Technology is creating opportunities for people to tell their stories in ways that have never before been possible. Storytelling is human nature, and museums are using new technology like computer vision and virtual reality to create visceral, intuitive experiences of history and progress.
Museums are not the archaic institutions they were once thought to be. They’re becoming centers of innovation where storytelling technology is changing the museum-going experience forever. When technology doesn’t work, it can get in the way of the story—but when technology is intuitive, the result is nothing short of magic.
Here are a few of our favourite cutting-edge technologies and research projects that are changing the museum experience across the globe.
Google’s Project Tango Acts As A Personal Tour Guide
Project Tango uses “augmented reality to surface details not visible to the human eye,” according to Johnny Lee, the project lead. With computer vision, Tango tracks the motion, area, depth and space around a user in interactive 3D space, meaning it knows exactly where you are and, through a phone or tablet, gives you added information about the environment around you. Developers are using the platform to enhance the museum-going experience:
The computer vision software works as your own personal guide, directing you to the exhibits you want to see. Using a phone or tablet, you’ll see a breadcrumb trail of sorts winding through the museum; as you follow it, your device will point out information about artifacts or artworks along the way.
For example, a museum visitor can look at a painting through their tablet and see detailed contextual information about the artwork, or point their tablet toward an ancient limestone relief and see the original paint colors that have long since faded.
The software makes it easy and inexpensive to show visitors a different perspective on items in the museum’s permanent collection. This offers museums a tremendous opportunity to develop programming for all ages and interests, including niche subject matter and thematic tours.
Senseable City Lab Uses Bluetooth To Track Visitor Movement
Researchers at MIT’s Senseable City Lab used Bluetooth to create a platform that tracks how visitors to the Louvre in Paris navigate each exhibit. MIT positioned sensors throughout the museum to anonymously track Bluetooth-enabled devices and see when they enter and exit an exhibit. The platform knows which galleries visitors linger in—and which ones they skip. It also tracks how long the average person spends looking at each piece of artwork in order to discover which paintings are most captivating to visitors.
One surprise so far: MIT’s data shows that visitors who stay less than an hour and a half and visitors who stay for longer than six hours tend to travel along the same paths and hit the same number of key locations in the museum, despite the huge gap in the amount of time they spend.
This technology could be used in other museums to clarify which exhibits are doing well and which could use more promotion, or maybe a revamp.
IBM’s Watson Engages Visitors At The Mauritshuis Museum In The Hague
IBM’s AI personality Watson can “deal with ambiguity and differing opinions” even on the subject of controversial paintings such Rembrandt’s famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
IBM’s Watson was commissioned as a guide at Mauritshuis because of its superior artificial intelligence ability. The museum anticipates that Watson will be able to answer organic questions from visitors about the painting in a thoughtful and highly intelligent way.
The ultimate goal for this collaboration is for Watson not only to answer visitors’ questions, but to anticipate them, learning more about what museumgoers want to know—and passing that insight on to the museum.
Sight Unseen: 3D PhotoWorks Lets Vision-Impaired Visitors Feel Photographs
The Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg is the first in the world to use 3D PhotoWorks’ revolutionary new technology that renders two-dimensional photographs into tactile experiences.
The photograph becomes a sculpture embedded with sensors that when touched activate an audio recording describing the original photograph. Here’s how the process works, according to the exhibition homepage:
“First, the two-dimensional image is converted into 3D data. Next, the data is sent to a machine that sculpts the image in a block of substrate, giving it length, width, depth and texture. In the final step, the image is laid back down on top of the relief in perfect registration. Touch-activated sensors are also embedded in the prints to provide audio descriptions and narrative, creating context for a blind person who is viewing the image for the first time.”
Photographer and founder of 3D PhotoWorks John Olsen says, “For the first time, [visually impaired visitors] will have tactile, quality information that will be on a level playing field with the sighted.” He adds that for people who are blind, experiencing his 3D imagery is like the difference between “reading about a rose and smelling one.”
The Kennedy Space Center in Florida started a new program called “Heroes and Legends” in November 2016 to offer visitors a “digital tour guide” augmented reality experience. The experience uses a mobile app combined with a virtual reality headset called the Space Visor, which visitors can use at the museum and purchase later to bring home.
The app tracks the user’s GPS location and sends appropriate content to the Space Visor as they travel throughout the museum, letting them experience 360-degree views of Mars, rocket launches, photographs and video from space, and more.
Apps & Storytelling Platforms Are Changing The Way We Research
When was the last time you picked up a guidebook? If recently, did you actually read all the way through it? Guidebooks have their place, but if you want the most accurate information about a museum, you will likely Google it first.
Google Search has changed the museum-going experience completely. It is pretty incredible to think that only a few decades ago, guidebooks (which might have been outdated or out of print) were the only ways to access information about museum hours, admission fees and can’t-miss exhibits.
Now visitors can look at TripAdvisor to check out not only what time the museum opens, but how much it costs, which days offer discounted admission, and when to go if you’re bringing your kids along. You can easily research brand-new exhibits and all-time classics like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or Michelangelo’s David in Florence.
Official museum websites house all the information you need about hours, prices and permanent and temporary exhibits. Many major museums also offer free apps that users can download to see maps and basic info, plus more detailed information about their favourite artists and exhibits. Check out The Met App from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art:
While these technologies are exciting for museums and museumgoers alike, what if you’re unable to visit Paris or New York to see some of the world’s most famous artworks? Codex provides an accessible platform that does not require travel to expensive cities. Their platform brings knowledge to you, wherever you happen to be, and invites people to tell their stories in more intuitive and natural ways. While museums are worthy destinations for those who can go in person, seamless technology like Codex can bring information to curious people regardless of location, income or ability to travel.
Take this “Kay Hill” exhibition, curated in Codex as a sample:
Wrapping Things Up
Whether you’re running a museum with a multi-million dollar budget or are running a museum from your home - technology is redefining the way you operate. The people seeking out your museum are leveraging technology to find you and when they’re on location, you can be certain that mobile phones are going to be within arms reach when they walk in.
It’s no longer a question of whether or not technology will influence museums - It’s more a question of how you’re going to respond. We think that technology is a great way for museums to tell their stories and connect with people in a more meaningful way. If you’re interested in learning how Codex helps museums and other cultural organizations do exactly that, get in touch. We’d love to chat with you about our service and how we can help.