Early in June I was back in Sydney presenting one of the keynotes [slides] at Remix, a cross-sector/cross-industry event I also spoke at last year when it passed through New York. The keynote was based on a very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April (a much shorter ‘clean 7″ radio edit’ is forthcoming in Curator too!).
There’s a couple of key bits that seem to have resonated particularly well and bear elaboration. So this is one of a series of posts that will do that elaboration.
#1 Have an opinion about the visitor behaviour that you want, then design explicitly for it
It sounds so benign and obvious – of course your museum has an opinion about how visitors should behave when they visit. Usually this is couched in “no this, no that” – or subtly in the social cues emanating from the architecture, the dress and attitudes of staff, and the behaviour of other visitors. There’s a whole slew of problems with ‘museum-going culture’ – and it is important to acknowledge the bountiful existing literature on who is already excluded or included in the ‘traditional museum’.
Writing about the ‘omg, those new museum visitors are doing what? photography! selfies!’ moral panic of 2013, Ed Rodley’s summary and discussion is worth re-reading;
“The solution seems to me to be to establish a new contract, and actually state it, instead of hoping that visitors will infer intent. I’d love to see museums generate explicit policies that state what the museum encourage, allows, forbids, and why.”
When we were thinking about Cooper Hewitt in the early days, the MONA experience was very much top of mind. The lack of object labels, the O – it all expressed a firm opinion about how owner, David Walsh, wanted you to experience his museum. As it turns out, even if you found this annoying, you admired the bravado – and it has and continues to be a huge, popular success.
Before the galleries were tackled, Cooper Hewitt’s online collection began to develop a very particular style – an opinion that carried through to the architecture of the website, and the linguistic choices on the front-end. That ended up influencing the entire ‘voice’ of the museum online – some of which you can see in the 2014 website redesign.
In the galleries and exhibitions we knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want people staring at their own devices – they made the choice to come to the museum, so we wanted them to be ‘present’ – after all, everything they saw they could easily get access to later on online, and museum going should be a full body experience, right?
On the way in, the door staff put stickers over the camera on my phone. There is an open minded attitude here to nudity, drugs and sex, yet taking a photo will get you thrown out. It’s highly refreshing that everyone’s not filming stuff. It’s hard for internet kids, by which I mean it’s hard for me, to have an unphotographed experience but I am really here, more than ever. This is not a place for observers but for active participants.
Whilst we did want active participants, we wouldn’t go that far – but we did think, and this is important, about the impact of everybody engaging in whatever it was we came up with.
Everyone’s usage (or non-usage) would impact the overall atmosphere of the gallery. If it was a mobile App, then how would it feel to have everyone in the museum using it at once? If it wasn’t an App but something else, then what would that feel like for visitors as a collective mass.
We knew – from the experience of MONA and of audio/media guides at other museums – that it was likely a choice between 90% take-up or <10% take-up with a chasm of un-met user frustrations in-between. So thinking about maximal usage was an important design consideration once we aimed for ubiquity.
As it turned out, The Pen has had some interesting impacts. Usage has been pretty much ubiquitous with over 90% of visitors using it, and using it a lot [details over at Cooper Hewitt Labs]. There’s several years’ worth of research topics for enterprising museum studies and audience researchers in the data too!
Because it is very visible to others – a large-ish un-pocketable size, but has no screen – visitors seem willing to help each other when they see people having difficulties or using it ‘wrongly’. People don’t tend to do this sort of ‘social helping’ with mobile Apps because there’s nothing to indicate that the other person is actually using the ‘official App’ or just texting their friends.
As for photography, yes, that’s very much welcomed at Cooper Hewitt but you don’t see cameras out anywhere near as much as in nearby museums.
And once a behaviour becomes normalised, it starts to change expectations elsewhere.
At the beautiful new Whitney, but missing @cooperhewitt's amazing digital pen. Sometimes a technology just changes how you see things.
In the next instalment I’ll talk about some lessons around ‘internal literacy’.
Don’t forget, these are ‘riffs’ based on the very long paper that Aaron Cope and I co-authored for Museums and the Web in April. If you’ve got a spare half hour then there is a lot of detail in that paper.
There are some very interesting experiments going on in the documentary format right now and last week I got the chance to explore some of the latest at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Door Into The Dark pitches itself as a ‘sensory documentary experience for one’ and is a wonderful mix of immersive theatre, spatial exploration, and storytelling. It was made by UK duo Anagram and first presented by Bristol’s Watershed. Wearing a sensory deprivation helmet and headphones you walk, blind, through a door into a landscape where you grasp for a rope and follow it, zigzag-ing through what feels like an enormous cavern . . . until the rope runs out . . . As you timidly grope in the dark, stories of different people who have lost their sight, their way, or their understanding of themselves are revealed using a mix of narration and first-person stories. Deprived of sight, you concentrate more on your other senses and this has the effect of building empathy with those whose stories you are hearing – although, crucially, at no point do you feel like you are ‘in their shoes’. That distinction is important.
Door Into The Dark uses iBeacons to trigger story elements and audio instructions as you wander, (although mine malfunctioned 3/4 of the way through sending me into a loop), it reminded me a lot of Halsey Bergund’s work like Scapes and experimental audio-only mobile games like Papa Sangre, as much as it did of immersive theatre. The clever use of physical props – the ropes, and later, a rather terrifying rock climb – combined with sensory isolation made this something really quite special.
I was fitted with a bio-tracker for My 40 minute journey into the dark as part of Anagram’s evaluation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results. As I mentioned in my write up of If Book Then, the interest in the ‘monitoring of affect’ by authors is going to result in some very interesting new forms of ‘responsive storytelling’ in the next few years.
If you’re interested in privacy and the web (you should be!) then there is also the seven part Do Not Track from a consortia of Canadian and European partners. Packaged as a web series it has light interactivity that applies the main ideas of each episode to your own browsing habits, demonstrating that you, as a viewer, are not watching some abstract concept, but that you are already directly in-/af-fected.
The Harmony Institute has just sent me a visualisation of my heart rate throughout the Door in the Dark experience. And here it is!
I’m just back from another immersive theatre instalment.
This time I went with some friends to Then She Fell, a performance piece by Third Rail currently being staged in Williamsburg. Then She Fell invites audiences to “explore a dreamscape where every alcove, corner, and corridor has been transformed into lushly designed world. Inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll, it offers an Alice-like experience for audience members as they explore the rooms, often by themselves, in order to discover hidden scenes; encounter performers one-on-one; unearth clues that illuminate a shrouded history; use skeleton keys to gain access to guarded secrets; and imbibe elixirs custom designed by one of NYC’s foremost mixologists.”
Then She Fell follows a different model to Sleep No More. For a start it operates at a far reduced scale – only 15 audience members per performance. This has the benefit of creating a very intimate experience and one that guarantees everyone gets several intense one-on-one moments with the performers. In fact my journey began with an intimate moment inside a cupboard and later in the performance when I ended up in a larger group with other audience members I felt a little annoyed at their presence – as if they’d now were able to share ‘my journey’.
The other difference is that it, as we say in video game parlance, is far more ‘on rails‘. Unlike the sandbox world of Sleep No More in which the audience roams pretty freely and events/acts happen at certain times in certain places whether or not audience members are there or not, in Then She Fell you are led along your path – often hand-in-hand with a performer. Importantly, every audience member is on a different path that come together and intersect at various points. Speaking to my friends afterwards it was clear that there is a core series of sequences that every audience member gets to experience in different sequences, but that there are also a group of other unique experiences that are only happen to one or two people. The choreography of the 15 audience members with this sequencing reminded me of the intertwined stories for the different playable characters – each with their own story – in Dragon Age: Origins.
This points to a complex multi-linear narrative as opposed to the almost non-linearity of Sleep No More. No one can accidentally ‘miss everything’ as I’ve heard a few complain of the Sleep No More experience, and this makes it instantly rewarding for ‘all’. In museum terms, it means it is more like that private collection tour with a senior curator – which all museums have trouble ‘scaling up’. (Although Neal Stimler’s experiments with Google Glass-led curator tours at the Met and the National Museum of Australia’s robot docent trials might offer new opportunities).
More broadly, I’m finding that these sorts of performances point to a growing pervasiveness of ‘video game literacy’. Not only do these productions draw on the tropes of video game design and multi-linear nested narratives, the audience is supposed to know and understand how to inhabit the worlds that these narratives create. This is something that museums haven’t worked out how to do well yet – and yet our audiences are increasingly developing these literacies charged by the mainstreaming of video gaming and also their influence on mainstream TV and cinema.
We realized from this discussion that we have a huge missed opportunity when people are leaving the museum. On their way in, they are excited, curious, ready to engage. They are not ready to hear about membership or take a newsletter about what’s coming up next time. They bolt right past those tables to the “good stuff.” But at the end, they’ve had a great time, and they want a takeaway from the experience. They WANT to join the email list. If we’re smart, we should be developing a takeaway that both memorializes the visit and leads them to another. In other words, we should be giving them a string for their new pearl.
This reminded me a lot of the efforts we’d go to back in the early 90s putting on all night parties. Before this was a task given to ‘street teams’ (no one had commercialised enough to hire people to do the least exciting tasks), you’d take a stack of flyers to parties at the very end of the night just as the dawn anthems were blasting through the bassbins and start giving them out as people exited. Others would go and plaster the windscreens of parked cars to similar effect. No one would ever give out flyers early on in the party – they’d get forgotten, sweaty, destroyed, or just ‘repurposed’. It was all about ‘exit marketing’ – and it was an important part of building bonds within the subculture. Flyers for the next month’s worth of warehouse parties made for a strong encouragement to ‘stay involved’ – especially as most people would be returning to their ‘ordinary lives’ during the week, saving their living for the weekends. It gave newcomers a sense that this wasn’t just a fleeting ‘temporary autonomous zone‘ but something they could regularly return to, and for the hardcore flyers and their effective distribution became core ‘subcultural media’. I’d argue that they were more effective than the more scattergun street press advertising, and definitely more successful than ‘record shop drops’.
Now museums rarely ignite the sort of passion that subcultures do. Perhaps they should, but that’s unlikely to happen given the age demographics. But there’s plenty to be had in Nina’s idea – the farewelling experience is likely to be the only opportunity to remind visitors that museum visits need not be a ‘one-off occurrence’ or a ‘once a year’ activity, but an essential part of their cultural calendars.
And of course, ‘farewelling’ behaviours are exactly the sort of things that you’d be hoping the staff in your ‘well placed gift shop‘ are doing as just good business.
If you’ve run into me in New York City since I moved here six months ago I’ve probably badgered you about Sleep No More.
It was something I saw in my first weeks after moving here after two aborted attempts on previous trips to New York. Best described as an immersive theatrical experience, it has deeply affected the way I think about theatre, theme parks, exhibitions and museum experiences in general. And, coupled with my experiences at the Museum of Old & New Art before I left Australia, it has challenged my thinking around ‘participation’ and ‘openness’.
Loosely based on Macbeth, inspired by film noir, and transforming 100,000 square feet of a 5 storey warehouse in Chelsea, Sleep No More is about immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative. Everything is touchable, openable, operable. It is a world of cinematic detail – shelves, drawers and cabinets are full of papers and objects that are purposefully selected and layered with information from and about the story world – and sound and smell are turned up to 11. With the audience masked, silent, and anonymised, the experience becomes highly individualised and for three hours you explore, following performers if they take your fancy, or chancing upon happenings and scenes.
Apart from the choreography of the performers themselves, there is a sense of the audience being choreographed as they spread out and move loosely through the space, yet always managed to be ‘nudged’ subtly to climactic moments in the larger congregational spaces. Friends have remarked how game-like it is in the way it does this nudging – and on my first viewing I made connections to the ways in which good 3D sandbox games manage to maintain a core narrative whilst encouraging players to ‘freely explore’.
Despite this subtle nudging your experience will be different to mine. Couples are advised to purposefully split up for the duration of the adventure to have a more individualised experience (and a lot more to talk about afterwards).
If you haven’t been and you are visiting New York in the next little while, then I do urge you to go. And try not to read to much about it beforehand.
So tonight at Storycode – a periodic transmedia & storytelling meetup – I was excited to hear Pete Higgin and Colin Nightingale from Punchdrunk talk about the development of Sleep No More in its current incarnation and their approach to storytelling. (You can watch the video of the whole talk on Livestream).
Punchdrunk have been working with MIT Media Lab to explore ways in which a complementary experience of the environment could work online. Last week, in some trials, several audience members were selected to wear special masks with sensors and cameras and joined their fellow patrons in the regular Sleep No More performance. Connected to them were selected online participants who experienced a version of the performance through an interface that recalled the classic text adventure, but with ambient sound and some intermittent vision.
The selected audience members were drawn to specific parts of the set where a communications portal between the online and onsite opened so that they could communicate with each other – mediated by actors in a control room. This is going on in realtime in the same physical environment as the regular performance – so it is a strange kind of ‘third story’ in the same world. These ‘portals’ were subtly disguised in the fabric of the set so as to be unnoticeable by others.
Obviously there were some issues – the additional layers of the 3rd story secret world were not obvious – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the locational technology (Bluetooth) and content delivery/transmission over wifi didn;t always work satisfactorily. There’s a New York Times piece on the experiment from the point of view of an participant that is worth a read.
What really impressed me was the deep consideration that had gone into making the online experience for the remote participant as immersive as possible by using sound and the limitations of text descriptors rather than relying on inadequate video or worse, the uncanny valley of 3D simulations.
The online experience wasn’t meant to be a ‘replica’ of the Sleep No More experience, but a parallel to it.
This parallelism is something I’d love to see museums do more with. Online/digital as a parallel experience. This is what so much discussion in the museum (Rodley) blogosphere (Cairns) has recently been about.
Take a look at Punchdrunk’s recent outreach and literacy program ‘Under The Eiderdown’.
Hit play. Watch the seven minutes. Then come back. It is worth it.
Towards the close of their talk Pete Higgin had a nice line – “explanation is the killer of wonderment”.
It reminded me of a recent article from Salon on the effect of YouTube on the traditions and social practices of magicians.
“The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy,” [magician Jamy Ian Swiss] said. “And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your couch and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”
Magic, like theatre, isn’t about the technicalities of the tricks – it is about performance and the moment.
Higgin told an anecdote about a run-in with a overzealous ‘fan’ who had created an article deconstructing the timings of scenes in Sleep No More – under the strange assumption that by giving the ‘factual information’ would actually be useful. It is a tension that plays out in all media now – the plot summaries and spoilers that are immediately posted to Wikipedia for popular TV series after an episode airs – but for immersive, purposefully opaque narrative experiences the stakes might just be higher.
Museums, especially those of the scientific and historical persuasion, have been hesitant to embrace theatricality – “there be charlatans”, or worse “there be theme parks” – yet all good storytelling is all about performance. (Something public librarians at Reading Time know all too well).
Yet consider the mass popularity of the early commercial museums in the late 19th century when scientific phenomena were akin to magic and Coney Island had premature babies in cribs showing the ‘miracles of modern medicine’ and freak shows, and electricity! Wonderment!
These are not things we generally think of as desirable in a modern museum – however there may still be much to learn about their appeal that still applies today.
What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)
What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all? (The Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is wonderfully designed with some spaces and passages that are only accessible by small children that lead to experiences that only children can have separate from their parents.)
What if we made ‘wonderment’ our Key Performance Indicator?
A lot has been written about the Museum of Old and New Art and I’m not going to rehash any of that. Instead I’m going to look at their mobile guide – The O – which is provided to every visitor and included in the admission price.
Here some of the fleet of 1300 Os sit charging in enormous custom charging bays where they can also be updated.
The O is an iOS App that runs on an iPod Touch comes ready to run and with a quality pair of Audio Technica headphones. Developed by Art Processors, The O is described thus;
Wall labels are at once didactic and limited. They inhibit imagination. Squinted at through a dozen huddled heads, they are barely useful tools for learning, much less free thinking, or a private appreciation of the objects they describe.
The O solves these problems. It delivers information in a way that enhances the visitor’s experience of the gallery, and enables curators and exhibition designers to display the works the way they want. Museum researchers can present the best, most relevant textual, visual and audio content at their discretion. It provides information on visitor viewing habits, trending and satisfaction via integrated statistical reports. Above all, The O is an intimate, intuitive interface of the learning and autonomous response.
None of this would matter if it was a pain to use.
I was very impressed by the ‘technology concierge’ skills of the ticketing staff – they run you through the basics of the App and the hardware as they sell you your ticket and set you off on your way. Sitting beside the cash register is a graphic clearly explaining each of the main interface screens of the O as well. I’ve never seen this level of ‘scaffolding’ happen in other museums and the deftness with which visitors are set off on their way quickly is a testament to their staff training (and acceptance amongst these staff of the value of the O itself).
Descending into the museum itself you launch the O and you are off. Pop up instructions help you through the basic App operations and after a while you are prompted to enter your email address (and optional country) to ‘save’ your journey to the MONA website. Once this is done there are no further prompts and even when, as I did, returned after lunch and was given a different O device, the final ‘saved tour’ seemed to accurately aggregate my whole visit (over the two different devices).
At its most basic level The O replaces wall labels. Entering a space you simply click ‘Update’ and, using wifi triangulation a proprietary real-time system (see comments), the device provides a list, with thumbnails, of objects ‘near’ you. This works surprisingly well despite the split levels and bulk showcases of coins and other small objects in some areas. The scrollable list relieves the technology of the difficult task of ‘exactly positioning the visitor’ whilst at the same time emphasising the visitor’s own agency in choosing what they are ‘seeing’. (I think this is going to be an increasingly important balance as location and compass headings give mobile devices better granularity at guessing what you are looking at).
However the most impressive part of The O is the content – not the technology.
The O provides simple label text and an image for every object. I was disappointed that the images weren’t zoomable, however on most objects there was also a curator’s piece amusingly titled Art Wank. These were short, very accessible and gave useful context and background without overdoing it. A slightly smaller subset of objects are augmented with options called ‘Ideas’, ‘Gonzo’, and ‘Media’. It is in these three areas that The O really differentiates itself from every other museum mobile App or guide I’ve experienced.
‘Ideas’ is simply a set of provocations – or talking points. Some are quotes, others are just statements. One of the many ‘delighters’ I discovered on The O visiting with my companion (with her own O), was that often there were multiple ‘Ideas’ and that very rarely would we both get the same one at the same time. This gave us prompts to talk to each about the objects we were looking at – ensuring that sociality was not eroded by every visitor being glued to their own screens.
‘Gonzo’ is almost mostly responses or stories from MONA’s owner David Walsh. Sometimes these are stories about the acquisition of various objects, other times they are hilarious, for want of a better word, ‘rants’ about the artist, a style, or a moment. Like the ‘Ideas’ they make great talking points.
‘Media’ are short audio files – interviews with the artist and others. Some objects also have songs by Damien Cowell who was commissioned to record them ‘about’ certain works.
The interviews blew me away.
Unlike every other ‘museum tour’ the audio interviews are completely raw and lo-fi. This shocked me – and I loved it. Almost all the interviews that I listened to sounded like they were recorded in a noisy cafe – and in more than a few the interviewee’s mobile phone rang in the middle of the recording (usually followed by an apology ‘sorry I’m in a meeting’). This made it so approachable and friendly – and, importantly, felt candid – like I was there with the artist. This also reminded me that the quality of the content always trumps the fidelity of the recording.
‘Loving’ or ‘hating’ objects is possible too, and doing so gives you a simple quantitative statistic on the objects popularity amongst other visitors. I did wish that this recommended me other things to go and see. I also missed any kind of search functionality – I understand that this is probably because ‘searching’ is the exact kind of intentionality that MONA is trying to disrupt, instead forcing you to be in the moment – but it was frustrating when there were certain works I knew about that I wanted to locate.
Leaving MONA, the headphones and The O were given back to the friendly staff at the door. Arriving back home, there in my inbox was an email from MONA linking me to their website where I could browse through the objects that I’d seen – after supplying the email address I used to register), and find out which I’d missed.
The post-visit web experience is interesting in that it requires a MONA visit (and user registration through The O) to get access. On one hand this might seem exclusionary – and is definitely an option that is really now only open to private museums with no public mandate – but on the other hand this did re-emphasise the importance of connecting the physical experience of MONA and its works with the online experience. And, that I couldn’t access the objects of the museum before my visit (beyond a few selected pieces), meant that I was more open to exploring than targeting only things I was interested in when I was in the galleries.
On the web you have access to all the same content you could get on The O – the audio, the text, but rather disappointingly only the same small size of image. Your path through MONA is visualised and able to be played back on a timeline. I’m not sure that this adds any navigation ‘value’ but it does re-emphasise the physicality of visiting MONA, its unique spatial construct, and its primacy in understanding and experiencing ‘the works’ inside.
This is one of the few examples of where a museum website actually enhances the post-visit experience by connecting it concretely back to the physical experience (and does so be explicitly preventing pre-visit planning and expectations).
There’s a couple of minor quirks (primitive audio player controls especially) with The O but overall it sets a new benchmark in terms of integrated interpretative devices.
I do wonder, though, how much it relies upon a few uniquely MONA attributes – its entirely private vision (versus public duty/mission), the design of the museum itself which prevents any other form of internet access (it is underground), and the tabula rasa upon which it has been able to construct its content all at once (no legacy material or practices to deal with)?
And, how the aggregate usage data – the loves/hates, the pieces that are most/least viewed, the contours of content – is used will be fascinating to see.
There’s a nice introductory piece today that features some of the recent Powerhouse Museum work in Mashable. It is a broad overview piece of how the Smithsonian, the NY Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Powerhouse have been utilising mobile technologies in galleries and exhibitions.
Reading some of the comments and picking up on some of the chatter on Twitter I thought it might be valuable to include two of the Q&A from the journalist that didn’t make the cut in the final story. They add a little more context and introduce more complexity into the issue – probably less interesting for non-museum people but useful to those deeply engaged in the field.
Q – How are you measuring the effectiveness of the technology you’ve deployed? Downloads? Data capture? Usage stats? I noticed you are going to put in moveME wifi triangulation system. What will the data from this tell you – you had mentioned in a post dwell time and loves but how will you put those findings to use? (Why are you doing this?)
We’re really interested in changing the physical design of our galleries so that they are able to deliver better experiences and tell more effective stories to and with our visitors. Once a visitor carries a fully searchable encyclopedia in their pocket (not too mention access to all our collection including the objects not on display), the whole idea of a ‘museum’ and how it could and should be designed, changes.
The ‘effectiveness’ of technologies has a number of different facets –
1. We look at raw usage data – downloads, views, interactions in order to redesign and iterate new versions of the technology itself.
2. Then we look at how visitors are using it both individually as as groups through observation and also data collection. This helps us to think about the social impact of our technologies in the galleries. For example, are our mobile apps meaning that families visiting together are talking to each other less than before? (a possibly negative outcome!)
3. We also look at the aggregate usage data to help us think about what content is being accessed (and what is being ignored) and then follow up with qualitative research to understand why. This, over time, helps us better understand which objects, for example, visitors are interested in finding out more about, and which, perhaps need a little more prompting.
4. Finally, and holistically, we aim to bring all this data together to better inform the spatial layout of galleries, and also the ancillary services such as education kits for teachers or curator-guided tours, that might further enhance a visit.
As we move from 1 to 4 the impact and time taken gets longer and longer obviously – and impacts much more broadly on the museum and its various operations.
Q – Where do you think things are going in terms of digital tech in your museum and in museums in general?
At the Powerhouse we are certainly getting far more strategic in our deployments rather than being seduced by novelty. This has been largely possibly because of the way digital has evolved at the museum with significant internal capacity and on-staff developers, digital producers, and strategy.
Broadly in the museum world we are seeing much higher volumes of technologies deployed – Google Goggles at the Getty, NFC at the Museum of London, AR at the Stedelijk, touch-tables everywhere – and I expect that over the next decade we will see the very idea of a ‘digital team’ or ‘digital unit’ or even ‘CTO’ at a museum as quaint. Simply because the very definition of a museum will be, itself, ‘digital’ and cross-platform.
A little while back at the beginning of June we hosted the Sydney AR Dev Camp. Organised by Rob Manson and Alex Young, the AR Dev Camp was aimed at exposing local Sydney developers to some of the recent developments in augmented reality. A free event sponsored by Layar and the Powerhouse, it filled the Thinkspace Lab on a Saturday to network and ‘make stuff’. Rob and Alex also launched their new buildAR toolkit for content producers to quickly make and publish mobile AR projects using an online interface.
I spoke to Rob Manson in March, as the event was being planned, about some of the changes in AR.
F&N: A lot has changed in both AR and Layar since we last spoke, way back when MOB released the PHM images in a Layar in 2009. Can you tell me about some of the changes to the Layar platform and other AR apps as you’ve seen them mature?
RM: I can’t believe how quickly that time has passed! But in a lot of ways we haven’t even started and the path in front of us is starting to get a lot clearer now.
Layar has continued with their main strength which is massive adoption (and those figures are just for Android!). It’s now the most dominant platform in the whole AR landscape. And just this week they announced Layar Vision, their natural feature tracking solution. Layar has become the default AR app that everyone refers to.
With this new version 6 of Layar you can now add image based markers, animation, higher resolution images and a much simpler improved user experience. And of course it supports a lot more interactivity than it did way back when we created the first Powerhouse layer – it now includes layer actions and proximity triggers. Our buildAR platform makes it easy for you to customise all of these settings and we’ve already announced full support for the new Layar Vision features.
Despite being an early adoption, the Powerhouse layer was loaded 2384 times by 853 unique users in 13 countries in just under 18 months. Whilst that may not sound like a lot, we’ve also had heavily promoted layers run by advertising agencies for major brands that did almost exactly the same numbers as the PHM layer. So on the whole I think the PHM layer has performed pretty well. Especially considering it was created quite early on and there’s not really a lot of reasons for people to return to the layer or share it with their friends.
Now Layar have also released the Layar Player SDK which allows us to embed the Layar browser within our own iPhone applications. This has opened up a world of new opportunities and means we can wrap layers in even richer interactivity and allow users to create and share media like photos, audio and videos. This is what led us to create http://streetARtAPP.com
F&N:Obviously your StreetARt App is indicative of some these new changes – the ability to separate off as an App in its own right and have interactions.
Yes, we’ve created an App framework around the Layar Player SDK that integrates with our buildAR platform.
The response has been great. We’ve done very little if any promotion except for twitter, a blog post and being promoted as a featured layer and in our first month we’ve attracted over 25,000 unique users from 166 countries. Our total count is now well over 200,000 unique users from over 194 countries.
We’ve engaged with street art and graf communities through twitter and the response has been really good. We’re really outsiders that just enjoy the art and really wanted an easier way to find it ourselves. The artists that have used it have given us really positive feedback and seem happy to spread the love.
F&N: What happens to the aggregated dataset of geolocated works?
This is part of our new features road map. The first phase of social sharing with multi-device permalinks has been released. We’re now working on ways for people to import/manage photo sets from Flickr and to be able to map out and share their own sub-sets of the streetARt locations to create walking tours, etc.
Plus we want to focus on specific artists works, publish interviews and bubble up more dynamic content to the make the whole platform feel more alive.
F&N: How do you see it complimenting non-AR graf apps like All City and others?
There’s quite a few actually. There’s Allcity which was sponsored by Adidas. Streetartview.com which was sponsored by Red Bull and most recently Bomb It which is an app based on or supporting a movie. And also the Street Art paid iPhone App.
We think there’s plenty of room for all of these apps I’m sure there will be a lot more soon too. However, I think there’s a bit of a backlash building around the sponsored apps as some people in the scene see this as just an exploitation of the graf/streetart community.
We considered this a lot when we built streetARt. In some ways people could point the same finger at us but we don’t charge for the App and we don’t sell sugary drinks or expensive sports clothes/shoes. We just want to find out what happens when you mix cool content with cool technology and so we hope people see our good intentions.
And of course we were the first to do it with AR!
F&N: One thing I’ve been finding challenging with AR, despite all the talk of ‘virtual and physical worlds merging’, is that the public awareness of the data cloud that surrounds everything now is still very low. I’d be interested on your thoughts as to how to make people aware that AR content exists out in the world at large.
There IS an interesting debate to be had around “control” of the digital layers and where they can be overlaid onto the physical world. But the digital layer is an abundant, effectively infinite resource where the cost to create is continually dropping. The really scarce resource that we should all really be focused upon is “attention”.
Getting people’s attention, keeping it and then getting them to engage on an ongoing basis is the real challenge. That’s why we’re so happy with the results that streetARt has created too. Not only have we attracted tens of thousands of users from all around the world, we’ve also been able to attract hundreds of really engaged users that return on a regular basis, many of them almost daily. The key to this was populating streetARt with enough Creative Commons-licensed content to kickstart it. This made sure that most people would see some cool art right from their first experience. In locative media [getting the first experience right] can be a real challenge – so we started with over 30,000 images from over 520 regions around the world, and now the users are helping us grow that further. But the 90/9/1 [participation] ratio is a reality and you have to plan for it.
One of the biggest hurdles for in-gallery App take up – actually any in-gallery technology take up – is awareness. So when you’ve just released an App (read the full story), a cross-platform one at that, for a new exhibition (opening July 30), then it really helps to have some very obvious visual promotion of it.
Here’s our instructional video put together by Estee Wah and Leonie Jones. (No questions about where we found the enormous iPhone please! Or the hand model!)
If you’ve only visited the Love Lace website on your computer you might want to try it on your iPhone too . . .
About a month ago our second walking tour App went live in the AppStore and was promptly featured by Apple leading to a rapid spike in downloads.
The Powerhouse Museum Walking Tours App is a free download, unlike our Sydney Observatory App, and it comes pre-packaged with two tours of the suburbs surrounding the Museum – Pyrmont and Ultimo. Both these tours are narrated by curator Erika Dicker and were put together by Erika and Irma Havlicek (who did the Sydney Observatory one) based on an old printed tour by curator Anni Turnbull.
Neither Pyrmont or Ultimo are suburbs that are likely to be attracting the average tourist so we felt that they should be free (as opposed to the Sydney Observatory one) inclusions with the App.
Additionally, as an in-App purchase you can buy a really great tour of historic Sydney pubs around the CBD written and narrated by Charles Pickett. We’re experimenting with this ‘freemium’ approach to see what happens – especially in comparison to the Observatory tour which requires an upfront payment. So, for a total of AU$1.99 the buyer can get the two included tours and the pubs tour.
So how’s it going?
As of last week we’d had 1,437 downloads of the free App with the two included tours since launch on June 13. 13 of the 1,437 have made the decision to go with the in-App purchase (that’s a upgrade conversion rate of less than 1%). We started getting featured on the AppStore on June 25 and the downloads spiked but there was no effect on in-App purchases. In comparison, the priced Sydney Observatory tour has sold 53 copies since launch a few weeks earlier on May 23.
We’re pretty happy with the results so far despite the low in-App conversions and we’re yet to do any serious promotion beyond that which has come our way via the AppStore. We’re also going to be trying a few other freemium upgrades as we do know that the market for a tour of Sydney pubs is both smaller and different to that of more general historical tours. You’re unlikely to see families taking their kids around Sydney’s pubs, for example.
We learned a few things very quickly – mostly about our own expectations. The first was this: it’s not going to be like a museum audio tour. The Powerhouse Museum did not pay a professional audio-speaker to make these tours. This means they have a kind of nice, very slightly amateur feel to them. At first this felt a little strange, but we got used to it.
Glen Barnes runs MyTours, the company behind the software platform we’ve been using to make these tour Apps. Since KiwiFoo, Glen and I had been conversing on and offline about a lot of tour-related issues and I got him to recount some of these conversations in a Q&A.
F&N: My Tours has been very easy for non-technical staff to build, prototype and test tours with. How diverse is the current user base? What are some of the smallest organisations using it?
We’ve got about 26 apps out right now covering 3 main areas:
I think a good tour has to have something to hold it all together – putting pins on a map just simply doesn’t cut it and neither does copying and pasting from Wikipedia.
I’m also a big fan of real people talking about their experiences or their expertise and this was really bought home to me when I meet Krissy Clark from Stories Everywhere at Foo Camp a couple of months ago. We went exploring out into the orchard and ‘stumbled’ across a song that was written about the place by a passing musician. The combination of the story and the song really took me back to what it must have been like in the middle of the hippy era.
Of course a great story is no good if people can’t find it. Promotion is key to any app.
I think this is one area where organisations really have to start working with local tourism boards and businesses. If you are from a smaller area then band together and release one app covering the local heritage trail, museum and gardens. The tourism organisations tend to have more of a budget to promote the area and by working together you can help stand out amongst the sea of apps that are out there. Also make sure that you tell people about it and don’t rely on the app stores. Get links of blogs, the local newspaper and in real life (Welly Walks had a full page article in a major newspaper, two more articles and a spot in KiaOra magazine). Talk to people and make sure the local hotels and others who recommend places-to-go know about what you are doing.
F&N: Do you see My Tours as creating a new audiences for walking tours or helping transition existing printed tours to digital? I’m especially interested to know your thoughts on whether this is a transition or whether there might actually be a broader market for tours?
We fit the bill perfectly for transitioning existing printed tours to the mobile space but that is definitely only the start. It is easy to do and creates a first step in creating more engaging content. A criticism some people make is that some of the tour apps don’t have audio – but in reality audio can be expensive to produce. I don’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the best but I would rather see some tours out there and made accessible than not published at all. Also if a few new people who wouldn’t dream of going to the library to pick up a walking tour brochure or booking a tour with the local historical society get interested enough to spend their Sunday exploring the town then that is good enough for me.
F&N: Here at PHM we’re trying both a Freemium and an upfront payment model for the two apps we have running. How have you seen these models work across other My Tours products?
We’ve tried to experiment a bit with different pricing models both for our own pricing and the app pricing. In-app purchasing hasn’t really taken off just yet and I’m not sure how this is going to work long term for this type of content. I’m hopeful that as more people become used to paying for things like magazine subscriptions through apps simple In-App purchases should become the norm for content just as it is for in-game upgrades. My main advice would be that if you can give the app away for free then do it as your content will spread a lot further that way. One way of doing this would be to get sponsorship for the app or some other form of payment not directly from the users.
F&N: What are the essential ingredients to having a chance of making a Freemium model work?
For any app you have to provide value off the bat to have any chance at all. For example you can’t give away an app and then charge for all of the content within – You will get 1 star reviews on the store straight away. Apart from that are you offering something that someone just has to have? That is a big call in the GLAM sector but if anyone has ideas of what content that is I would love to hear about it!
F&N: I was struck by My Tours affordability compared to many other mobile tour-builders. Do you think you’ve come at the ‘mobile tours’ world from leftfield? What assumptions have you overturned by being from outside the ‘tour scene’?
When we started we didn’t really look at any other solutions (as far as I know we were working on My Tours before anyone else had a completely web based tour builder like ours). I think we also did a few things with our tour builder that are a bit different because we hadn’t come from within the tour ‘scene’. The whole idea of having to upload ‘assets’ to your ‘library’ before even getting started just seemed a bit weird and convoluted to me so we we just let people add images and audio directly to the stops as they needed them. Also opening up the tour builder to anyone without them having to sit through a sales pitch from me was a first – I see no reason why you have to qualify people before they even kick the tyres.
We also challenged the assumptions that apps were only available to those with lots of money. The internet has this amazing ability to put everyone on an equal footing and let everybody’s voice be heard. This doesn’t mean that all voices are perfect but what it does mean is that money isn’t the measure of quality. Put another way there is no reason why the Kauri Museum shouldn’t have their own app just like the MoMA. It might not have all of the bells and whistles of an app from a major museum but at the same time it won’t take a hundred thousand dollars to develop.
It is interesting to look in more detail at pricing. We approached pricing by looking at a couple of other generic app builders and also looking at what value we provide. We’ve based the value proposition on the number of downloads that most of our apps will receive. Welly Walks is doing around 30-50 downloads a week which means they are paying around 30-50 cents for each app that gets downloaded. That is great value for them. Other apps are not getting quite so many downloads. If you are a smaller organisation you may only get 10 a week and the price per app is $1.50-$2 which still seems OK.
Looking at the charging models for some other tour builders and at those same download rates over a 2 year period you’d be looking at $11 and $16 an app for 10 downloads a week or $2.50 and $3.50 for 50 downloads a week. Of course, there are other factors apart from cost per download that come into it (For example renting the devices on site) but the bottom line is “Are we getting value for money?”. We may add in different pricing tiers as we add more features but I expect this will be around how deep you want to go with customising the look and feel of the app – custom theming for example.
F&N: I was really impressed to see that you had been implementing TourML import/export.
TourML to just seems like a no brainer. To me it serves 2 purposes. 1) To enable organisations to export/backup their data from a vendors system in a known format and 2) Allow content to be easily shared between different platforms.
Now some vendors want to lock you into their system and their way of doing things and they try and make it hard to leave. Instead we started from scratch building our company based on the modern practice of monthly charging and no long term contracts. As they say, “you’re only as good as your last release” and this keeps pushing us to build a better product. And while we don’t have the TourML export in the interface yet (the standard isn’t at that stage where we feel comfortable putting all of the finishing touches on our proof of concept) we see no reason why people who want to move on should not have access to the data – after all it is theirs.
We also want to see content available on more devices and pushed out to more people. Isn’t the whole point of the GLAM sector to enable access to our cultural heritage? By having an open format it means that a tour may end up on devices that are too niche for the museums to support internally (Blackberry anyone?).
F&N: What do you think about ‘augmented reality’ in tours? Do you see MyTours exploring that down the track?
I’ve got a love/hate relationship with AR. On the one hand I really want it to work but on the other I have never actually seen it work.
The second unfavourable experience with Streetmuseum was less technical and more a psychological issue – I actually felt really vulnerable standing in the middle of touristy London holding up my iPhone with my pockets exposed. I was always conscious of a snatch and grab or a pickpocket.
A group of about 15-20 of us set off with the PhillyHistory.org mobile app and walked around the city looking at various sights. It only took about 10 minutes before our devices were tucked firmly back in the pocket as we couldn’t really get it to work reliably – and this is from 20 dedicated museum and mobile practitioners! Let me point out that I don’t think it was a bad implementation of the current technology (they really have a bunch of talented people working there), I just think that the technology isn’t ready. You can download a whitepaper from Azavea on the project from their website which goes into some of the issues they faced and their approach.
I think there are some opportunities around where it does make sense but the outdoor ‘tour’ space I don’t think is one of them (yet). So will we be adding AR to My Tours? Not any time soon in the traditional sense but if someone can show me something adds value down the road? Sure.
F&N:You are also really committed to open access to civic data. How do you see commercial models adapting to the changes being brought through open access?
I’m a big Open Data fan (I helped found Open New Zealand). I’m not sure where that came from but I got interested in open source in 1999 when Linux was starting to take off and I just loved the way that many people working together could build tools that in a lot of instances were better than their commercial equivalents. I’ve also worked for companies where there were a lot of manual tasks and a lot of wasted human effort. Open Data means that we can all work together to build something greater than the sum of its parts with the understanding that we can both get a shared value out of the results. It also means that people can build tools and services on top of this data to without spending days trying to get permission before they even start and can instead focus on providing real value to others. I’m really proud of the work myself and the other Open Data folk are doing in NZ. We’ve got a great relationship with those within government and we are starting to see some real changes taking place.
How will companies adapt to this? If you are charging money through limiting access to content then you will no longer have a business. When you think about it how did we ever get in a situation where businesses produced content and then licensed this under restrictive licenses back to the organisations that paid for it in the first place? If you commission an audio track then you should own it and be free to do what you like with it. Mobile? Web? CC licensed? That should all be fine. Therefore the value that the producer adds is where the business model is. For My Tours, that is in providing an easy to use platform where we take all of the hassle out of the technical side of the app development process – you don’t need a ‘computer guy’ and a server to set up a TAP instance. That is what we are experts in and that is what we will continue to focus on.