Audio AR: Could museums be ahead of the curve?

Museum visitors walking through a gallery
Visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City | Photo by Abbie Bernet

We all know what audio guides are — maybe we’ve used one, a long time ago, on that high school trip to the local museum. No matter when it was, most of us visitors immediately have a negative association with the experience. The devices are clunky, and they come with foam padded headphones that are communal. It’s kind of dorky, right? Other visitors routinely bring the audio guides with them wherever they go, I mean, …including the bathrooms. That one time we got talked into renting an audio guide, the content was kind of stodgy, somewhat pretentious and boring; so we go back to focusing on the experience, switching our gaze between the object and the wall text.

Museum visitors in Berlin Germany
Museum visitors in Berlin, Germany | Photo by Mihai Surdu

So, why are we talking about audio guides? Because there’s so much potential for better content and delivery. We all listen to podcasts, right? Especially the ones with high production value, ones that follow a narrative arc and ones whose voices you trust. While it’s not novel to access audio content from our own smartphones, discovery is an issue. Podcasts share the same challenge. There has yet to be a centralized platform where audio content can live and be consumed in a hyper-local context. The magic in exploration occurs when we more mindfully and pairing that with the transportive quality of audio might just be the winning ticket. This is what the tech world calls, “Audio AR.”

What museums pioneered 40 years ago: listening to curators via cassette while touring the galleries- a version of this is still familiar to us today, but it has much room for improvement. Most museums can’t afford to offer audio guides, and ones that do often neglect the poor user experience.

Transparent tape
Transparent tape
Photo by Brian Kostiuk

I became interested in this niche topic in early 2017, and since have personally surveyed 100 top museums around the world. In doing so, I uncovered their top three challenges around digital engagement, accessibility and inclusion — more specifically around audio guides. Regardless of size, type or location, all museums face these three challenges:

  • Cost. Existing solutions are expensive and time consuming to develop and maintain. They can cost up to $500,000 and take 8 months or more to deploy.
  • Low uptake. Despite all this effort, visitors aren’t downloading individual institutional apps or renting audio guides. Average downloads and rentals stagnate.
  • Fragmented service. If your institution doesn’t have the hefty 6 figure budget to hire one of the major audio guide providers, your needs for accessible programs, audio production, translation, analytics, surveys, and app development are all met by separate service providers, incurring additional costs and manpower to manage these vendor relationships.

What’s more, vendors have been overcharging museums for subpar products that are not driven by visitors’ needs. It’s not fair, and it’s not tenable.

So we’re fixing it.

Our museum partners can offer content to visitors in 18 languages (both audio and text), and our process requires only two hours of museum staff time to set up. Here’s how we’re addressing each of the above challenges, head on.

  • Cost. We maintain the code and publish updates regularly, so you never have to overpay for outdated software again.
  • Low uptake. We centralize content and audience onto one platform, creating a network effect that encourages uptake and engagement. We’re available on iOS, Android, and we even have a web app, so visitors don’t have to download an app themselves.
  • Fragmented service. We’re a full-service team that can provide translation services, audio production, and collect actionable insight. We also support ASL videos and are currently expanding other accessibility features.

We are building the most cost-effective and robust solution for museums to supercharge audience engagement and meet accessibility and inclusion goals.

Better yet, Gesso isn’t just for museumgoers. It’s for travelers as well… because after all, 70% of trips involve a visit to a museum. We’re unveiling audio-first travel guides designed to be listened to ahead of time as a primer or as you explore. We want explorers, both local and abroad, to unlock a new appreciation for where they are. More on this in our next article. Stay tuned.

Henna Wang is a Co-founder of Gesso.

Co-founder of Gesso, maker of audio walks through cities + museums. Follow for latest insights on audio, museum tech, travel, culture, and more. www.gesso.app