Mobile Powerhouse Museum websites User experience

Building Sydney Design 2011 as a cross-platform site

It has been over a month since my last post here and everyone has been flat out working on a slew of projects, most of which have just gone public. The lead up to August is always one of the busiest times of the year at the Powerhouse with both Sydney Design and Ultimo Science Festival taking place each August, and this year these have been joined by a major contemporary art exhibition launch and the Powerhouse’s revitalisation works.

The next couple of posts will look at some of the new things that have gone live.

Nick Earnshaw in the Web Unit has been handling Sydney Design and Revitalisation and both of those sites, running on WordPress, are now live.

Sydney Design was built by Mob Labs using a concept and design by Toko. Mob Labs have built both a web and mobile web version of the Sydney Design site and the iPhone App version is due to go to the AppStore any moment now.

We’re excited about this year’s Sydney Design site because it has been built to be even more decentralised than previous years. The Powerhouse IT team reconfigured an install of our helpdesk/job-tracking system, JIRA, to allow external Sydney Design partners to enter their events remotely and the Powerhouse Contemporary team, who organise Sydney Design, to assess them. Chris Bell in the IT team then exported these into a custom WordPress install where the final event editing took place whilst Mob Labs configured custom themes for the site itself. We’re also indebted to MOMA’s work in creating a very useful JSON API plugin for WordPress which made the resulting site build by Mob Labs considerably easier.

You’ll also notice that the site integrates Facebook using a subset of the Opengraph features to make it clear which parts of Sydney Design your friends like and making rough recommendations. We were inspired by the Sydney Festival site to do this and we’ll be keeping an eye on it to see how effective it is for the more niche audiences of Sydney Design.

The Contemporary team at the Museum have also been busy making sure there’s vox pops and other content going out on Facebook and Twitter as well as embedding them into the relevant events (eg. 1 | 2) on the site itself.

Mob Labs did a great job on the mobile site which has some nifty swipe interface action and geo-location in mobile browsers – give it a go on an iPhone, Android or Blackberry and see. And once the native App goes live we’ll be able to see how many iOS users choose the App over the Mobile Web version of the site.

Maybe this year will be the last time we feel we need both a mobile website and an App.


First of our walking tours is in the AppStore

This week the first in a series of walking tour iPhone Apps went live in the AppStore. Here’s the skinny.

This tour has been developed from a printed tour produced by Curator of Astronomy, Dr Nick Lomb, in 2009. It has been expanded to include a tour of the Sydney Observatory precinct, the Observatory, grounds, Signal Station, flagstaff and Fort Phillip. It reveals how central Sydney Observatory was to the development of scientific research in New South Wales. Observatory Hill has been the astronomical hub of Sydney since 1858 when the Observatory commenced operation there, and also played a vital role in the time-keeping, navigational and meteorological life of Sydney. The tour includes not only fascinating historical information but also captivating views of Sydney Harbour from Observatory Hill, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Dawes Point, as well as taking a delightful path through the Rocks.

Online Producer Irma Havlicek started this project by first walking the original printed map tour (PDF). As she walked the tour she found that there was a lot more opportunity to highlight other locations, whilst at the same time removing a few locations that were too far away to comfortably reach in a single walk.

Using the intuitive online tour App maker, MyTours, she pulled together images, dropped pins on the interactive map, wrote a script, and built a demo version. It took several more walks with the demo version on her iPhone to refine the tour to the current version.

After the literal road testing, Irma then recorded the audio track from her script and walked the route again this time with audio in her ears. This continuous in-situ testing was very time consuming but ultimately incredibly worthwhile as we now have a tour that is tightly edited and, depending on the weather, great to walk and enjoy.

When it came to submitting to the AppStore we had a lot of discussions about the pricing. Because the MyTours pricing model charges a monthly fee for free Apps but takes only a cut from charged Apps we were already leaning towards a low-price.

In the end we settled on an initial list price of AU$2.49.

Of this Apple takes its customary 30% and then MyTours 50% of the remainder (35% of the total).

Personally I think this is a very fair price. It is as cheap as can of soft drink and less than a coffee. I hope that the price also indicates that the walking tour has been made with care and we feel is worth at least that much.

We aren’t measuring success by the number of downloads but in the number of completed tours. And I strongly believe that a low price (vs free) will lead to more tour completions relative to total downloads. We will get less ‘speculative downloads’ and more intentional ones – unlike a general informational App that a museum might make, a walking tour App is not something that has a great deal of purpose unless you are intending to walk it. (And we’re keeping the free PDF version available regardless).

We’ve got signage coming at the Observatory so that visitors to the site in the day will be aware of the existence of this ‘visit extension’, and the public wifi at the site will make downloading the App and the tour as painless as we can currently make it.

We are launching a few more walks in the coming weeks with some other models being experimented with – and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.


Nancy Proctor talk at Powerhouse Museum 19/4/11 on mobile 2.0

Early this week Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution gave a free talk at the Powerhouse, courtesy of Museum3 and RMIT.

The talk is quite a sobering walk through some of the emerging realities around the cost and rationale for mobile, as well as a discussion around how collectively we might move beyond thinking about mobile as ‘just audio tours 2.0’.

Nancy Proctor, Smithsonian Institution at the Powerhouse Museum 19/4/11 from Powerhouse Museum on Vimeo.

The video starts after the audience has been watching the trailer for Scapes, a very interesting location-based sound art project by Halsey Burgund that combines generative audio with visitor/listener recorded feedback.

Advance apologies for the audio quality.

I’d highly recommend reading this paper – Getting On (not Under) the Mobile 2.0 Bus: Emerging Issues in the Mobile Business Model – from Museums & the Web 2011 on mobile as complimentary material.

UPDATE: Nancy’s slides from the evening are available below.

Geotagging & mapping Interactive Media Mobile

China Heart goes live – a mobile storytelling experience

China Heart launches tonight, Thursday January 27, at the Powerhouse and the ‘general public’ (more likely, niche publics) can start playing it with all the special real-world additions between January 30 and February 13.

Of course, you can play it outside this period – and you can even play it without being in Sydney.

If you have an iPhone then download the free iPhone App

Or if you don’t then you can try the web version, which also nicely reformats for mobile web browsers.

Read the backstory to China Heart in my earlier post.

China Heart is presented by d/Lux/MediaArts in association with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, the Powerhouse Museum and the Project Factory.

China Heart is supported by Screen NSW, Screen Australia, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and City of Sydney.

Digital storytelling Interviews Mobile

China Heart – mobile locative storytelling: interview with Tara Morelos, Annette Shun-Wah & Jennifer Wilson

On January 30 the Powerhouse Museum becomes the start point for a locative mobile story/game called China Heart. This exciting free project runs all through Chinese New Year celebrations until February 13.

China Heart is being produced by dLux Media Arts, developed by The Project Factory, and the narrative has been written by Annette Shun-Wah who Australian readers will know from her diverse media work, especially TV.

Four Powerhouse objects star in the game and form key elements in the storyline. Min-Jung Kim, our Asian Decorative Arts & Design curator worked with Annette to explore opportunities with the Museum’s collection.

Many staff in the Digital teams at the Powerhouse have tried the two predecessors to China Heart from dLux (Ghost Gardens 2008 & Razorhurst 2009) and we’ve been really fortunate to be involved this time around. There are some interesting differences in this third title in terms of BYO technology, a reasonably platform agnostic approach, and a more scaffolded start point (by using the Museum). I’m very interested in how general visitors to the Museum as well as those coming especially for China Heart will respond. Everyone involved will be intrigued to see how many players/readers complete the full China Heart journey and get engaged by the story and presentation.

I asked Tara Morelos (Director of dLux Media Arts), Annette Shun-Wah (author), and Jennifer Wilson (Director of The Project Factory) a series of questions about the project and how it has unfolded.

Tell us about the predecessors to China Heart and the role dLux has been playing in creating opportunities for artists to work with location-based games and storytelling.

TARA MORELOS (TM): From as early as 2004 we began working to incorporate mobile technologies into contemporary art practice. We commissioned works by leading Australian artists and filmmakers for mobile phones and delivered a blended program of exhibitions, forums and workshops to build a framework for the ongoing development of a creative mobile screen culture.

With the proliferation of handheld media devices such as smart phones and GPS systems an entirely new spectrum of creative opportunities has opened up for artists.

In 2008 we worked with artists Anita Fontaine and Mike Pelletier to present Ghost Garden for Sydney Festival 2008, a romantic animated fantasy delivered by location in short video episodes throughout the Botanical Gardens. This was wildly successful from a visitor point of view and most definitely a first step that delivered great learning.

In 2009 we were approached by Richard Fox after his experiences with Ghost Garden. He had produced a prototype for a GPS based game called Razorhurst.

Players were taken on a mission to collect and deliver sly grog while dodging location based attacks by notorious 1920s & 30s Razorgangs. We assisted Richard in developing the game/story elements with the addition of video re enactments and narrative voice overs during lulls in gameplay to create a more deliberate blend of fact and fiction enhancing the immersive experience while educating.

We ran Razorhurst for a month long intensive season and another week as part of the History Council‘s official NSW History Week 2009.

Both Ghost Garden and Razorhurst were delivered on pre-loaded HP TravelMates lent to players for the duration of the game.

What differences does China Heart have to the two previous dLux productions?

TM: From our previous experiences we had learnt that while the game element is a key, it’s the combination of a compelling fictional story situated in historical fact which really captured the audiences. Ghost Garden was simply a story and we found participants also wanted to know real information about history of the gardens and plants.

We learnt that multiple entry points were desirable allowing participants to enjoy the experience according to their level of interest. Serious gamers are after specific game elements such as hidden clues, blind alleys, true discoveries, limitations and challenges (eg time based). Gentle explorers want the discovery and excitement of following the game route, without necessarily the competitive or challenging elements. Razorhurst was closer to a serious game and a large part of its appeal, however we definitely encountered players who wanted an interactive walking tour with gangsters!

China Heart attempts to incorporated this knowledge with the right blend of fact and fiction.

With Razorhurst in particular we were being let down by old devices and their limited GPS capabilities within a built up area. Increasingly as smartphones have come on the market supplied with better GPS capability, location services have become popular and easier to deliver. The mobile network itself adds to the accuracy of GPS in built up areas through ‘triangulating’ the handset location based on signal strength from cell towers (A-GPS).

We have taken the next logical step and partnered with The Project Factory, an award winning cross platform production company to build the China Heart mobile app, website and mobile site.

Quite significantly, in developing the content dlux has begun from scratch assembling the creative team: writer, director, designer, cast and crew and commissioned Annette Shun Wah to write the story which underpins the content development.

Working with the Project Factory we have begun development on a platform which will allow organisations to tell a story set around a location navigable by walking with the mobile phone – in other words, mobile locative stories. China Heart is essentially a prototype to demonstrate how these stories work and what they can offer.

Where do you think this sort of location-based storytelling has the most potential?

TM: Most definitely within the cultural sector.

Mobile locative stories can create new audiences for institutions and make available their digitally-archived collections to the wider public. This platform allows the public access a diverse range of material from objects within a museum or gallery collection to social history within the urban or natural environment. Combining GPS navigation with a historic map interface, archival photos and web links, video reenactments, ambient sound and voiceovers triggered by player’s location creates an extraordinary mobile learning environment for all ages.

And, you can combine a forest’s worth of printed material into the palm of many hands for unlimited use. This is definitely a mode of information delivery that will represent significant cost savings for the sector longer term and fits in well with the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision.

We began China Heart in partnership with The Powerhouse Museum to explore this potential for ’excavating the archive’.

What is the premise of China Heart?

ANNETTE SHUN-WAH (AS-W): China Heart is a fictional love story and a mystery that reveals some of factual stories of Chinese Australia – particularly in relation to marriage and family. In the story, a young Chinese-Australian woman named Lian receives a mysterious gift at her engagement party. The gift unsettles her, and ignites tension between her and her mother, over a troubled relationship that Lian had with her late father. In trying to understand the significance of the objects in her gift, Lian travels around Chinatown, and discovers other people’s stories about marriage and family. These help her understand and resolve her own difficulties with being an “astronaut’s daughter”. What is an “astronaut’s daughter”? In this case – probably not what you think.

How did the research and writing of China Heart differ from your work in other mediums?

AS-W: The appeal of this project is that I had previously completed quite a bit of research into Chinese-Australian history for my various published books and short stories. This gave me a very good foundation for developing the China Heart project.

The writing, however, required some very different approaches. The project includes drama, information modules, oral histories and game playing. So it required writing in many different forms. The common thread, however, is that I wanted to keep the visitor interested, involved, and entertained long enough to discover some of the many secrets and little-told stories of Sydney’s Chinatown.

How did you find incorporating museum objects into the story? was this a natural fit or was it trickier than expected?

AS-W: The objects from the Powerhouse Museum inspired the story. I could have chosen to tell a murder mystery, and underworld tale, or a ghost story, for example, but these are commonly used forms for digital storytelling and game playing.

The objects from the Powerhouse inspired a very different narrative path – one that allowed me to tell more personal, emotional stories.

Much documented Chinese-Australian history focuses on the experiences of men, because many of the early Chinese arrivals were men. But I think it’s time women’s experiences shared some of the limelight – the stories of wives, daughters and debutantes! They expose a very different side of the migration story, and provide insights into family and culture.

Did you consider interactivity into the storyline as you were writing it?

AS-W: Game playing and interactivity are very new approaches for me. I’m used to telling the story – revealing it, as in a drama script or a documentary narration – rather than sharing it, or encouraging the audience to engage actively. So this has been quite a learning experience for me.

Certainly I imagined the visitor to come along on the physical journey with our characters, and to discover site-specific information. I wanted the audience to experience Chinatown in a different and memorable way, even though they may already be familiar with the area.

I wanted to replicate an experience I had many years ago in Perth, in a live installation piece called The Angel Project, that used sites all around the CBD to suggest the presence of angels. I will never see Perth the same way again! [Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project debuted at the Perth Festival in 2000 and has subsequently been performed in cities all over the world. Here is coverage of its run in New York in 2003 from The Gothamist.]

China Heart is designed so that the visitor will have this strange but very enjoyable feeling as he or she undertakes the journey. The visitor feels like they’re on a secret mission, to help solve a mystery, and will engage differently with a city they may indeed know very well. Adding some real world installation and performance gives another dimension to the experience.

And for those who like game playing or problem solving, we threw in some cryptic clues for fun. These reveal additional information, as well as enabling free entry to the final location, where the story reaches its emotional climax.

How did you address the location-centric story elements in the narrative? Did you have to visit each location and consider how the reader/player might ‘feel’ and ‘see’ in each location? How did you deal with the story ‘pacing’ between locations? How important are the locations and the journeys between them to the story itself?

AS-W: I spent quite a bit of time wandering aimlessly around, backtracking, trying different routes, and photographing minute details that may, or may not, at some stage be useful to the story. Anyone watching me would have thought me slightly mad! The difficulty I had is that some of the important historical landmarks – such as the Belmore Markets and the Trocadero Dance Palace – no longer exist. But then with the assistance of video and archival photos, we could summon up the ghosts of those venues in or near the right locations. These specific locations – the factual elements of the journey – are very important indeed.

Other sections of the story don’t relate to a specific location. For example – I wanted to recall the era when many “astronauts’ wives” – women whose husbands commuted to Asia to work – gathered regularly at yum cha. So any number of Chinese restaurants would have been suitable as the GPS hotspot. We chose one that was along the route – in line with the narrative sequence. We also discovered a fun photo booth arcade along the way, and added this as a counterpoint to the historical locations. The story, after all, is very much set in the present day.

Of course a locative game will always suffer the constraints of geography. Some additional elements of story and history were eliminated because they would have been too far to walk to. Some useful locations were in a cluster, others were quite a distance away. To smooth this out would have required the addition of locations and associated stories that may have detracted from the narrative, and I made the decision to allow the story to rule. The cluster of locations happens quite early in the journey, so my hope is that by then, the visitor will be hooked on the experience and won’t mind walking a little further between the next locations. And the journey gets more interesting further along with the addition of installations and performance so it’s worth it!

Personally I think that this sort of storytelling is going to be a big part of what e-books become, rather than being the way that ‘games’ head. How aligned do you feel China Heart is to traditionally storytelling versus, say, ‘mobile gaming’?

AS-W: The beauty of China Heart is that it is so multi-layered, it will appeal to those simply looking for a good story as well as those looking for clues to solve. And if you like both, then it will be a doubly rich experience.

I think if you set out to make a terrific mobile game, then the story would follow the requirements of the game. It’s absolutely possible with a fictional narrative, but I think it would be a less satisfying experience.

Traditional storytelling is certainly the basis for China Heart, using a fictional narrative based on factual experiences. This gives the whole exercise some authentic emotion and context. I attempted to reveal some truths about family, relationships and the migrant experience. The gaming element adds a little fun and is challenging, and makes it more social if the journey is being undertaken by more than one person.

You’ve worked a lot with TV and film. How do you think these older mediums will gain from cross-media integration with location-based storytelling?

AS-W: Look, I don’t profess to be any kind of expert in this field – I simply had a story that I wanted to tell, and by telling it in this way, a whole range of possibilities opened up. I haven’t even begun to exploit many of them, so I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. But I do think that China Heart delivers an experience that is tactile, revelatory, intimate and affecting, through the use of a personal mobile device and by physically requiring the visitor to make the journey. Being interactive – requiring the visitor to make the effort and to truly engage with everything around them – makes the experience more memorable.

Good TV and film will work no matter where or how you watch it. But let’s face it, much of what is produced is hardly compelling. Integrating these forms with other media on a mobile platform will certainly inject a new lease of life. I believe the important principle is that the content must suit the form, and vice versa. Simply shoehorning an old-form idea into a new platform will not do it justice. The best location based projects will be the ones that could not be executed any other way.

What challenges are there from a development perspective in creating these sorts of location-based games?

JENNIFER WILSON (JW): The challenges are a mixture between allowing the story to play out in a linear way if the user travels on the proposed path, but also allowing people to experience it in a non-linear way. Location based games need to allow for both these paths. Additionally, not all participants will have the App or be at the location, so we need allow for an experience that can take place at a different location altogether; at their desk and on different devices. All of this adds to the complexity.

China Heart is being billed as a cross-platform application with mobile web and also an AppStore version. What was the reasoning behind this choice?

JW: We needed to allow for non-iPhone users to access the app locally – meaning we needed to provide a mobile web option for non-iPhone users. We also felt that there was such rich content, that we needed to allow this to be explored on a larger screen. That meant a web site. And in these situations where there is no ability to use location data, we needed to develop a different way of people exploring the locations via a map.

Tara has talked about the Project Factory developing a ‘platform’ for these sorts of location-based games to be more easily made. How do you see this evolving? Is this akin to what HP’s mScape was trying to do?

JW: we really like the idea of a ‘platform’ that would allow locative stories to be created by people simply, easily and quickly. This would allow someone to select an area of a map (the boundaries), select the target locations for the story elements (locations), then add in the content they want for each location (the content). If we can also allow them to create some design wrappers and a name, as well as maybe even allow this to be compiled as an application – then we really do have a platform. We haven’t been able to completely build that for this, but we’ve used China Heart to show how locative games might work like this in the near future.

[Seb – I’ve really enjoyed Hidden Park with my children which takes the same story and interactive sequences but allows you to customise the locations of these events within your own park]

What has The Project Factory learned from other projects about introducing new users and audiences to these sorts of new forms of entertainment and storytelling? I’m interested in how these emergent forms become more mainstream and normalised.

JW: The mobile has become the prime device for connection and increasingly for consuming content. One of the things that mobile offers is that magic ability to have location add a new layer to the information and linking narrative to location is one of the things that it is perfect for. We know that allowing users to discover stories in new ways is important. We also know that community is one of the strongest ways of discovering content and that using community is key to expanding awareness of these services.

For new projects such as China Heart, we also need to make sure that the application captures the attention of the user quickly, and explains the outline of the plot. We do this through having videos start to provide the backstory. The second thing is, we need to make the navigation and use of the app straightforward and not requiring any form of explicit instructions. If there is any obstruction to play, such as confusing rules, difficult to understand user interfaces or long explanations needed to know what to do – then this interrupts the game play and service. We need to make the services simple, easy but also enjoyable.

China Heart is available for free for the public to play, with the location-based story beginning in the Powerhouse Museum foyer, from January 30 to February 13.

And if you’d like to help and volunteer to be a mobile concierge during the run of China Heart then dLux has a call out for volunteers.

If you happen to be overseas or outside of Sydney, you’ll still be able to experience the media and storyline of China Heart through the App or online version.

Stay tuned for the go live.

Interactive Media Mobile

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

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.

Mobile User experience

On augmented reality (again) – time with UAR, Layar, Streetmuseum & the CBA

Jasper Visser from the Nationaal Historisch Museum in the Netherlands has nailed some of the problems with augmented reality in his recent blogpost – ‘Charming tour guide vs mobile 3D AR‘.

Jasper compares the analogue world experience of a guided architectural tour with the digital experience of using the Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR application to plot a similar ‘tour’. This isn’t really a fair comparison but it does raise some serious questions about appropriateness of technology and the kind of user experience we are trying to adapt/adopt/create.

The Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR application, built on Layar, is perhaps the best augmented reality application by (or for) a museum I’ve seen and tried thus far. It narrowly beats out the Museum of London’s Streetmuseum – largely because it looks to the future in terms of content as well as in technology.

As I laboured over my presentation at Picnic ’10, the problem with a lot of these augmented reality and mobile apps that museums are doing is that they face a huge user motivation hurdle – ‘why would you bother’? Further, many of the ‘problems’ they try to solve are more effectively/effortlessly solved in other more analogue ways.

Our very own Powerhouse AR experiment with Layar is clunky and honestly, beyond the technological ‘wow’, it doesn’t have a lot of incentive to boot it up that important second time. That might sound critical but needs to be put into the context of it being a) an experiment, b) and having no budget allocation.

Earlier in the year in London I couldn’t get the MOL’s Streetmuseum to work properly on my iPhone 3GS but on my last visit, now with some updates and an iPhone4, I was able to get some serious time in with it.

Streetmuseum has been a brilliant marketing campaign for the Museum of London. It has generated priceless coverage in global media and in so doing associated the Museum of London with the notions of ‘experimentalism’, ‘innovation’, ‘new technology’. And the incorporation of Streetmuseum into the campaign strategy for the launch of the excellent new galleries has been very effective and synergistic.

It has also, demonstrated that there can be an interest in heritage augmented reality – even if it doesn’t quite work the way you’d hope it would.

However, like all these apps – from a user experience perspective the app is clunky and aligning the historic images with ‘reality’ in the 3D view is an exercise in patience. The promotional screenshots don’t convey the difficulty in real world use. As a result the app 3D view, the most technically innovative part of the app, ends up being a gimmick.

However the 2D map view is far more useful and, for the most part, the 2D is very rewarding. And for the committed, walking around London and revealing the ‘layers of history’ can be compelling.

Compared to our the Powerhouse layer in Layar, though, Streetmuseum is, excuse the pun, streets ahead (not surprising given the investment). Streetmuseum’s eschewing of a platform approach of using Layar and building its own system might not be the most long term sustainable strategy but it certainly delivers a far better experience than Layar. Of course, it is such early days in this space that Layar isn’t exactly a long term strategy either.

Mac Slocum over at O’Reilly raises some similar issues.

That’s the problem with app-based AR: even when the app is interesting and the implementation is notable, it’s hard to get people (like me) to use it consistently. AR ambivalence is also tied to the bigger issue of app inertia. A company that pours resources into a custom app doesn’t get much return if that app is rarely launched; the user doesn’t develop an affinity for the brand, and that same user certainly doesn’t buy associated products. The app and its AR just sit there, waiting to be uninstalled.

In my Picnic ’10 presentation I briefly showed the CBA’s Property Guide app. Although this is far from a novel idea (in fact property prices were one of the first things in Layar), the implementation is rather good and points to several things for the cultural heritage sector to take note of.

First it addresses something with a clear existing demand – Australians’ obsession with property prices. Second, it manages to surpass your expectations of the available data – by providing, free of charge, access to ‘good enough’ data for almost every house in the street.

When I first booted up the CBA app I expected to get patchy data for my chosen area. Properties near me sell reasonably frequently but also many people stay in the same place for a long time. So you can imagine my surprise when I was able to see that the last time a place near me sold was in 1984 and for ‘between $30,000 and $40,000’ – as well as every single property up my street. That sort of data usually isn’t available – even in tabular form for purchase.

So how might that play out for cultural heritage AR?

Well, I think for a start it means cross-institutional applications and cross-institutional data. There is no technical reason why the same level of data that the CBA app has access to isn’t available for heritage.

Just thinking of the existing rudimentary ideas about these kinds of apps – the ‘Then & Now’: the local council archives are probably a good place to start and work up the food chain to the big institutions. ‘A photo and a title deed of every property’ . . . . it is only a matter of time.

But addressing the ‘demand’ issue is another matter altogether.


The first iPad exhibition catalogues and a strategy framework

Today was an iPad filled day for a few of the team.

First, I wake up to find that the Venice Architecture Biennale has launched a ‘free’ iPad catalogue.

Clocking in at over 400MB it isn’t a small download and the user interface is more ‘artful’ than ‘functional’. Still there’s a lot to like about it. There’s far more than just a map and, in fact, the ‘free’ App is actually just a taster as you can buy the ‘full catalogue’ for AU$5.99 as downloadable content from inside the App.

I’d be really interested to hear how much the App is actually used within the Biennale and then how many of the initial downloaders go on to buy the ‘full version’. Certainly there’s the attraction of not having to lug around an enormous catalogue around Venice, but the downside is not having a coffee table book to advertise your architectural social capital when you get back home!

Later in the day several of us attended an iPad Strategy Workshop which was being run by The Insight Exchange as part of the PANPA (Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association) conference.

Obviously in the newspaper space the iPad is both a source of hope and terror. When the Flipboard App was shown there was a palpable sense of ‘but they aren’t seeing the advertisements’ around the room. On the other hand there was some fascinating data from the New Zealand Herald and The Australian around the take-up rates, growing in-app subscribers, and in-app advertising engagement that all point to new opportunities for news media. Whether these opportunities can and are seized relies on significant structural and organisational change.

In the workshop and panel discussion there was a common theme that the iPad (and other tablets and mobiles) are the beginning of an inevitable structural coming together of the print and digital divisions of newspaper publishers which have been allowed to operate separately for the past 15 years. I couldn’t help thinking that for museums there is a similar point coming – except that mobile for museums necessitates a coming together of the digital/web teams and the exhibition teams. As Abigail Thomas, Head of Strategic Development at ABC Innovation, emphasised, the real gains of the ABC around mobile have come from the work done to reduce internal ‘channel conflict’.

Ross Dawson, who organised the workshop, distributed the following early beta of an iPad Media Strategy Framework. Take a look as from our perspective in museums, the strategic challenges aren’t all that different.

Mobile User behaviour User experience

Sydney Design has an iPhone app

Everyone is doing apps.

It might not be the decision of choice for us ‘web people’ – our friends at the Brooklyn have recently agonised over similar decisions – but in the end actual user behaviour wins out in the short term over what we might consider best practice. (Of course, modelling on actual user behaviour is best practice!)

So here’s the Powerhouse Museum’s free iPhone app for Sydney Design 2010.

The festival starts on Friday and the App is basically a pocket what’s on calendar and map with the ability to favourite events for your own calendar as well as quick aggregated access to the Sydney Design Twitter and Flickr feeds.

We agonised over whether to just build a mobile version of the website – that would have been the easy choice, especially as the festival site has, for the last 4 years, been built entirely on WordPress (with this year’s theme developed by Boccalatte) and adding a mobile theme would have been comparatively trivial. But in the end we went with the bulk of target users – whose mobile device of choice was overwhelming an iPhone – and whose preferred behaviour was an app over a mobile website for ease of access. There’s also now a sense of ‘expectation’ that these kinds of events ‘should have’ their own app – perhaps grounded in aspirational hype, but an expectation none the less.

MOB Labs built the app which uses the dataset directly from the WordPress backend. This means it can be periodically updated over the air without requiring a full app versioning process – essential given the approval process. This core bit of functionality wasn’t without its own problems and MOB worked hard to make sure that the way that the website uses tags and categories to provide the key navigational elements on the website were sufficiently able to translate to the app without requiring app-specific data.

First releases are never without their bugs and we’re using this time-limited trial as a means to gather the necessary learnings for some exciting upcoming things . . .

Mobile User behaviour User experience

A little mobile data

I’m a last minute addition to an AIMIA forum on Tuesday morning looking at the Digital Customer Experience. The forum is focussing primarily on mobile.

In prepping the slides looking at in-museum and out-museum mobile experiences, I’ve dug up a little data that you may be intrigued by. If anything it reflects the type of online visitor we are attracting.

– 2% of Sydney-based traffic to the Powerhouse site is on a mobile device

– Sydney mobile users spend half the time on our site to their desktop/laptop counterparts

– surprisingly, when compared to other Sydney users they are 30% less likely to arrive via search

– but when they do search they are far more likely to search for specific travel-related information like “powerhouse museum parking” and “powerhouse museum opening times”

– 85% of mobile traffic is from iPhones and, shockingly, there are more iPad visitors than Android and Blackberry!

– as far as telcos go, 37.4% come from Optus, 19.2% from Vodafone, and 12.3% from Telstra

As you may know, we’ve had a mobile-friendly site up for quite a while now. There’s a vanilla version as well as marginally nicer iPhone version. Both have stripped down architectures, reflecting the kind of interaction we’d expect from a mobile user (quick, task-oriented, information-focussed, visit-focussed).

Fortunately the usage data supports the stripped back interface, but it also is showing a willingness for mobile users to delve deeper into the non-mobile-optimised parts of our website too. 18% of Sydney mobile visitors venture into the rich content of The 80s Are Back section (it is also one of the primary exhibitions we have had on since December), 14% into the depths of the exhibition detail pages and 11% into additional detailed visit information. The high proportion of iPhone users means that the experience is not greatly degraded as a result of reaching unoptimised content.

Collection records – driven by our earlier QR and now, shortened URL experiments – represent about 4.1% of Sydney mobile views. Obviously for these to work beyond a core of aware-users they need significant in-gallery promotion and staff encouragement.

I’ll have more to say on Tuesday.