Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Providing rich media content

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the challenges of providing ‘rich media ‘ to visitors, and after a whirlwind assessment of sites in Australia, the US and UK in the last fortnight can report on three technologies being used for this.

I talked about the QR code system being used at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney in that previous blog. QR code (abbreviated from Quick Response code) is a type of matrix bar code with fast readability and comparatively large storage capacity. Apps for scanning QR codes can be found on nearly all smartphones, allowing you to scan the image of the QR code to display text or open a web page in the phone's browser. The browser supports URI redirection, which allows QR codes to send metadata to existing applications on the device. At the Powerhouse the labels ( which are on every exhibit) for the Love Lace exhibition present like this:

Check Out Seb Chan’s blog on the initial interesting results at the exhibition.

At the Museum of London, Nokia has installed RFID tags on a number of exhibits to allow access to rich media. Accessing is similar to that at the Powerhouse as follows:

Turning up at the Museum last week, it was difficult to find out much information on the system. The core problem with it is that very few phones are currently fitted with the necessary NFC ( Near Field Communication) technology to be able to read the tags, so they remain frustratingly inaccessible to the vast majority of visitors. I was unable to access it and did not see anyone in my time at the Museum doing so.

This position may change as new phones appear with NFC functionality included, but it is already clear the new iPhone 5 due for release within the next couple of months will not have NFC.

Finally to the Getty to see Google Goggles in action. This is a downloadable image recognition app created by Google and currently mostly in use for prominent buildings and wine label recognition.

Google’s Santa Monica office approached the Getty to install the application for their collections, a process which once approved appears to have gone very smoothly stitching together the data on each artwork from the Getty’s content management system with the necessary image. Once you get over the self conscious issue of photographing an artwork in front of a guard ( and expecting to be reprimanded), it works really well. When the artwork is recognised (which happens in about a second) a series of options are available from more text to read, links to relevant sites, and, to my mind the most useful, audio commentary on the artwork from a variety of sources, e.g. curators and conservators. The only downside at present is that the visual recognition technology struggles with the softer images of watercolours and anything 3 dimensional.

What do I make of all these technologies?

1) The day of the humble label as the primary means of communicating information is in my view numbered. Whilst there will always be a role for them, being able to stand back from a painting or object and accessing information in the palm of your hand rather than squinting at a wall label is a massive advantage. And this is not just about the technology. The National Gallery of London did an exercise last year where they put a simple one line label on each painting to identify it and then provided each visitor with a little booklet in which was all further information. They had a great response as not only did everyone stand back from the artworks so viewing was easier, but also they could access the information under their own control.

2) Accessing information on a hand held device is therefore going to be the way to go, but the critical issue is again not the technology but what the information provided is going to look like. Once we are beyond labels, there is going to be an expectation that we can access more than that which a standard label provided, and that is going to need much more input from curators. The Getty Goggles exercise has proved it can be done – the rich media provided is excellent.
3) What in my view this is NOT about is providing distraction from the artwork or object being viewed, i.e. lengthy videos or lots of images of comparable material are for accessing after the visit not during it. Again the content model the Getty is providing is a good one on this

Check out some useful further comment at

And watch this space as I have no doubt there is going to be a great deal of action here in the near future as these technologies play an increasingly significant role.

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