“High-End Interactive Media in the Museum” by Efraimoglou and Roussou

  • ©Dimitris Efraimoglou and Maria Roussou




    High-End Interactive Media in the Museum



    This paper examines the issues involved in the use of high-end interactive media, computer graphics applications, and virtual reality technology in museums. As museums adapt advanced digital media for use in exhibitions and public programs, new relationships develop between the audience, the venue, the virtual representation, and the real object or fact. While use of state-of-the-art technology can effectively shape how museums deliver public education, issues of high cost and maintenance of such technology, larger and diverse audience throughput, and difficulty in content development present important drawbacks. Both the benefits as well as the problems caused by deployment of technology in the museum will be analyzed. Examples will be presented of special museums worldwide that use technology in innovative ways for educational and artistic purposes. Particular focus will be given to presentation of the projects created by the Foundation of the Hellenic World, a cultural heritage institution in Greece, which uses immersive virtual reality, VRML, and 3D graphics for reconstruction of archeological sites, historical interpretation, and education.
    Technology in the Museum
    Recent technological developments have provided designers with new tools for introducing media into the museum setting. Many museums are now beginning to utilize more recent information technology for internal and external organizational purposes, while more and more interactive exhibits are incorporated into galleries in order to enhance the visitor experience.
    Museums realize that they are one among many components in a panoply of cultural amenities and that computer technology can help them quantitatively and qualitatively expand, deepen, and enhance the museum experience for their visitors. A growing number of museum educators regard new media as tools that can offer unparalleled opportunities for learning. Through educational Web sites and CD-ROMs, museums have enhanced their role as providers of informal education. Educators respond to such efforts favorably, as they provide alternatives to restricted curriculum material and allow for more exploration and ownership of the learning process. Finally, museum visitors, especially non-frequent and novice audiences, appreciate and benefit greatly from additional forms of information that make the museum a more accessible and attractive place for them to spend time in.
    What are the most common ways that media technology is used nowadays in the museum? One can broadly define the following ways that museums incorporate media in their daily function:
    • Audiovisual media used for passive presentation in an appealing way. This, for the most part, consists of video presentations on simple monitors or wall projections in special rooms intended to cover needs in public spaces where staffing is minimal.
    • Guided presentation with the help of audio guides, video projections, and other means to accompany visitors throughout their tours, offered as alternatives to the popular tours usually given by museum docents.
    • Interactive browsing stations with information on museum collections and educational programs (usually kiosks with “press-a-button,” easy-to-learn interfaces).
    • Environments that provide opportunities for direct creation or production, take-away experiences, interactive experiences, and innovation.
    Current museum theory and practice suggests that technology, as incorporated in today’s exhibitions, should generally evolve through two successful formats: inquiry based guided tours and interactive hands-on exhibits. In this paper we focus on the latter types of technology use, particularly on interactive media that move beyond the point-and-click of common multimedia and information stations. These media may include interactive installations, simulation environments, interactive film, large format theaters or small-scale exhibits, and virtual reality. The explosive development of information technology and the increasing confidence on the part of the museums to incorporate it in their setting has encouraged many institutions to adopt these sophisticated technological means, innovative environments, and equipment.
    Of particular interest to museums is the use of virtual reality (VR) displays and computer-generated interactive experiences that aim at allowing visitors to travel through space and time without stepping out of the museum building. The potential to transcend the physical location of the built environment and the growing sense of the educative function of the museum juxtaposed with commercial pressure has led museums to consider virtual reality as a necessary component in the arsenal of tools to educate, entertain, and dazzle. Although virtual reality suffers immensely from media hyperbole and thus has not lived up to its promises, development of VR systems has matured enough to find its way out of the research realm and into public settings. Introduction of projection-based VR systems has shifted the format from the one-person VR experience with bulky headsets and equipment to the slimmed down, more comfortable visual displays for multiple simultaneous participants.
    Multimedia and Internet Stations in a Museum Café
    Issues and Challenges

    Introduction of high-end or virtual technologies in museums runs up against a number of issues that must be considered. Specifically, high-end technology in the museum must take into account the physical context of the public space, support the conceptual and aesthetic standards of the exhibition or learning purpose, and be functional and accessible to its intended audience. Whether it’s the novelty of interactive technology and virtual reality exhibits or the compelling nature of the applications themselves, visitors flock to museums to see things that are new and cutting edge, even if the content remains relatively unchanged. This generates added worries for museum practitioners, who must design keeping their educational role in mind, yet provide the added novelty, accommodating an increasing range of educational experience, and enhancing their visitor demographic.
    Attention can be focused on the following set of issues that previous experience has led us to recognize as the more critical ones in the process of introducing highly interactive technologies in public spaces:
    1. Bring technology into context.
    Technology in a museum exhibit can not stand alone. To serve museum needs, it must address the specifics of venue and audience, and be used in the context of the total museum experience. The physical context provided by the museum as a public space, the exhibit in its entirety, and the interaction with the exhibits, the other visitors or the museum staff are all important parts of the museum whole. The best media are integrated architecturally and conceptually into an overall exhibition narrative and created directly for the spatial and thematic context of the museum itself. Effective deployment of technology relies upon the degree to which it can be thoroughly embedded in its context of use, including the ordinary, practical competencies of those who are to work with it.
    Museum visitors vary in age, level of education, interests, and learning styles. To address these differences, good exhibit design recognizes the social activity and nature of museums by providing space for more than one person to get involved and by developing exhibits and media experiences that often serve as prompts for social interaction. Media productions in the museum should not come into conflict with the natural, often non-linear, ways a visitor interacts with the museum space. The multi-modal nature of interactive technologies provides ideal opportunities for development of flexible tools for both group and personal experiences.
    2.Technology must be seamless.
    A well-designed environment is one that is consistent, predictable, and transparent. New media tools are just elements to enhance the educational, informational, or aesthetic goals of any given exhibit and should be seamlessly incorporated. We do not want
    the media experience to seem like an add-on, an extra to the exhibition, but an integral part of it. Hence, the technology should be designed to “disappear” during the experience. It should be non-obtrusive. Projection systems and computer equipment, for instance, can be hidden from view and acoustically isolated. Visual cues associated with the projection surface or other equipment can be minimized.
    3. Provide immediate feedback yet prolonged engagement. Donald Norman identifies four principles of good design that can be applied to an information environment to make it self-explanatory and not frustrating: visibility, a good conceptual model, good “mappings,” and feedback. The format of a typical museum experience involving technology is inevitably controlled, structured, and brief. Hence, responsiveness and feedback are particularly important in museum media settings where we encounter only brief interactions, even in structured events. Users of multimedia installations expect a response immediately; otherwise they walk away. This may be more difficult with highly interactive environments where interactivity is not easily controlled. Experiential-based installations and participatory environments must demonstrate different strategies to include and involve the observer in the events on a long-term basis. Advanced forms of interactive technology, such as virtual reality, allow us to tie together the time and space-breaking nature of interactive media with the time and space-bound nature of the site-specific museum environment. The key is to provide immediate responsiveness and then prompt for deeper involvement on the part of the user.
    Overall, experience using virtual reality with large groups of children has shown that the effect can be much more powerful if it possesses two important attributes: an interacting mentor and long-term engagement with the learner.
    4. Design with content in mind and In many cases, high-end technological innovation often creates involve the experts. Interactive the suspicion of high cost and low content. Current applications seem unable to step out of paradigms created by other media.
    “Old media” do not always translate gracefully into new media environments, producing, in many cases, outcomes that seem fragmented. It is also often the case in advanced media environments that novelty overshadows content. Technological developments may often be associated with disappointing gains for users whereas compelling content will most likely engage the visitor no matter what the form of presentation may be.
    As a result, most educated audiences are skeptical regarding the added value and appropriateness of advanced technology applications in the public domain. Based on the above, it is important to use the involvement of content experts when designing interactive and virtual environments. As difficult as it may be for educators, artists, designers, archeologists, historians, architects, doctors, scientists, and technicians to speak the same language, it is nevertheless essential for creation of sound and complete environments. Collaboration must definitely take place amongst those who are concerned with how things work and those who are not concerned with the technical details but with what is delivered to the public.
    The designers of new media must understand the medium to achieve the perfect blend of form and function. They must attract visitors, and they must meet expectations both in terms of their innovation and their delivered content. Questions should be asked regarding the underlying principles that are guiding the development of content, and conventions should be set for structuring and delivering this content. The museum must provide the best combination of technological innovation and educational content and create a shared critical context within which to understand the work aside from understanding it technically.
    5. Be concerned about physical and accessibility issues. Clearly, an important point of particular relevance to high-end technology is usability. Public viewing must be considered in the context of hundreds of people who will visit a site each day, more so if the site is set up for visitor interaction. Practical issues and problems are especially apparent when the apparatus is not designed with novice or special users in mind, as is the case with most experimental high-end computer technology. In the case of virtual reality, for example, it is common for most systems to cause motion sickness; active stereoglasses are too large for small heads, too fragile, and too expensive for use by excited visitors, let alone a child. Children must use both hands to operate hard-to-use interaction devices, hold the stereoglasses with special ties, or even deploy support systems to stand up higher in order to achieve the correct viewing angle.
    Issues of high cost and maintenance of advanced technology, larger and diverse audience throughput, and difficulty in content development present important drawbacks for public venues. Prohibitive costs of such technologies and concomitant inaccessibility, staff development, operation, and maintenance can find no place in dwindling museum budgets overwhelmingly dominated by human resource costs.
    Good sight lines, ample seating where applicable, comfortable viewing for extended periods, good field of view, and ergonomics are some of the issues that must be addressed when designing a unique, high-end environment. The interactive experience must also have an easy-to-learn and simple-to-use interface that is accessible to a wide range of skill levels and requires virtually no visitor training.
    In brief, accessible new media must be characterized by:
    • Attractive designs
    • Rugged engineering
    • Accessibility
    • Practical maintenance
    Despite the above issues, there are ambitious and significant efforts taking place in museums worldwide that have used high-end technology to complement their exhibitions. Some examples of innovative media use in museums are mentioned below.
    Innovative Examples of Media Museums and Museums Using Media

    Science museums, hands-on children’s museums, large “edutainment” venues, and recreation parks have traditionally embraced new media first. Museums such as the Exploratorium, the Tech Museum of Innovation, or the Computer Museum in the United States employ fascinating and sophisticated interactive installations and have been presenting up-to-date results on the creative use of technology.
    Aside from existing museums that have employed higher-end technologies, a new form of museum has emerged, as exemplified by a growing number of media museums worldwide such as the Ars Electronica Center in Austria, the ICC center in Japan, and
    the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Germany. These are new types of museums devoted to depiction and presentation of new media, or “productive media art museums,” a term coined in ZKM’s mission statement. They are true pioneers in the use
    of high-end interactive technologies open to the public. The Ars Electronica Center, for example, was the first museum world-wide to install and open to the public a CAVE, an immersive multi-person virtual reality room, where high-resolution, 3D video and audio are projected on three walls and the floor.
    In the more traditional fields of fine arts, archeology, and history, there are hardly any museums that have moved beyond multimedia presentations (which are usually placed outside their main exhibition galleries). Unique is the case of the Foundation of the Hellenic World (FHW), a non-profit cultural institution in Athens, Greece. The foundation’s mission is to preserve and disseminate Hellenic culture, historical memory, and tradition, as well as project the contribution of the Hellenic spirit in the development of civilization. Its main plan for operation is the use of advanced technological methods to promote this understanding of the past, as a point of reference for shaping the present and the future. The foundation is housed in a large innovative museum/cultural center on an old 18-acre industrial plot in Athens, where historical exhibits on all periods of Hellenic culture are presented using the latest audiovisual technology.
    Consistent with the foundation’s decision and commitment to use state-of-the-art technology, normally found only in research labs, is the plan to develop a type of “VR center” focused on the cultural domain. Not only is this blend of the traditional with the most advanced unique as far as museums are concerned, it is also a one-of-a-kind endeavor for Greece.
    Specifically, the Foundation of the Hellenic World’s high-end technology endeavors involve immersive virtual reality. Generally, VR technology in FHW functions in two basic ways: as an educational/entertainment tool and as an instrument of historic research, simulation, and reconstruction. Examples of applications include an educational environment related to traditional Greek costume throughout time and reconstruction of and a journey through the ancient city of Miletus by the coast of Asia Minor, as it was in antiquity. Guided by a virtual “time-machine,” our travelers are able to explore the city as it unfolds through time, and experience the life of its architectural glory, its people, and their customs, habits, and way of life. To present such projects, the Foundation has purchased a roving immersive projection table, the ImmersaDesk.This virtual reality environment “on wheels” has the ability to move about the museum campus. It thus enables creation of a truly flexible virtual reality setting for the museum and allows for customization of the virtual reality exhibit to any current exhibition or program.
    While this type of setup can afford unique educational and recreational opportunities, equipment of this kind is inevitably in an experimental stage and suffers from a number of drawbacks in terms of usability – essentially, many of the practical problems mentioned above. The roving nature of this particular virtual reality system is a relative advantage as the equipment is fragile and requires special handling; once installed, the virtual reality equipment requires a specially designed place where metal structures are not present. The display system must be designed to withstand breakage, short attention spans, greasy fingers, and large numbers of visitors. The special glasses are expensive and can break easily as their sizes are not made to fit everyone’s head. Equipment must be placed out of reach yet remain accessible to the technical staff. Finally, experienced guides who have both technical skills and museum education background are always required.
    The above efforts set standards in the direction of technology use in informal public settings, yet the contours of the new media landscape are just now becoming visible. No one yet knows what will be successful or how visitors will ultimately use and
    interact with these emerging technologies. We must, therefore, continue to see that the insights gained through experienced use are adequately translated into the public space and are both inquisitively and critically examined.

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