Even though it is still only a few short years since the introduction of multi-touch technology in the first iPhones, already we have become familiar with the way that communications devices seamlessly integrate the internet’s vast information resources and social media networks. High-end interaction technologies are now so commonplace that many of us carry them around in our pockets all day long. And with the rise of smartphone apps, we now routinely expect these products to be endlessly adaptable and updatable.
For museums and galleries looking for new and inspiring ways to generate interactions between visitors and collections, this democratisation of technology is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, visitors are no longer wowed by touch-screen and computer software installations per se. On the other hand, the availability of adaptable, mass-market products gives museums easy access to cleverer hardware for less money. At the same time, visitors will often be familiar with the hardware platform already and may even be able to use their own personal devices to access or interact with multimedia exhibition content.
The latest consumer products to lend themselves to museum and gallery use – and probably the most suitable so far – are the tablet devices such as the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy. Apple’s iPad is obviously the leader and major player here and already there are examples of museums harnessing the device to deliver content and interaction to visitors, despite it being less than a year old.
In some cases, iPads are being used by museums to deliver richer and expanded versions of their existing iPhone apps. The American Museum of Natural History has launched an iPad version of its Dinosaurs app and SFMoMA’s Rooftop Garden iPhone app, which provides a tour of its sculpture garden, has also been enhanced for the iPad.
But Melbourne Museum decided to build a dedicated iPad app as part of its tenth birthday celebrations. The free Please Touch the Exhibit app makes use of the iPad’s large, book-sized screen and shake functions, allowing users to explore the museum’s collection through ten specially curated science and social history themes. Similarly, highlights from MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist New York show are only available on the iPad. The AB EX NY app offers high-resolution images of selected works, videos and deeper information about the art and artists. It also includes an NYC history featuring a multimedia map of studios, galleries, bars and other points of interest.
One of the key appeals about apps like these is that they offer people a rich, tour-like experience away from the institutions themselves – before, after or indeed instead of, a physical visit. ‘One of the uses that we’ve realised people have really come to enjoy [about our app tours] is the takeaway,’ said Dallas Museum of Art multimedia producer Ted Forbes at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference. ‘Maybe they participate in some of the tour while they are in front of the objects, but they can also go home and preview tours after their visit. It has a lot of application in the those areas, so it’s really important for us to be able to [offer these] tours.’
One of the questions that emerged at the Museums Association’s All in Hand: Working with Handheld Devices conference, held at the Royal College of Surgeons in July 2010, was whether a cultural institution can afford to develop mobile applications and whether the organisation might hope to recover its investment. In short, do mobile guides generate revenues?
There are no simple answers to these questions because every project and museum has its own requirements, target audience and budgets, but it is interesting to note that iPad apps have a higher average price point than iPhone apps, perhaps implying a higher user expectation for the iPad. Although most museum iPad apps have so far been offered for free, there is the possibility of using Apple’s App Store as a mechanism for generating revenue from multimedia content, something that would have been all but impossible with traditional gallery kiosk applications.
The success of the Guardian’s photojournalism iPad app, Eyewitness, has led to plans for an enhanced but paid-for version in the future, according to New Media Age. Whilst Eyewitness sits outside the museum sector, it is not hard to see how the evident appeal of high production quality multimedia content might also be a source of revenue and brand building for museums and galleries.
Exhibition-related games in particular might deliver a source of revenue, if they can be sold as standalone gaming apps in the App Store. As Jason DaPonte, former managing editor of BBC Mobile, told the Tate Handheld Conference: ‘You might not think about the games world and gaming as being that important to museums, but I challenge you to think about it very, very seriously. If you look at the app stores, typically the most popular apps – eight or nine of the top ten – are always games. So go where your audiences are, see what they are doing and see how you can get in there.’
At the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, an in-gallery game called WaterWorx was delivered via eight iPads in the exhibition space. This is where larger tablet devices differ from smartphone based multimedia content – they are big enough to operate as gallery based ‘kiosks’. At the same time, the app or game can be used by iPad owners at home. According to Seb Chan, head of digital, social and emerging technologies at the Powerhouse Museum, the WaterWorx game may now be augmented for commercial release on the App Store, creating revenue for the museum.
So perhaps the loss of technology’s wow factor is no curse at all. It may just mean that interactive installations are developed on the basis of relevance and content and not because of a perceived obligation to include a technology element in an exhibition space. As Silvia Filippini Fantoni, senior producer at digital media consultancy Cogapp, says on the group’s blog : ‘Mobile interpretation is not about the technology. It is about the user experience and particularly the content. Museums should focus on telling a story that answers questions, creates emotions, inspires a response, rather than using the technology for the sake of it.’
Chan echoes this, while also noting the new role of consumer technology in museum multimedia development. ‘[WaterWorx] 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 [than], or at least on a 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.’
Scott Billings is a freelance journalist who write for publications including Design Week, Museum Practise, Museums Journal and Marketing.