Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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WaterWorx – our first in-gallery iPad interactive at the Powerhouse Museum

November 1st, 2010 by Seb Chan

Last week we were installing our first deployment of iPads as gallery interfaces – and they went live on Friday night.

Now in the newly refreshed Ecologic exhibition – open right now – you can play a game called WaterWorx deployed to a table of 8 iPads.

WaterWorx is intended to convey the difficult of managing an urban water system – dams, water towers, water filtration, sewage treatment, and storm water – with a growing population. Using simple game mechanics the water system is turned into a mechanical operation where the player’s hands are used to control and balance an increasingly more difficult set of tasks.

Here’s a video of the gameplay.

Other than the obvious – deploying iPads in the gallery – I’m particularly excited about this project for a number of meta-reasons.

Firstly, this is the deployment of consumer technologies as interfaces. This brings with it an explicit acknowledgement that the entertainment and computing gear that visitors can get their hands on outside of the museum is always going to be better or at least on par with what museums can, themselves, deploy. So rather than continue the arms race, the iPad deployment is a means to refocus both visitor attention and development resources on content and engagement – not display technologies. Also, it picks up on the visitors’ own understanding of these devices and uses it to piggyback on those behaviours – whilst allowing us to leverage the existing consumer interest in the device in the short term.

Secondly, the process by which this game was developed was in itself very different for us. WaterWorx was developed by Sydney digital design agency Digital Eskimo together with a motley team from the Powerhouse’s curatorial and web teams, and programmed by iOS developer Bonobo Labs. Rather than an explicit and ‘completed’ brief be given to Digital Eskimo, the game developed using an iterative and agile methodology, begun by a process that they call ‘considered design‘. This brought together stakeholders and potential users all the way through the development process with ‘real working prototypes’ being delivered along the way – something which is pretty common for how websites and web applications are made, but is still unfortunately not common practice for exhibition development.

There’s also a third exciting possibility – the game might be re-engineered for longer term and repeat play – and released to the AppStore down the track. Obviously this requires a rethinking and ‘complexify-ing’ of the game dynamics and an emphasis on providing incentives and leveling up for repeat play.

I came in this morning to see a large giggle of school children clustered around them playing them furiously – looking deeply engaged. And that’s the most valuable outcome of all.

There will be some future blogposts with the curatorial and web staff involved in the game development shortly too.

UPDATE (5/11/10) – we’ve just added a new post that shows the honeypot effect that this interactive is creating.

Tags: 32 Comments

  • Verrrry neat. Looking forward to you folk doing more stuff like this in future – I’ll have to come in and have a turn or some such :D

  • I love it!

    So good to hear this logical thinking

    “So rather than continue the arms race, the iPad deployment is a means to refocus both visitor attention and development resources on content and engagement – not display technologies. Also, it picks up on the visitors’ own understanding of these devices and uses it to piggyback on those behaviours – whilst allowing us to leverage the existing consumer interest in the device in the short term.”

  • This was so much fun to work on with Digital Eskimo and the Powerhouse’s curatorial and web team. It’s fantastic to see it deployed in the gallery and really rewarding to hear ‘children are clustered around them playing them furiously’.

  • Michael

    Hey Seb

    I had fun playing Waterworx as much as the kids.

    It is also good that we have multiple ipads in the one spot. Caters for large school groups nicely and they seem to know exactly how to use them.

    Students when entering that section of EcoLogic seem to naturally gravitate to the ipads and start playing before taking in the context of why it is there. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that after playing WaterWorx it creates a stimulus to explore the exhibition more and hopefully they make the connection on why Waterworx was included in the gallery. Now, if that happens, then that would be the most valuable outcome of all.

    If not, as when I saw a teacher move a group of kids on who didn’t actually engage with any objects in that area, we have just created a cool deeply engaging ipad app that could be played anywhere (albeit they might still take home the same message!) .

  • renae mason

    And you slipped the collective noun in there too, “a giggle of schoolchildren”. Which does describe the kids at play perfectly ;)

  • Interesting. It’s difficult to tell from the video how exactly the iPads have been used though – it looks like any standard museum touch screen.

    A few questions:

    * Can visitors tell that they are iPads?
    * Can visitors actually handle and move the iPads (change orientation, tilt, show to a friend, etc), or are they held in a static housing?
    * How did you disable the home button? And do they auto-boot into the appropriate app on power-up?

    Even if you are just using them as a fairly straightforward swap for standard touch screens, I imagine you’re still benefiting from the advantages of lower costs (??) and power consumption?

    • Seb Chan

      Hi Frankie

      A few answers (which I really should have put in the original post!).

      Q – Can the visitors tell they are iPads?

      Definitely. We’ve housed them in the ruggedised casing of the OtterBox Defender with added some security features to prevent theft.

      Q – Can visitors actually handle and move the iPads (change orientation, tilt, show to a friend, etc), or are they held in a static housing?

      Yes they can. They are tethered with their security cable and power. They have full freedom of movement. At one stage the game was going to use tilt elements in the gameplay but they were not implemented in the gallery version – but may return in a consumer version.

      Q – How did you disable the home button? And do they auto-boot into the appropriate app on power-up?

      At the moment this is done by hacking the casing as well as using some code and hardware power supply hacks to keep the app running. We’ve also got an Enterprise Developer Account which we are hoping will let us do a little more once we have some time to breathe. The auto-boot is the biggest problem meaning that we need to keep them running on battery.

      The swap out costs are really attractive obviously – as is the instant “i know how to use this” reaction that customised gear doesn’t bring.

  • hi are you using Unity for the game engine or straight x code?

    • Seb Chan

      Hi Erik. Yep Unity.

  • I love every part of this idea — the gallery interface; the gameplay; the fact that this is not just about display, but about engagement; and the whole iterative design process. Oh, and it looks great, too :) I can see real potential for this kind of roll-out at museums, galleries, etc. everywhere. I also like it because it’s not just about ‘pushing buttons’ or simply clicking through a series of screens or whatever — the user/player/whatever actually has to keep focused on what’s happening. Sweet!

    • Seb Chan

      We’ve added a new post that looks briefly at the honeypot effect that this interactive is generating!

      http://bit.ly/aXEgvp

  • Our museum in Burlingame, California USA is currently using an iPad to display videos and access information.

    The iPad is mounted on a swing arm, inside a Staypad enclosure. The Staypad covers the HOME button so our application is not interrupted. It also prevents someone from “walking off” with the iPad.

    Our museum was featured in a Staypad video:

    http://www.burlingamepezmuseum.com/video.html

    Our guests love it!

    Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia

  • Another ipad kiosk enclosure used by several museums:

    http://labshield.com

    This is my first product development for museums since working on exhibits and multitouch products at Ideum. I’m hoping to get some case studies together from these folks to learn their experiences. I have heard from a few folks that the apps they’re using crash out eventually. That’s likely a memory problem in the app. Have you experienced that at all? What happens with your hacked lock down when the app fails?

    • Seb Chan

      Kemper, Gary

      Yeah we chose to keep the iPads looking a much like IPads as possible – those sorts of superlocked down enclosures – LabShield, StayPad etc – kind of take away from the whole idea that this is consumer technology and when fully enclosed don’t let you take advantage of the affordances that the ‘wow, that’s an iPad’ allows in terms of interaction design.

      I think it is pretty important to deploy these devices with all those consumer affordances because at the end of the day the payoff from keeping them relatively untethered is much greater. Similarly, we wanted the flexibility to design for motion/gyroscope and also vibration which meant keeping them off things like fixed arms and heavy cases.

      And as far as App crashes, we haven’t had any yet – fingers crossed. Bonobo Labs did a fantastic job on robust code and lots of testing. The iterative design process meant that we had working iPad apps as prototypes right from the 2nd iteration meeting.

      • Neal

        > And as far as App crashes, we haven’t had any yet

        That’s pretty incredible.  I see that you posted this 1 year ago.  How have things gone since then? Do you have some sort of resetting regimen that you put them through every few weeks?

        • Luke Dearnley

          Hi Neal, the app itself is rock solid and never crashes or needs resetting. And until a recent iOS upgrade the devices themselves (which are permanently connected to power) just worked 24-7. Now however we find the devices are asleep each morning and our gallery maintenance staff wake them up at the start of each day.
          A bigger issue for us is the need to recompile everything yearly as the iOS Distribution Certificate expires for our Ent Dev account. Its a big deal because we have to update the app to the latest version of the OS which means going back and updating Unity, fixing the game to work with the new version etc etc 
          Quite painful and has had us seriously considering using a different platform which doesn’t employ the expiring certificate model.

  • Jason

    Hi
    I saw the ipads on friday.
    But i was left wondering what the message is for the students to take home? Is it just a game or is it meant to teach them something?

    • Seb Chan

      Hi Jason.

      Its a game.

      But the game is supposed to make you think about the difficulty of supplying and maintaining a clean water supply to a growing population – and some of the different elements involved in that. It isn’t supposed to be didactic. Instead players learn by playing, possibly not realizing at the time that they are thinking about those issues. It is also supposed to be able to be played without needing a close reading of ‘instructions’.

      Museums are all about ‘experiential learning‘ – and this is one element of an overall visit.

  • I agree that the bulk of these locking mechanisms take away most of what makes the iPad special and puts it back to the traditional touchscreen kiosk with maybe the added multitouch and 3G ability. Really though it could be any tablet inside for how most folks are using it. In fact, a lot of people are using them to simply run linear videos. I’ve been working on both a full-access enclosure that’s more like a basic case as well as lining up less capable and less expensive Android tablet enclosures for the basic kiosk use.

    Are you using the accelerometer abilities to teach about watersheds?

    • Seb Chan

      We ended up scoping out the accelerometer midway through – but the vibrate was in there until the end. Both will probably appear in the consumer version.

      We wanted to experiment with different types of interactions to control the water system and we thought that shaking the iPad might be a good interaction for sweeping the rubbish from the drains. Instead we scaled back to a swipe action.

  • Hi Seb,

    I have been following this blog with interest, and offer a few thoughts.
    We recently deployed 10 iPads as an interface for our temporary exhibitions. We developed an app that and allowed visitors to carry the iPads around the gallery, where they could choose to watch AV, take a guided tour, listen to spoken labels, and peel back the layers of paintings using the page turning swipe.
    We hacked it to disable the app button and always boot up on the front page of the app. The app was extremely reliable an never failed.
    As it is, it cant really be called an interface, more of an information giving device – the long term aim is to capitalise on wifi and bluetooth so the iPad knows where it is and shows appropriate content, and allows visitors to respond to elements of the exhibition with the keyboard creating a true interface between museum and visitor.
    It was important to me to retain the mobility of the iPad. We just used thin polycarbonate shells to afford a level of protection, then accepted the risk that one might get dropped. Locking them in place seems to take a crucial dimension away from the device.
    iPads are not a common thing here in NZ yet, and i observed a reluctance from the average visitor to pay for the use of them when they realised all the other apps were disabled! (we had a $10.00 rental fee on the condition that they left a drivers liscence or passport as security). This seems to be because of a lack of understanding of what the iPad could offer as a tool in the museum, so our docents were briefed to actively encourage people to use them and we dropped the rental fee. From then on, the response was very enthusiastic.

    Looking forward to Android based tablets – probably offer more scope. Bring on the tablet with a built in camera!

    Congrats on a good looking exhibition and ipad game.-
    Gerard

  • Firstly its great to see all of the interest in the project and to hear about other projects in the works around the world.

    In response to the excellent and important question of whether kids are actually learning anything I thought id weigh in with one observation from our testing sessions and further observations since it launched.

    We purposefully designed the gameplay to be exploratory – we reward players for trying things out and provide minimal instructions for the newbie until they get into trouble. (Just In Time help?!)

    We know from experience and game theory (and well just watching kids with Pocket God or any Video Game) this would mean that kids would engage in “working it out” and boy do they do that! Learning the relationship between rainfall over the dam catchment (vs just anywhere), the work that goes into pumping (and filtering) and handling sewerage, how population effects water demand and so on as they go.

    Whats fascinating is that almost all adults will sit back and try to work it out before touching the screen (afraid to make a mistake perhaps? or being overly left brain analytical) – Water Worx gives them a chance to play, then as the water tower level drops the alarms start kicking in and adults then split into two groups – the dive in and sort it out crowd and the panic crowd :)

    The kids dont do this in general – they almost always jump in – exploring the relationships and interactions and ultimately achieving a level of game play understanding (if not mastery!) in the first and second game.

    The right brain creative mind experiments, it plays and it learns by doing. Kids have it in spades (before the education system beats it out of them) and the game im proud to say plays to that bias exceptionally well.

    I think Sir Ken Robinson would approve ;)

  • Ld

    Can i get a copy of this app for my ipad? the kids loved it at the powerhouse today.

  •    We are looking at options to re-work the game for release through the AppStore. Hopefully we will have some news for you shortly.

  • educator

    Does this game attract more than the ‘real thing’ in the museum? Are children and adults still looking at the objects? How is it possible to have them do both in the museum environment?
    Would the game be better positioned as a previsit and post visit interactive? How does it relate to the real tim experience?

    • Anonymous

      @educator the exhibition that this iPad interactive experience is in does not have a lot of original objects. The focus of the exhibition is more on communicating through experiences – unlike some of our more object-oriented exhibits (where I’d often agree with reducing the number of screen-based interactives).

      We’ve found that the presence of this particular interactive experience in Ecologic acts as a drawcard and a retainer for the exhibition itself. It also, as I’ve discussed, offers a good learning experience around the difficultly of managing an urban water supply for a growing population.

      As far as pre and post-visit content, we’ve got a brand new set of web experiences launching at the end of the year to support the exhibition. (These replace the content that supported the first iteration of the exhibit that have been up since the early 00s.)

  • Laureen Jones

    How have you secured the device so that it cannot be removed? Is it tethered or permanently fixed in place? How do you ensure no visitor can unplug the power supply? Have you locked down capability to access the internet, download files etc?

    Laureen Jones, Technology Solutions Manager, Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand

    • Anonymous

      Hi Laureen

      The units are tethered with steel cable and we have not had issues with the power cables that haven’t been able to be resolved with a daily check. (The battery is enough to last all day if they are unplugged even at opening time). Our next iPad install will solve the power issue with new casings.

      The iPads are not connected to wifi and their system settings are locked. Also, the App itself has been coded not to allow sleep mode which means it stays upfront and cannot b escaped without removing the casing (which is secured).

      • Laureen Jones

        We plan to use the iPad to attract children to read newspaper articles as part of a larger exhibition. Do you know if there is anything in the Apple AppStore to do this with or would our content interface need to be designed specifically for this purpose?

        Where you say ‘our next iPad install will solve the power issue with new casings’ are you planning on using a different model of Otterbox Defender series cases?

        • Anonymous

          Hi Laureen

          You’d probably be best off doing this as a HTML5 site that runs in one of many different kiosk Apps which are basically wrappers for Safari – if you are’t going to build it as a native App (comparatively expensive). The upside of this approach would be that you could quite easily port it to your exhibition website as well.

  • Kim

    Hi! As an environmental engineer I really enjoyed this game and I would like to have a copy of this app if it is possible..?! Please, I live in Switzerland I cannot just people to go see it or and I would love to show it to my friend and colleagues….
    Cheers

    • Hi Kim, Sorry for the delayed reply. I no longer work at the Powerhouse Museum but try contacting the museum. Unfortunately it seems like plans to publicly release the App stalled after key staff involved left.