Experiments and Opportunities for New Media in Outdoor Exhibits

Ted Koterwas
Multimedia and Website Developer

To my 21st Century, tech-addled mind, "Outdoor Exploratorium" screams "mobile", "social", "distributed", "networked"—I immediately picture curious people snapping photos with their phones, tweeting observations, and sharing video and audio of their discoveries. I envision communities of networked, like-minded enthusiasts commenting on their latest outdoor finds. Mapping, Geocaching, Augmented Reality: there are so many intriguing ways in which people use technology to experience, record, share, investigate, probe, and learn about the world around them. And indeed, with the ever-increasing availability of Wi-Fi and 3G networks, and the recent explosion of internet-enabled phones with gps, accelerometers, and compasses, these activities seem ever more feasible—even obvious—grist for the exhibit developer's creative mill. Today, new Augmented Reality apps like Layar and Wikitude for iPhone allow anyone to add site-specific content and commentary to physical places. These applications seem perfect for an "Outdoor Exploratorium" aimed at facilitating "noticing" phenomena. That is now, this was then.

Early in the development of the Outdoor Exploratorium, a project conceived before phones even had cameras, mobile technology still played a part. Palm Pilots and iPaqs (remember those?) would allow visitors to take readings and record observations. A gps-enabled Scavenger Hunt imagined visitors taking pictures of small details in the area around the museum for the next visitor to seek out (we prototyped this with cheap Polaroid cameras). As the technology advanced, so did the ideas. We dreamed up collaborative "concrete" music, composed online from phoned-in audio samples of the urban soundscape. Networked viewscopes allowed visitors in one location to record, comment on, and share images of their surroundings with visitors in other locations. Text-message-based games of predator/prey would be played throughout the city. People could engage in virtual "tagging," in several senses of the word: graffitti, taxonomy and tracking. These ideas were compelling enough for a sub-team of developers, dubbed "Siteless" to begin pursuing.

We developed prototypes:

  • Urban Glyphs explored the potential of collaboratively mapping and deciphering Underground Service Alert markings painted on pavement prior to construction projects
  • The Questioning Machine explored the use of phone-in observations to provide "evidence" for and against user-generated hypotheses.

The immediate issue we faced in protoyping was that in order to really test these ideas with users "in the wild", we had to first build them to a degree of usability and polish beyond what we would normally do for the museum floor. We wouldn't be physically present to help someone through a technical problem, and so we needed to reduce the "noise" of technical malfunctions before being able to rely on the signals of usability, interest, and effectiveness. This meant that a prototype required a significant investment of time and money before the concept behind it could even really be proven. In the end, these prototypes didn't become exhibits, not only because they faced difficult challenges, but also due to the departure of key staff, including myself, from the project. However, the potential for these types of activities has only grown as mobile technology matures, and many of the challenges we faced, while still daunting, are being steadily chipped away.

With the increasing availability of API's, frameworks, and SDKs for rich internet and mobile applications, it now takes less time to build a reasonably robust approximation of the experience you are trying to create. Facebook, Google Maps, Blogger, Wordpress, Drupal, and Twitter already provide much of the basic functionality you might need. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. But the most daunting issues in developing interactive mobile exhibits, especially social ones that involve users contributing content, probably pre-date the wheel: getting enough people to participate, and getting them to contribute quality content. These challenges involve marketing, accessibility, sustainability, and community building—and that's even before taking into account "just" the design challenge of creating a great learning experience, never mind the challenges posed by the vagaries of the outdoors and the competing demands of users' everyday routines. But, here too, these challenges have been met before:

  • Content generated by museum visitors in any medium is tricky, but there are many successful cases to study, from comment walls to museum blogs.
  • Many museums and artists build exhibits that not only create social interactions, but rely on them as content in their own right.
  • Audio guides and podcasts are now commonplace, and museums increasingly use mobile phones for content delivery—including the Sky, Water, Light and Sound Ranging exhibits detailed on this Website, and a mobile Outdoor Exploratorium exhibit guide currently under development.
  • Blogs and social media thrive through effective community-building strategies and viral marketing.

These successes make the possibilities for building networked mobile outdoor exhibits exciting and seemingly limitless. But they require a different mindset: The exhibit is not an object, it isn't something you build and then maintain as needed. The exhibit is an ongoing set of interactions and contributions that must be facilitated, nurtured and sustained. This requires dedicated time and resources, perhaps even beyond those required to develop "bricks and mortar" exhibitry, and, as we learned, certainly beyond those that can be afforded to a small sub-team of developers.

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. ESI-0104478. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation.