A wearable future for the Barnes Foundation.

So many people have asked me what the digital plans are for the Barnes Foundation and, as you know, we’ve been putting visitor experience ahead of digital very specifically. We’re now ready to start talking about our digital plans and you’ll find visitor observation, evaluation, and experience leading our decision making.

This story begins with visitor observation.

A visit to the Barnes Foundation is a unique experience and, in thinking about digital, our challenge was to understand that experience better and, also, to evaluate how our current tool — the audio guide — was working. So, what are visitors doing at the Barnes? Talking. A lot. In fact, if you are doing visitor observation in the space, the hum of visitor conversation is what you most notice. Barnes believed that you could interpret works of art on your own if you could think about the formal analysis of light, line, color, and space as you moved throughout; each work is visually related to another work near by. In his galleries, there’s no interpretation on the walls on purpose — not even tombstone labels; our founder wanted you to look at art and feel like you could talk about what you were seeing. The visitor conversation that we see in the galleries today is a testament to that original vision and it represents a rare opportunity to build upon.

When you start to combine that essential observation with the current tool we’ve given visitors to use — the audio tour — the experience changes pretty dramatically. The first thing you notice is a lot of people use the audio tour in our main gallery, but as they move deeper into the space, they start to take the headphones off. The most interesting observation is when you start to see them take a single headphone off, so they can converse with their companion(s). Later, however, you see headphones fully off and then they are put back on only when they really want to listen to something (as opposed to by default).

The deeper you go into our galleries — this photo was taken on our second floor — the more “headphones off” you see.

Some of the “headphones off” behavior can be attributed to the conversational nature of the space; that’s especially true when we see the one ear off as people try and talk to each other. As we see headphones come fully off, we believe that can be attributed to the density of the collection hang — 4,021 objects installed salon style with an average of 200 works in a single room — combined with the long form content presented by the audio tour. Simply put, our visitors are flooded. They are flooded in a good way with the collection, but it’s looking like the audio experience is creating more fatigue than enhancing the great parts of the experience already present.

The Barnes is an incredibly conversational space and often you’ll find visitors with “one ear off” trying to talk to their companions and/or trying to share audio guide information in other ways.

That was the hunch, but it wasn’t until we actually did the timing and tracking of visitors with and without audio guides that this very counterintuitive idea was brought home. As it turns out, visitors using the audio guide were spending, on average, 88 minutes in our collection galleries; visitors without the guide were staying, on average, 107 minutes. Now, if you look at what people say about the audio guide online in user reviews — they love it, but that statistic has to give you great pause.

We started to ask ourselves if there was a way to deliver content that owns the conversational and immersive nature of the space while not flooding visitors. Could you deliver just enough content to keep people in the collection longer with less fatigue?

This story continues with a set of constraints.

Constraints are fun things to keep in mind as you build a project; they help create a frame from which to work. Our biggest constraint is collection safety. I’ve previously described the issues here — small rooms and large amounts of people — are a tough mix, so we are especially cautious when it comes to any kind of immersive technology in the galleries. Simply put, that multimedia audio guide that you see so frequently in museums today would be very problematic in our spaces. Our solution will need to keep you looking at art and keep those eyes off the device.

An additional constraint is capacity; we are limited to 250 visitors in our collection gallery at any given time. The audio tours (and the like) are problematic because they keep you in one place for a long time. Because the content is static, they keep everyone in the same place for a long time creating very predictable bottlenecks in the galleries. Our solution will need to distribute content in a lightweight and variable way that keeps movement in the gallery fluid.

Here’s our solution.

We believe in a wearable future at the Barnes Foundation. Today that means a watch or glasses, but tomorrow holds even more interesting and exciting possibilities. A wearable has the power of delivering short form content, close to the body — we think it has the ability to solve some of the puzzle that we are beginning to unlock through observation and analysis.

The Barnes Foundation wearable prototype currently under development at HappyFunCorp.

In mid-November, we’ll begin to test a new method of content delivery using a digital prototype; our wearable prototype will be a watch. Unlike other projects where paper prototyping has been leveraged before the digital build, in this case we think prototyping directly with the hardware is what’s most beneficial. In creating this prototype, we’re going to test ideas in the most minimum of minimum viable products and we’ll iterate from there.

And the wearable is just the beginning of a path that will wind its way though experimental content delivery in the most mobile form and how it will interface with longer form content in the galleries and post-visit. With that, we are starting here and we’ll be piloting our wearable project in the open. This means you can follow our progress here as we build, deploy, evaluate, and iterate.

Future posts from us will include the challenges we face in visitor expectation, the choice to build on readily available hardware, why we’re not using the Apple watch as a first go, how we hired for this project (and strategies for technical staffing), working with location aware technology, figuring out visitor onboarding, and what we are and are not testing. It’s going to be a fun ride.

We are extremely proud that the Barra Foundation has come on board to fund this digital prototype. I hope you are as inspired as I was when reading about their approach to funding projects:

With our roots in the scientific method, the practice of innovation is a process that — for Barra — requires certain elements. It involves creating opportunities for idea generation, selecting ideas that have the potential to influence others, supporting risk-taking and sharing learning.

Those words are so exciting and we consider ourselves lucky that Barra has roots in Philadelphia, could see the potential in this project, and awarded us the funding we needed to see this prototype through in this early stage.

Stay tuned; you can read more about the Barnes Wearable on Medium as we go.


The Barnes Foundation wearable digital prototype is funded by the Barra Foundation as part of their Catalyst Fund.

Want more info? Read more about the Barnes Wearable on Medium and follow the Barnes Foundation publication, where we’ve got multiple authors writing about our projects.