ABOVE: Kids bike along virtual trails at the interactive Detroit Outdoor Adventure Center. Photo courtesy Wärtsilä FUNA.
Vice President of Design and Engineering at Wärtsilä FUNA, Scott Arnold, talks
about how museums can best take advantage of interactive technology
Interview by Martin Palicki
What are some advantages of using technology to enhance the museum visitor experience?
Two words: Relevance and attention.
Today’s museums are in a battle on multiple fronts for relevance and attention. Because of evolving technology and the multitasking demands of life, inspiring and attracting visitors and keeping them engaged at a museum is more challenging and usually more expensive as well.
Additionally, the onslaught of media content from every direction in life raises the expectations of visitors. To combat these stimuli, a museum needs to look to experiences that are different and more compelling: to create exhibits that are more immersive, unique, and interesting.
One powerful weapon in the arsenal is the appropriate use of technology. A creative technology system design can enhance a guest experience in many ways. Technology can be used to create more flexibility, allowing exhibits, or even entire galleries to be changed out or updated by just updating media. Technology can provide real-time access to information, such as tracking a sea turtle in the ocean, seeing a live camera feed from an eagle’s nest, or including up-to-the minute statistics in a display. In addition, technology can help support immersion in a topic: for instance, by virtually transporting visitors to other environments through the use of projection mapping or ambient audio.
What are some of the latest technologies available and how are they being applied?
Technology is always advancing, and there are always exciting products coming to market that can support an exhibit, and fit a museum’s budget.
One great example is 360-degree photography. The technology cost has gone down for cameras and camera rigs as well as projection. For contemporary examples, look at virtual tours such as what Gateway Galleries at The University of Saint Andrews recently undertook with their exhibit Skyward http://www.skyward2016.org/360-2/ or the National Museum of the US Air Force’s tour http://www.nmusafvirtualtour.com/full/tourstd.html.
Virtual Reality (VR) is of course the current buzz in the industry, with many new applications. VR has been around a long time, arguably since the 1950s, but the not-so-virtual reality of it all is that huge leaps in technology and processing power in the past few years have helped it advance beyond novelty, to newlevels of quality and affordability. As a result, we’re now seeing VR technology used for everything from industrial training to video games to architectural fly-throughs and out-of-home guest experiences.
VR use is starting to grow in the museum world. There are some interesting installations with varying levels of interactivity including Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s recreation of a rainforest at the New Museum, Jeremy Couillard’s “Out of Body Experience Clinic” at the Louis B. James Gallery, the ability to walk with the dinosaurs as part of the World Science Festival at the Queensland Museum, and some interesting work currently being done at the British Museum.
What are some of the risks museums have to considerwhen developing interactive exhibits? And how can they mitigate those?
There are certainly risks – and most museum professionals have experienced an interactive exhibit that was not up to snuff. Here are a few of my personal touchstones.
*Keep in mind that sometimes the simplest exhibits have the greatest impact – including interactives.
*Technology should not be used simply for the sake of using technology, however new or cool. It must support your story and your message.
*Choose an appropriate technology partner or partners, who will work with and support you, not just sell you products and services. You may need more than one tech partner depending on the project. As an example, the right company to create the interactive kiosks may not be the right company to integrate your audio system.
*Is your interactive engaging? There are many examples of money spent on an interactive that people walk right by.
*Is your interactive big enough or placed well enough to draw attention? We have all seen wall-mounted iPads gathering dust.
*Does it support the throughput needed? A really cool interactive is ineffective if 50 people have to skip it while one person enjoys it.
*Think about how you will support or service your tech investment. Your design partner should steer you toward the right choices based on your capabilities and resources. Technology that is beyond the skillset of your staff will call for training or a service contract to ensure you are supported. This follows into the next point…
*Think about the Total Cost of Ownership. Design and equipment are only part of the equation. Things like power consumption, consumables, and maintenance can add up. It may be better to spend a bit more up front on design and equipment that minimize the long-term costs.
Is more technology justified for all types of museums and all spaces within a museum?
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: Yes – like it or not, museums are in a competition for people’s time, interest, attention and leisure spending. They compete with other visitor attractions, cultural offerings and in-home pastimes. They compete with any manner of distractions including mobile phones, television, tablets, working out, and life in general.
The reality is that for museums to succeed they must employ a combination of marketing prowess, psychology, and engineering along with great content and a great showcase of that content.
It is less often talked about in the museum market, but technology can also boost the retail component of a museum in terms of the gift shop, food and beverage and special events.
Technology, in its many forms, can be used to support the cause – to draw in new visitors, strengthen the relationship with existing customers and enhance and extend the experience in many ways inside and outside the physical facility. This applies to serving the general public as well as school groups and a museum’s extended community of educators, scientists, historians, artists and more.
Most importantly, technology can effectively tell your story, teach your guests, and help excite them about your collection or focus, which, after all, is really the goal of the modern museum.
• • •
Scott Arnold is a 25+ year industry veteran designing technology projects ranging from museums to theme parks, to cruise ships. For the past six years he has been with Wärtsilä FUNA, whose recent work on the Detroit Outdoor Adventure Center was featured in InPark’s Issue #60, available online at inparkmagazine.com.