“Lessons in bringing birds to life: an Augmented Reality experiment at the Museum of Natural History”
If today’s museum visitor expects to learn and have fun at the same time, what role, if any, can applied technologies have in providing these experiences?
Augmented Reality and technology in the museum space
Finding ways to use technologies to create a more inclusive and visceral visitor experience within museums isn’t new. “Conventional” technological applications have been applied in museum settings for decades. The Audio Guide, for example, is a long-standing servant to museums — a verbal colleague to help you better understand the art before your eyes. For many visitors, this simple piece of technology is a crucial part of the modern museum experience. One central limitation is its guided format. There is little room for play!
In August 2018, Neeeu Spaces Gmbh teamed up with the Mediasphere for Nature team to deliver an experiment, utilising Augmented Reality, to bring birds to life at the Natural History Museum (Naturkundemuseum) in Berlin. The experiment would be grounded in three central themes: to surprise, to play & to learn.
Our starting point was to observe the lessons of those who we follow into this space. Five Augmented Reality Experiences That Bring Museum Exhibits to Life gives some solid examples of some large museum institutions who have ventured into the world of museum AR. Experiences often focus on immersion, additional information and so-called “enhancement”. Examples of pushing way beyond the boundaries of audio experiences that bridge the physical and the digital are available, but the ability to surprise, in a playful way, whilst informing, is not always evident.
The birds! The birds! The Naturkundemuseum has a supreme collection of over ten thousand preserved birds ranging from the Great Bustard to the Snowy Owl. Each has its own storied history of life, death & preservation. Our challenge was to bring a renewed interest to this unique bird collection, which is rarely open to visitors. Using the tools available to us, including the museum’s animal sound archive, we sought to create an experience that was both visually arresting and immersive.
We faced additional questions. How could we provide information about these static birds without risking damage to the collection? (or the visitors, those birds are kind of poisonous!) We wanted to surprise, educate and excite, but how could we combine these elements to good effect without running the risk of creating a gimmick?
For Neeeu, Mobile AR matters, and in this specific experiment, Mobile AR provided a suitable solution to entering into the museum space without causing too much disruption.
The result: clues, guidance and surprise
Visitors were invited to use smartphones and accompanying headphones to engage with selected pieces from the bird collection. Upon interacting with these pieces the visitors were greeted by an authentic voice of the bird species — all from the museum’s animal sound archive. We tried our utmost to make the experience easy to understand and to use. By raising smartphones up to the collection, intuitive bubbles appeared on the screen of the smartphone, which allowed interaction and advancement. Text revealed described the habitat of the birds and other images were unveiled by one-touch interaction. Depending on which bird visitors interacted with, they (the visitors) might learn through animated illustration or 3D modelling. Surprise was, again, super important here.
Studying visitors’ interactions:
We delivered the experience at a desk in front of the bird hall, which allowed us to observe interactions. In general, young people and children found interacting with the installations to be relatively seamless. Where visitors struggled to use the application, our team was on hand to support. In some cases, it was great to see friends and family guiding one another through the experience.
From an interaction design standpoint, a museum can be seen as a controlled environment with a story to tell. A perfect test environment! But every experiment needs test subjects. Our “subjects” came to the museum for one of the busiest museum events of the year (the Long Night of the Museums), which gave us the opportunity to perform a large scale test at the museum with potential users from very different demographics. Erm, no pressure! However, if we were to widen and scatter our selection across a larger physical space, it would be much harder to troubleshoot user challenges.
We learnt very early on that each museum is different and you have to take this into account. It is really important to assess the core values of the museum to help guide and implement a valuable technical solution. For example, a renaissance museum and a national history museum have two vastly distinct audiences and it’s important to use different technologies and content for each. Do people enter into the space in anticipation of guided play? Or is the culture of the museum sacred?
Our collaborators at Mediasphere for Nature were integral to the success of this project. We needed information about the museum ecosystem from a tactile group of talented individuals who could bridge the gap between technical innovators & museum creators, guiding our entry into the space without disruption. We were working with museum curators whose fascination lay in science, our partners whose focus was to increase museum engagement, and our approach focused on what the needs of the users might be.
For Neeeu, partnerships are always key. We work in open dialogue with collaborators and clients. It isn’t always easy, but recognising the knowledge and skill-set of your collaborators is essential to a positive outcome.
We hope to dive deeper into the insights we received from people to understand if the Naturkundemuseum would benefit from a supplemental educational app, or whether it is suitable for only some special events, or whether we need an entirely new solution that will take the benefits of the augmented reality and merge that into another solution.
We’ll be exploring funding opportunities to evolve and, where necessary, expand the experience. Early feedback discussions have given us the idea that providing a broader experience with a greater selection of birds (15 or so!) would be beneficial. We would also like to explore the possibility of educating visitors as to the history of the taxidermy experience.
Until next time!
Laurence Ivil wrote this article. Laurence is a collaborative journalist and works as Editorial & Communications Lead at NEEEU. You can find him on Twitter at @laurenceivil or contact him directly at email@example.com
This article is based on the insights and reflections of Insiya Jafferjee. Insiya is a London-based designer who developed & implemented the AR application in collaboration with Neeeu. You can reach (and/or commission Insiya) via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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