, for example touch screen quizzes and games may make use of easy to use content management systems, which can be managed and updated by in-house exhibition staff without the need for external consultants.  This adaptability will also prove invaluable, when language or scientific facts need to be updated or corrected. Whereas traditional exhibits, such as posters, signage or entire displays would have to be replaced, interactive digital content may be updated with a few mouse clicks. Last but not least, software-based content is easy to scale: Exhibition content may be replicated for a travelling exhibition, or adapted for implementation on website or for a mobile application.

2. Interactive digital displays use “intelligent” data systems

No business can survive without knowing its clients. Since nothing is constant, especially in the fast-paced world of today, museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums need to frequently evaluate what visitors expect, what they experience and take home from their visit. Whereas evaluations through paper questionnaires are still being practiced, ICT has opened up a world of opportunities for centres to learn about their visitors. In addition to using digital touch screen questionnaires for visitor evaluation, which automatically send information to a central database and collate it with data from, for example, the website questionnaire, individual digital interactive exhibits may collect data about how they are being used and what visitors learn from them. These exhibits record what a visitor touches first, which specific content attracts the most views and which the least besides other things. Open source software such as moodle collects data about learner progress in eLearning applications, but may as well be used for interactive digital exhibits. But not all visitors may react positively to being evaluated and questioned when they intent to have a relaxed “edutainment experience” on a Sunday afternoon. However, the data collection may be subtle, embedded in the structure of a game and non-obtrusive.  As an example, the scenario-based IBP learning game designed for the International Budget Partnership, a non-profit organisation, requires the user to fulfill various tasks. Success or failure is recorded in the “passport”, which is visible to the player. To get all stamps in the passport, which essentially means passing various learning check-points, is a driving factor in the game and the playful manner of this is not perceived as an intimidation by the player.

Apart from the museum collecting data about the visitor, “intelligent” data systems can also enable the visitor to collect the data he would like to take home from the museum or science centre. Interactive digital exhibits can include data ports, allowing for transfer of content to visitor’s memory sticks or cell phone.  Other systems will require a visitor profile on the museum database first, which in turn records all activity and queries of the visitor during his or her visit. This information can later be accessed and reviewed by the visitor in his own time by logging into his or her profile on the museum or science centre website. One can imagine a frequent visitor of the extensive Louvre in Paris being presented with a floor plan which clearly indicates the areas that have been visited by the individual to date.

Based on a similar profile based data system, individual exhibits may change content or content depth according to prerequisites of the individual visitor. In this scenario, the digital interactive exhibit would identify the visitor through a tag, marker or other electronic ID, which would be linked to his profile and handed to him for example as a key ring on entry to the museum. A less complex installation and not dependent on storing visitor profiles could be a quick and playful assessment of a specific visitor when first interacting with a display. This test can be as harmless as a few “quiz show” questions or a game, but the outcome would determine which content level the visitor would be presented with. This way, a single display can address adults and kids alike without boring or overwhelming one or the other.

3. Simulation

Digital interactive media have been used in science centres for a number of years for simulations, such as flight or driving simulators. Modern ICT systems with sophisticated render engines create photo-realistic simulated scenarios, whereas visitors get access to experiences which in the “real world” would be restricted to a few professionals.  Besides the undisputed learning benefit of simulated scenarios, simulations may have huge economical benefits. A virtual chemistry lab as prototyped and currently under development at Formula D interactive gives learners instant access to virtual chemical substances, which never run out and don’t need secure storage or supervision.  On the other hand, digital simulation can make artifacts in museums tangible that would be otherwise “untouchable”. Recently, a museum archive in Germany has given access to invaluable historic books, through the use of a contact free interface developed by Fraunhofer Institute (HHI). Historic books can be called up on a large screen and pages can be turned using the same gestures that would be used to page through a real book.

Naturally, a simulated object reproduced with state-of-the-art media technology cannot yet compete with the real thing. Authentic artefacts are still a visitor magnet, even though the majority of the visitors would not be able to distinguish an authentic object from a well-made copy.  However, in many instances where the object is too valuable, fragile or dangerous to be exposed to the public, simulation technology is a true alternative. A final remark regarding simulation is directed at zoos and aquariums. Keeping rare animals at zoos and aquariums is opposed by a growing number of people. It can be assumed that life displays may be significantly restricted or completely taboo in the long-term. But also from the point of extreme costs of keeping live animals, zoos and aquariums would be better off  switching to virtual displays instead. A good example for a display like this is the interactive frog wall at Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. The award winning application designed by Formula D interactive features information, sounds and videos of many local frog species, which would have been impractical to host as live displays for various reasons. The next generation of zoo displays are likely to merge the boundaries of virtual and live exhibits by, for example, superimposing a virtual representation of a rare fish into the live fish tank using translucent projection screens or transparent LCD panels.

4. Attraction

Almost too banal to mention is the benefit of the sheer attraction of digital interactive technology regardless of content and application. Museums, Science centres, zoos and aquariums are competing with an entertainment world dominated by 3D TV screens, game consoles, and iPads. Although technology is not a panacea with regards to the communication of exhibition content, it is an attraction, which will, when properly advertised, bring more visitors. More importantly, institutions can use new media technology to link up with youth culture (e.g. through video games and social media).

Part 2: Old critique and new solutions

When discussing digital interactive exhibits in the context of museums and science centres, there are certain stark critique points which always come up. Most of these arguments have been overcome with new solutions.

Critique No 1: Digital interactive media neglect the social aspect of (co-located) learning

Still a common impression when seeing touch screens or other digital displays in public spaces or exhibitions is the one of many users uncomfortably cramped around a small screen watching how one user explores the application. Another example is an array of computer stations with one single user per display and no interaction between the users.

Solution: Multi-user environments

Interface technology has a number of solutions for multi-user environments. Probably the most popular at present is Multi-touch technology. Multi-touch technology allows many users to interact through touch with one digital application, all at the same time. This stimulates play… and interaction between visitors. Elements can be rotated, dragged and modified by natural hand or finger gestures much like pointing and stretching.

Critique No 2: Digital interactive media neglect human expression such as movement and gesture

It used to be a killer argument: Computer kids  sit for hours in front of their small monitors, while other kids run around playing football outside. Since science more and more relates physical movement to the ability and effectiveness of learning, the stronger the argument weighs that educational displays should not exclude physical movement and gesture.

Solution: Gesture controlled interfaces

Long gone are the days where mouse and keyboard were the only input device for digital interactive displays. After the introduction of Nintendo WII and recently the XBOX Kinect, virtual environments can be controlled by gesture and movement by anybody. Formula D interactive has developed several applications which require visitors to move their bodies in order to interact with the application. The Interactive Gravity Wall projection developed for Sci-bono Discovery Centre requires the user to kick a virtual ball in changing gravitational environments.

Critique No 3: Digital interactive media neglect tactile and spatial sensing.

Even when interacting through gestures with a digital display, users still interact with flat image screens, which don’t stimulate tactile or spatial sensing.

Solution: Tangible interfaces

Innovative computer interfaces or digital interactive exhibits make use of reference objects, which, when handled by the visitor, trigger software functions. These “tagged” objects can be real artifacts that have been augmented with digital information. Imagine a museum exhibit, in which a visitor is challenged to place pottery fragments or fossils from different eras onto a time line. The reproduced objects could be touched and scrutinized in order to give the visitor the full sensation and ability to assess the object through tactile senses. When laid onto the time line, voice over or text display would give feedback whereas the position is correct or not and why. By physically positioning the artifact on a spatial time line, positions are easier to memorise.

In conclusion, museums, science centres, zoos and aquariums should not miss the opportunity to invest in digital interactive exhibits as soon as possible if they haven’t done so already. Although not a panacea, the benefits of digital interactive technologies are broad and many of the challenges of modern museums and science centres can be addressed with innovative digital solutions.