Here’s an interesting problem that came across my desk several weeks ago. Lets say you want to know exactly how many people are in a gallery at any given time. How do you do it?
There are expensive people counters available, with all sorts of technology, right down to thermal imaging. There are also cheap hand held counters, with plus and minus buttons to add and subtract people as they come and go to keep a consistent count of people in a gallery.
These cheap hand held versions are great…if you only have one entrance and exit point. What if you have multiple entrances and exits? Suddenly the hand held version falls apart, and putting cameras all over is way too expensive.
This is the issue that was put forth to me. We have an upcoming exhibition for Frida Kahlo. The gallery that the exhibition is in can only support 200 visitors at any one time. We expect more than that, especially on busy days. The kicker of course is that the gallery it’s in has two entrances, so we needed to find a way to accurately count how many people are in the gallery at any given time, and if that number goes over 200, the gallery guards would have to hold people from entering until the number dropped below 200.
I thought for sure something like this must have been made before. Surely we aren’t the only people who have ever had this problem? But in looking online I couldn’t find anything that was cost effective and would “just work”. We kept saying “if we only had two clickers that could talk to each other”.
Something interesting happened the same day I was presented with this problem. Apple announced the iPod Touch. As soon as I saw the Touch, my first thought was Art on Call and the Walker Channel. I could see all sorts of uses for both in the galleries. But after a couple hours wrestling with this given problem it hit me, why not use the iPod Touch?
The iPod Touch is handheld, has touch input, and a browser with wifi built in. All we had to do was make a simple web app for it that counted up or down. Two people could have the Touch’s, check off how many people are entering and leaving, and both be up to date on exactly how many people are in the gallery. So that’s what we did.
Here are some screen grabs of what I built. The left image is the typical display of the app. Options are simply to add or subtract a certain amount of people as they enter or leave. You’re able to reset the counter to zero in the upper right (it has a confirmation before doing so). The right image shows what happens when you go over the gallery maximum. The app also auto updates the number every 10 seconds, so the guard who has people waiting will know when the the number drops below the max value right away without needing to manually refresh.
Making a web app specifically for the iPod Touch (or iPhone) turns out to be really easy. It’s just a webpage. You pretty much can do anything that is available in Safari (though there are a few inconstancies to watch out for), and there are also several special meta tags you can add specifically for these apps (for example, I turned off scaling for our web app). Apple has written up a very nice development doc on their website that I used when making this app. It includes things like screen size, font size, color, meta tags, basically everything you need to make something look nice and stylish on these devices. I’d recommend it to anyone working on apps like this. The screenshot to the left is how the iPod Touch looks with the rest of the UI around it, to give you an idea.
As far as the iPod Touch/iPhone goes, I’m very impressed. I really do think these devices are the future of museum audio tours. Well, not just audio, but video as well! There are things that need to be fixed (like the fact that you can’t get podcasts on them via wifi yet), but overall there is so much potential here, simply by having a real browser with wifi on it and supporting rich media, as well as the UI and multi-touch interface. It could very well be the Rosetta Stone of digital museum tours.