Blogs Media Lab Art on Call

Building the Walker’s mobile website with Google AppEngine, part 1

Over the summer, our department made a small but significant policy change. We decided to take a cue from Google’s 20% time philosophy and spend one day a week working on a Walker-related project of our choosing. Essentially, we wanted to embark on quicker, more nimble projects that hold more interest for our team. The […]

mwalker-iphoneOver the summer, our department made a small but significant policy change. We decided to take a cue from Google’s 20% time philosophy and spend one day a week working on a Walker-related project of our choosing. Essentially, we wanted to embark on quicker, more nimble projects that hold more interest for our team. The project I decided to experiment with was making a mobile website for the Walker, m.walkerart.org.

Reviewing our current site to inform the mobile site

The web framework we use for most of our site has the ability, with some small changes, to load different versions of a page based on a visitor’s User Agent (what browser they’re using). This would mean we could detect if a visitor was running IE on a Desktop or Mobile Safari on an iPhone, and serve each of them two different versions of a page. This is how a lot of mobile sites are done.

This is not the approach we went with for our mobile site, because it violates two of the primary rules (in my mind) of making a mobile website:

  1. Make it simple.
  2. Give people the stuff they’re looking for on their phones right away.

Our site is complicated: we have pages for different disciplines, a calendar with years of archives, and many specialty sites. Rule #1, violated. To address #2, I took a look at our web analytics to figure out what most people come to our site looking for. This won’t surprise anyone, but it’s hours, admission, directions, and what’s happening today at the Walker:

Top Walker Pages as noted by Google Analytics

Top Walker Pages as noted by Google Analytics

So it seems pretty clear those things should be up front. One of the other things you might want to access on a mobile is Art on Call. While Art on Call is designed primarily around dial-in access, there is also a website, but it isn’t optimized for the small screen of a smartphone. We have WiFi in most spaces within our building, so accessing Art on Call via an web interface and streaming audio via HTTP rather than POTS is a distinct possibility that I wanted to enable.

Prototyping with Google AppEngine

I decided to develop a quick prototype using Google AppEngine, thinking I’d end up using GAE in the end, too. Because this was a 20% time project, I had the freedom to do it using the technology I was interested in. AppEngine has the advantage of being something that isn’t hosted on our server, so there was no need to configure any complicated server stuff. In my mind, AppEngine is perfect for a mobile site because of the low bandwidth requirements for a mobile site. Google doesn’t provide a ton for free, but if your pages are only 20K each, you can fit quite a bit within the quotas they do give provide. AppEngine’s primary language is also python, a big plus, since python is the best programming language.

In about two days I built a proof of concept mobile site that displayed the big-ticket pages (hours, admission,etc.) and had a simple interface for Art on Call. Using iUi as a front-end framework was really, really useful here, because it meant that the amount of HTML/CSS/JS I had to code was super minimal, and I didn’t have to design anything.

I showed the prototype to Robin and she enthusiastically gave me the green light to work on it full-time.

Designing a mobile website

A strategy I saw when looking at mobile sites was to actually have two mobile sites: one for the A-grade phones (iPhone, Nokia S60, Android, Pre) and one for the B- and C-grade phones (Blackberry and Windows Mobile). The main difference between the two is the use of javascript and some more advanced layout. Depending on what version of Blackberry you look at, they have a pretty lousy HTML/CSS implementation, and horrendous or no javascript support.

To work around this, our mobile site does not use any javascript on most pages and tries to keep the HTML/CSS pretty simple. We don’t do any fancy animations to load between pages like iUi or jQtouch do: even on an iPhone those animations are slow. If you make your pages small enough, they should load fast enough and a transition is not necessary.

Designing mobile pages is fun. The size and interface methods for the device force you to re-think how to people interact and what’s important. They’re also fun because they’re blissfully simple. Each page on our mobile site is usually just a headline, image, paragraph or two, and some links. Laying out and styling that content is not rocket surgery.

Initially, when I did my design mockups in Photoshop, I wanted to use a numpad on the site for Art on Call, much like the iPhone features for making a phone call. There’s no easy input for doing this, but I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to create one with a little javascript (for those that had it). Unfortunately, due to the way touchscreen phones handle click/touch events in the browser, there’s a delay between when you touch and when the click event fires in javascript. This meant that it was possible to touch/type the number much faster than the javascript events fired. No go.

Instead, the latest versions of WebKit provide with a HTML5 input field with a type of “number”. On iPhone OS 3.1 and better, it will bring up the keypad already switched to the numeric keys. It does not do this on iPhone OS prior to 3.1. I’m not sure how Android and Pre handle it.

Mocked up Art on Call code input.

Mocked up Art on Call code input.

Implimented Art on Call code input.

Implimented Art on Call code input.


Comparing smartphones

Here’s a few screenshots of the site on various phones:

Palm Pre

Palm Pre

Android 1.5

Android 1.5

Blackberry 9630

Blackberry 9630



Not pictured is Windows Mobile, because it looks really bad.

A future post may cover getting all of these emulators up and running, because it’s not as straight easy as it should be. Working with the blackberry emulator is especially painful.

How our mobile site works

The basic methodology for our mobile site is to pull the data, via either RSS or XML from our main website, parse it, cache it, and re-template it for mobile visitors. Nearly all of the pages on our site are available via XML if you know how to look. Parsing XML into usable data is a computationally expensive task, so caching is very important. Thankfully, AppEngine provides easy access to memcache, so we can memcache the XML fetches and the parsing as much as possible. Here’s our simple but effective URL parse/cache helper function:

[python]
from google.appengine.api import urlfetch
from xml.dom import minidom
from google.appengine.api import memcache

def parse(url,timeout=3600):
memKey = hash(url)
r = memcache.get(‘fetch_%s’ % memKey)
if r == None:
r = urlfetch.fetch(url)
memcache.add(key="fetch_%s" % memKey, value=r, time=timeout)
if r.status_code == 200:
dom = memcache.get(‘dom_%s’ % memKey)
if dom == None:
dom = minidom.parseString(r.content)
memcache.add(key="dom_%s" % memKey, value=dom, time=timeout)
return dom
else:
return False
[/python]

Google AppEngine does not impose much of a structure for your web app. Similar to Django’s urls.py, you link regular expressions for URLS to class-based handlers. You can’t pass any variables beyond what’s in the URL or the WebOb to the request handler. Each handler will call a different method, depending if it’s a GET, POST, DELETE, http request. If you’re coming from the django world like me, this is not much of a big deal at first, but it gets tedious pretty fast. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably use app-engine-patch from the outset, and thus be able to use all the normal django goodies like middleware, template context, and way more configurable urls.

Within each handler, we also cache the generated data where possible. That is, after our get handler has run, we cache all the values that we pass to our template that won’t change over time. Here’s an example of the classes that handle the visit section of our mobile site:

[python]
from google.appengine.ext import webapp
from google.appengine.ext.webapp import template
from google.appengine.api import memcache
from xml.dom import minidom
from google.appengine.api import memcache
from utils import feeds, parse, template_context, text
import settings

class VisitDetailHandler(webapp.RequestHandler):
def get(self):
url = self.request.get("s") + "?style=xml"
template_values = template_context.getTempalteValues(self.request)
path = settings.TEMPLATE_DIR + ‘info.html’
memKey = hash(url)

r = memcache.get(‘visit_%s’ % memKey)
if r and not settings.DEBUG:
template_values.update(r)
self.response.out.write(template.render(path, template_values))
else:
dom = parse.parse(url)
records = dom.getElementsByTagName("record")
contents = []
for rec in records:
title = text.clean_utf8(rec.getElementsByTagName(‘title’)[0].childNodes[0].nodeValue)
body = text.clean_utf8(rec.getElementsByTagName(‘body’)[0].childNodes[0].nodeValue)
contents.append({‘title':title,’body':body})

back = {‘href':’/visit/#top’, ‘text':’Visiting’}
cacheableTemplateValues = { "contents": contents,’back':back }
memcache.add(key=’visit_%s’ % memKey, value={ "contents": contents,’back':back }, time=7200)
template_values.update(cacheableTemplateValues)
self.response.out.write(template.render(path, template_values))
[/python]

Dealing with parsing XML via the standard DOM methods is a great way to test your tolerance for pain. I would use libxml and xpath, AppEngine doesn’t provide those libraries in their python environment.

Because the only part of Django’s template system that AppEngine uses is the template language, and nothing else, we have to roll our own helper functions for context. Meaning, if we want to pass a bunch variables by default to our templates, something easy in django, we have to do it a little differently with GAE. I set up a function called getTemplateValues, which we pass the WebOb request, and it ferrets out and organizes info we need for the templates, passing it back as a dict.

[python]
def ua_test(request):
uastring = request.headers.get(‘user_agent’)
uaDict = {}
if "Mobile" in uastring and "Safari" in uastring:
uaDict[‘isIphone’] = True
if ‘BlackBerry’ in uastring:
uaDict[‘isBlackBerry’] = True
return uaDict

def getTempalteValues(request):
myDict = {}
myDict.update(ua_test(request))
myDict.update(googleAnalyticsGetImageUrl(request))
return myDict
[/python]

In my next post, I’ll talk about how to track visitors on a mobile site using google analytics, without using javascript.

MuseTechCentral launches

The museum technical community got some good news today: MuseTechCentral officially launched. Billing itself as the MCN Project Registry, the site seeks to “provide a place for the MCN community to share information about technology-related museum projects”. After some quick browsing (encouragingly, there are already a good number of entries, including several cell phone tour […]

screenshot-mcn-project-registry-museum-computer-network-musetech-central-mozilla-firefox-1.pngThe museum technical community got some good news today: MuseTechCentral officially launched. Billing itself as the MCN Project Registry, the site seeks to “provide a place for the MCN community to share information about technology-related museum projects”.

After some quick browsing (encouragingly, there are already a good number of entries, including several cell phone tour projects I was interested in) it was easy to see the potential of the site:

  • When starting a new project, it’s smart to see if this problem has been solved before. If so, how? And for how much? Is it worth the investment? Or is there a vendor to avoid? Now you can find out.
  • Vice versa, upon completing a project, you may find yourself being hit up constantly for information requests. Now you can now simply refer people to your project page on MuseTechCentral.

While I was there I created an account and added our Art on Call project to the registry. The site is full of ajaxy goodness that makes form entry and navigation a breeze, although I do wish you could bookmark filtered results.

So far the projects seems to be fairly art-museum-centric, but hopefully that will change as more institutions start to contribute. The registry will be most useful if it truly represents the museum community, so if you’ve got a project to add… go add it!

Overall, this is a great effort by the Museum Computer Network and the Museum Software Foundation. Looking forward to future browsing and adding many more projects!

[via Musematic]

Counting People in Galleries with iPod Touch

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 […]

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.

Walker Counter Walker Counter Maxed

iPod Touch CounterMaking 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.

Picasso iPods part 2

Brent beat me to the punch with his Picasso iPod post. Much to learn from this project which gave us an opportunity to compare the same tour on iPods and cell phones. I was waiting for the phone stats and survey results but you’ll have to come back for that information. As Brent said, the […]

Kill the iPod

Brent beat me to the punch with his Picasso iPod post. Much to learn from this project which gave us an opportunity to compare the same tour on iPods and cell phones. I was waiting for the phone stats and survey results but you’ll have to come back for that information.

As Brent said, the iPods were a huge success. In the course of the exhibition (June 16-September 9), over 3,500 visitors borrowed the iPods (25-23 devices available for free and loaded with the exhibition tour only). In busy periods, people queued for the tour. And in these same busy periods, visitor services found the loan process almost more than they could manage (witness the drawing on the envelop accompanying the last bunch of checkout sheets).* I sought a donation from Apple (they gave us 5 iPods, we bought 20) but fact is they should have paid us for this kind of promotion. In addition to providing a rewarding interpretative experience, we taught a new generation how to use the iPod–a common refrain heard at the front desk, “ now I can tell my grandchildren I used an iPod!”

Despite their popularity, the iPods will only be used for special projects (3 remain available for the permanent collection tour but ultimately we prefer visitors bring their own hardware). That said, Walker is working with Antenna Audio and SFMOMA to produce a multimedia guide for our upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibition, available on Antenna’s new XP-vision player for $6.

* This drawing is in no way a reflection of the demeanor of front-line staff who are often complemented for exceptional customer service. “Kill the iPod” courtesy the artist Joe Rizzo.

Picasso iPod Audio Tour Post Mortem

So the Picasso exhibition is over and we learned a lot about mass iPod audio tours. The first lesson, they’re very popular! We’ve had iPods for our permanent collection for a while now, but we never really had the push behind it like we had for Picasso. The difference I noticed here is that if […]

So the Picasso exhibition is over and we learned a lot about mass iPod audio tours. The first lesson, they’re very popular! We’ve had iPods for our permanent collection for a while now, but we never really had the push behind it like we had for Picasso. The difference I noticed here is that if you advertise it, people will use it.

We did a lot better job for the Picasso show in getting the word out that the iPods as well as Art on Call were available. People used them. There were very often waiting lists for people to check out an iPod. I had honestly thought at the beginning that 25 iPods was overkill, but after a short time it was obvious we could have probably had twice that and still had all of them in use at any given time. A lot of this was because of the show itself. A ton of people came to see Picasso. I’ve never seen that many people in our galleries before, outside of After Hours. And this was day in, day out. But like anything, word gets out, people in the galleries see others on their cell phones or with iPods and learn they can do the same (for free) and people really ate up the content. We will post more on our numbers when the final data comes in.

So that’s great, people dug the content, but what were the caveats? For us there were several things that came up that we had to work around. One is what I already mentioned, the iPods being checked out constantly. Because of this, none of the iPods during the day got a chance to recharge. Most made it through an 8 hour day fine, but what we didn’t expect was having to charge them over night. Because they needed to be locked up somewhere safe when the building was closed we had to find a secure place to take the charging station each night, and thankfully we were able to.

Also, at first we were going to use one of the computers at the front desk to dock the iPods on, but given the traffic, that didn’t go over well as that computer needed to be used off and on all day for ticketing, etc. But we still needed a dedicated computer there just for the iPods. We thankfully had a spare Sony laptop that sufficed for this and did a good job.

There was also something that came up that I never had even thought about. I originally put the iPods down in a floor cabinet which could be closed. This was partially to be neat and tidy and partially for security. Problem was, we were so busy and swapping out so many iPods that the Visitor Services staff started to really strain having to bend over again and again to swap out iPods all day. Thankfully our carpentry shop rectified this by making a pedestal that the iPods could go in to make it easier on everyone’s backs.

And what about dead and abused iPods? Several notes here. One, Notes mode works better now than it did when I first used it and dismissed it and then instead hacked the iPod firmware. But there are still major issues with Notes mode. While better, it’s still not ready for prime time and there are still ways for users to change settings even when locked into Notes mode (which I’m still trying to figure out, but given the number of iPods I got that I had to reset, it’s certainly an issue). That said, we will probably use Notes mode for exhibition-only tours in the future.

Secondly, when your audio tour is this popular bad things happen. We had a few iPods die on us. Three were hard drive failures, and one had a screen fail from abuse. The good news is Apple will replace iPods for free if there is a hard drive failure and the iPod is under warranty. The bad news is the same can’t be said for screen abuse (or any other kind of user created problem). Most of the iPods survived just fine, some had to be reset with a hard reset (getting into the hidden firmware setting to do so), but in the end most survived the ordeal.

The other big challenge was getting people to understand how to use the iPods. Believe it or not there are a lot of people who have never used one before. The Picasso show skewed a bit older as well which added to this. We had a stop on our tour (the first stop) that was all about how to use the iPod and the tour menu itself was as simple as possible (just one list, no submenus), but as with any technology there is still a learning curve involved, regardless of how simple it may seem. Someone will always struggle. It’s important everyone in your museum knows how they work, because anyone, even security guards, may be asked to help someone who’s stuck. This is the most important part to me, because if people can’t figure out how to use your device, there’s no point in having it!

Lastly, as Robin guessed before the show started, ditch the earbuds and get over-the-ear headphones for your iPods. This was a very good move. Nobody wants to stick earbuds in their ears after 20 people before you have!

In related iPod news, we’re getting a few of the new iPod Touch’s in at the end of the month, and I’m currently building an app for it. I think these could have a real impact on audio (and video) tours because of the built in WiFi and browser. I’m pretty excited at the possibilities. More on this soon.

Building a Multiple iPod Charger

One of the cool things we’re doing for the Walker’s upcoming exhibition Picasso and American Art is significantly increasing our iPod audio tour capacity. For the exhibit we were able to get 25 iPod Video’s, and like our normal iPod audio tours, we will be letting visitors use them for free. The same content is […]

One of the cool things we’re doing for the Walker’s upcoming exhibition Picasso and American Art is significantly increasing our iPod audio tour capacity. For the exhibit we were able to get 25 iPod Video’s, and like our normal iPod audio tours, we will be letting visitors use them for free. The same content is also available on Art on Call.

This presents a bit of a challenge however. Up until now we’ve only had four iPod Nano’s to worry about, and plugging a few into a computer or two to charge isn’t that big a deal. Now however we have 25 of them to deal with, and there certainly aren’t enough USB ports to go around. The goal was to find a way to charge most of the iPods, do it in a limited space, and do it for as cheap as possible.

My solution was to buy three USB hubs and use them just for charging. We don’t really need to have them connected to the computer to sync with, we just want the power. This turned out to be harder than I thought. I went through a few USB hubs trying to get the iPods just to charge off the supplied AC adaptor. Each hub I tried didn’t allow this. It would only charge when the hub was connected to a computer via USB. I can’t fathom a reason why they limited it like this, as the power comes from AC on the hub, not from USB. Whether the hub was connected to a computer should not really dictate whether power could be supplied to the device or not. Alas, there was no cost efficient way around this.

So I had no choice, if I wanted to charge via any hub, I had to connect the hub to a computer. Thankfully we did have a computer near where our iPod storage is. Except it only has two open USB ports, not the three I needed. Another stumbling block. But then the thought occured to daisy chain the hubs. In essence, the USB cable that was supposed to go to the computer for each hub would plug into one of the other hubs instead. The last in the chain would then plug into the computer. Basically we could connect all of the iPods to a computer with one USB cord, regardless of how many hubs we had. And that’s what we did, as it worked perfectly:

One interesting feature of this is it allows us to mount all of these iPods at once, as you can see here. This actually makes adding and editing content on all of them a breeze. So in the end, perhaps all of the troubles were a blessing.

Total cost for this: $60. It may not look the prettiest, but sometimes when you’re trying to be frugal, getting something that just works is what counts.

MW2007 – Cell Phone Tours

I attened this session and took some notes and added some commentary. Robin was the chair of the discussion, but let the authors/presenters do nearly all the talking. The first presentation was by Kate Haley, an associate at the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her paper is Cell phones and Exhibitions 2.0: Moving beyond the Pilot […]

I attened this session and took some notes and added some commentary. Robin was the chair of the discussion, but let the authors/presenters do nearly all the talking.

The first presentation was by Kate Haley, an associate at the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her paper is Cell phones and Exhibitions 2.0: Moving beyond the Pilot State which goes over some findings from a study of Art on Call. In her talk, Haley outlined some of the reasons for choosing phones in museums:

  • Removes the cost of infrastructure
  • Multi-functional
  • Pervasiveness

And some of the things we use phones for:

  • Information seeking
  • social utility
  • affection
  • fashion and status
  • mobility and accessibility

Haley talked a lot about the barriers to cell phone use in museums. Some of those barriers include:

  • Unaware the service was offered
  • aware of the service, but unaware of how to use it
  • Thought it was pre-paid or cost money
  • Assumed cell phone use was prohibited
  • Wondered if there was a fee
  • not interested in learning more at the moment
  • Didn’t find it appealing in a museum context

She also discussed the stages of adoption and how they relate to cell phone use in museums: innovators, early adopters, late adopters, laggards, etc. Haley discussed how this relates to the stages of technological adoption that typically apply to consumer based products, also apply to cell phone use in museums.

The more interesting barrier, Haley says, is the dichotomy of public and private space and cell phone use. People feel like a conversation on a phone is a private thing, yet mobile phones are often used in public spaces. To rectify this, people often change their body language and behavior to stake out public space. They’ll do the following things:

  • Close their body position
  • Turn their back on others
  • Lean forward
  • Duck their head
  • Staking out space

We’ve seen a similar disconnect in the Walker with Art on Call. While participation by listening to artist and curator commentary is good, visitor participation by leaving comments is low. A gallery is a very public space: it’s open, usually with minimal sound deadening, normally quiet, and lots of other people and security around. Certainly not the intimate space that people typically look for when having a private conversation.

In order to increase usage of cell phone audio tours Haley suggests:

  • We need better signage
  • We need to acknowledge how people traditionally use their phones and what stage of adoption they’re in. Not everyone is an early adopter
  • Acknowledge cultural and contextual differences
  • Understand cultural norms on phones and public spaces

The next speaker was Nancy Proctor, from Antenna Audio, presented When In Roam: Visitor Response To Phone Tour Pilots In The US And Europe.

Phone tours are more common in the US than Europe for some of the following reasons:

  • Poor reception in many older historic buildings in Europe
  • Higher percentages of foreign visitors in Europe
  • Higher cost for cell phone usage in museums, many Europeans have pay as you go plans and many Americans have unlimited minutes
  • Concern about camera phones in museums
  • Concern about social use of phones in museum

Antenna Audio did a comparison of cell phone tours vs. podcasts vs. “traditional audio” tours during the Drawing Restraint show at SFMOMA last fall. For comparison, Proctor showed the podcast version of the tour, which featured background music, high quality audio and an image stream that went along with the presentation. It was presented on her computer through iTunes and sounded and looked pretty good. Then she presented the same tour using the cell phone tour, which didn’t feature the background music or the image stream. Of course, it wasn’t as immersive, but the main kernel of content was still there.

Some conclusions Proctor drew was that the more media the visitor consumes, the more they enjoy the exhibition. The immersive “traditional audio tour” provides this. Cell phone users on the other hand, use a more à la carte approach, consequentially not consuming as much media. The implication is that due to the less immersive experience, visitors do not learn as much. Proctor called the a la carte approach “the google” way of finding out more. The insight seems valuable, but I think we must also consider that not every visitor wants to have everything dictated to them. Art should still leave room for interpretation, after all. Some traditional audio tours can contribute to the herd mentality, where you’re lead on a strict path through an exhibition and can be far from enjoyable.

To Consider: One must be aware of possible bias in Proctor’s study. Proctor works for Antenna Audio, who happens to be a purveyor of “traditional audio tours”. Cell phone audio tours, to a certain extent, threaten Antenna’s business model. Antenna has an interest in limiting the growth of cell phone audio tours. Nancy’s findings seem to have a slant towards showing traditional audio tours as more beneficial to visitor learning. Then again, we at the Walker are prime purveyors of cell phone audio tours and have an interest in encouraging other museums to use cell phone tours.

Q&A

  • One commenter noted that the phone is not an interface device, people plan on using a phone for having a conversation, not using it as an interface device. People aren’t prepared to use their phone as an interface device. Haley responded that this is changing. We need to prepare people to use their phone as an interface device, and the social context for this may change over time. Haley also noted that Americans perceive a phone as a tool to make a call whereas much of the rest of the world uses phones primarily as a txt-ing device.
  • One commenter suggested that cell phones can’t reach children, as they do not have cell phones. Traditional audio tour devices can be used by the family at the same time. So it can foster family learning.
  • Another person questioned the relationship of google-style a la carte learning to the story-telling traditional audio tour approach. Proctor suggests that the more media that we consume, the more we will learn. The comprehensive approach from the traditional tour is more immersive. Haley and Proctor both agreed that there isn’t much data here, though, so it’s hard to know, and learning is hard very hard to measure.
  • Another commenter suggested the while cell phone tours aren’t high on audio quality, they can be much more responsive to visitor needs. Cell phone content can be updated very easily. Proctor suggested that audio tours can be updated just as easily (but every device has to be reloaded!).
  • Another question was about the subject matter of the exhibition and how it related to take-up of audio tours and cell phone tours. Proctor responded that audio tours tend to be used by frequent visitors, and people who know enough to know they want to learn more.
  • The next commenter suggested an that comparing cell phone audio tours to traditional audio tours is an unfair comparison. Cell phone tour content needs to be edited differently, developed differently for each platform model.

I posed the final comment, regarding Near Field Communication, which is the phone technology that may some day allow us to buy a coke from a vending machine with a mobile phone. Yesterday Arstechnica commented on a report by ABI Research about this technology:

NFC technology is what is used to make “contactless payment” for a variety of different services. “Making payments, unlocking doors, downloading content, even setting up wireless networks and many other applications, can all be enabled from an NFC handset,” said ABI analyst Jonathan Collins. “NFC in mobile phones promises a quicker and easier way to execute a host of key tasks by just waving the phone.”

Clearly, there are some possibilities for cell phone tours in museums as well. The ability to simply wave a phone in front of a piece of work and get audio, possibly other types of media, about the work would be extremely valuable as a learning tool. Could museums develop this technology as it emerges, it has the possibility to further evolve the usefulness and accessibility of cell phone audio tours.

MW2007 – Cell Phone Tours

I attened this session and took some notes and added some commentary. Robin was the chair of the discussion, but let the authors/presenters do nearly all the talking. The first presentation was by Kate Haley, an associate at the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her paper is Cell phones and Exhibitions 2.0: Moving beyond the Pilot […]

I attened this session and took some notes and added some commentary. Robin was the chair of the discussion, but let the authors/presenters do nearly all the talking.

The first presentation was by Kate Haley, an associate at the Institute for Learning Innovation. Her paper is Cell phones and Exhibitions 2.0: Moving beyond the Pilot State which goes over some findings from a study of Art on Call. In her talk, Haley outlined some of the reasons for choosing phones in museums:

  • Removes the cost of infrastructure
  • Multi-functional
  • Pervasiveness

And some of the things we use phones for:

  • Information seeking
  • social utility
  • affection
  • fashion and status
  • mobility and accessibility

Haley talked a lot about the barriers to cell phone use in museums. Some of those barriers include:

  • Unaware the service was offered
  • aware of the service, but unaware of how to use it
  • Thought it was pre-paid or cost money
  • Assumed cell phone use was prohibited
  • Wondered if there was a fee
  • not interested in learning more at the moment
  • Didn’t find it appealing in a museum context

She also discussed the stages of adoption and how they relate to cell phone use in museums: innovators, early adopters, late adopters, laggards, etc. Haley discussed how this relates to the stages of technological adoption that typically apply to consumer based products, also apply to cell phone use in museums.

The more interesting barrier, Haley says, is the dichotomy of public and private space and cell phone use. People feel like a conversation on a phone is a private thing, yet mobile phones are often used in public spaces. To rectify this, people often change their body language and behavior to stake out public space. They’ll do the following things:

  • Close their body position
  • Turn their back on others
  • Lean forward
  • Duck their head
  • Staking out space

We’ve seen a similar disconnect in the Walker with Art on Call. While participation by listening to artist and curator commentary is good, visitor participation by leaving comments is low. A gallery is a very public space: it’s open, usually with minimal sound deadening, normally quiet, and lots of other people and security around. Certainly not the intimate space that people typically look for when having a private conversation.

In order to increase usage of cell phone audio tours Haley suggests:

  • We need better signage
  • We need to acknowledge how people traditionally use their phones and what stage of adoption they’re in. Not everyone is an early adopter
  • Acknowledge cultural and contextual differences
  • Understand cultural norms on phones and public spaces

The next speaker was Nancy Proctor, from Antenna Audio, presented When In Roam: Visitor Response To Phone Tour Pilots In The US And Europe.

Phone tours are more common in the US than Europe for some of the following reasons:

  • Poor reception in many older historic buildings in Europe
  • Higher percentages of foreign visitors in Europe
  • Higher cost for cell phone usage in museums, many Europeans have pay as you go plans and many Americans have unlimited minutes
  • Concern about camera phones in museums
  • Concern about social use of phones in museum

Antenna Audio did a comparison of cell phone tours vs. podcasts vs. “traditional audio” tours during the Drawing Restraint show at SFMOMA last fall. For comparison, Proctor showed the podcast version of the tour, which featured background music, high quality audio and an image stream that went along with the presentation. It was presented on her computer through iTunes and sounded and looked pretty good. Then she presented the same tour using the cell phone tour, which didn’t feature the background music or the image stream. Of course, it wasn’t as immersive, but the main kernel of content was still there.

Some conclusions Proctor drew was that the more media the visitor consumes, the more they enjoy the exhibition. The immersive “traditional audio tour” provides this. Cell phone users on the other hand, use a more à la carte approach, consequentially not consuming as much media. The implication is that due to the less immersive experience, visitors do not learn as much. Proctor called the a la carte approach “the google” way of finding out more. The insight seems valuable, but I think we must also consider that not every visitor wants to have everything dictated to them. Art should still leave room for interpretation, after all. Some traditional audio tours can contribute to the herd mentality, where you’re lead on a strict path through an exhibition and can be far from enjoyable.

To Consider: One must be aware of possible bias in Proctor’s study. Proctor works for Antenna Audio, who happens to be a purveyor of “traditional audio tours”. Cell phone audio tours, to a certain extent, threaten Antenna’s business model. Antenna has an interest in limiting the growth of cell phone audio tours. Nancy’s findings seem to have a slant towards showing traditional audio tours as more beneficial to visitor learning. Then again, we at the Walker are prime purveyors of cell phone audio tours and have an interest in encouraging other museums to use cell phone tours.

Q&A

  • One commenter noted that the phone is not an interface device, people plan on using a phone for having a conversation, not using it as an interface device. People aren’t prepared to use their phone as an interface device. Haley responded that this is changing. We need to prepare people to use their phone as an interface device, and the social context for this may change over time. Haley also noted that Americans perceive a phone as a tool to make a call whereas much of the rest of the world uses phones primarily as a txt-ing device.
  • One commenter suggested that cell phones can’t reach children, as they do not have cell phones. Traditional audio tour devices can be used by the family at the same time. So it can foster family learning.
  • Another person questioned the relationship of google-style a la carte learning to the story-telling traditional audio tour approach. Proctor suggests that the more media that we consume, the more we will learn. The comprehensive approach from the traditional tour is more immersive. Haley and Proctor both agreed that there isn’t much data here, though, so it’s hard to know, and learning is hard very hard to measure.
  • Another commenter suggested the while cell phone tours aren’t high on audio quality, they can be much more responsive to visitor needs. Cell phone content can be updated very easily. Proctor suggested that audio tours can be updated just as easily (but every device has to be reloaded!).
  • Another question was about the subject matter of the exhibition and how it related to take-up of audio tours and cell phone tours. Proctor responded that audio tours tend to be used by frequent visitors, and people who know enough to know they want to learn more.
  • The next commenter suggested an that comparing cell phone audio tours to traditional audio tours is an unfair comparison. Cell phone tour content needs to be edited differently, developed differently for each platform model.

I posed the final comment, regarding Near Field Communication, which is the phone technology that may some day allow us to buy a coke from a vending machine with a mobile phone. Yesterday Arstechnica commented on a report by ABI Research about this technology:

NFC technology is what is used to make “contactless payment” for a variety of different services. “Making payments, unlocking doors, downloading content, even setting up wireless networks and many other applications, can all be enabled from an NFC handset,” said ABI analyst Jonathan Collins. “NFC in mobile phones promises a quicker and easier way to execute a host of key tasks by just waving the phone.”

Clearly, there are some possibilities for cell phone tours in museums as well. The ability to simply wave a phone in front of a piece of work and get audio, possibly other types of media, about the work would be extremely valuable as a learning tool. Could museums develop this technology as it emerges, it has the possibility to further evolve the usefulness and accessibility of cell phone audio tours.

Yerba Buena

The New Media team had a chance yesterday to check out Yerba Buena, a very cool multidisciplinary institution across the street from SFMOMA. I would love to go and catch a performance or a film there, but at the time only the galleries were open. It was an interesting experience to go into an exhibition […]

The New Media team had a chance yesterday to check out Yerba Buena, a very cool multidisciplinary institution across the street from SFMOMA. I would love to go and catch a performance or a film there, but at the time only the galleries were open. It was an interesting experience to go into an exhibition that wouldn’t be out of place at the Walker — and immediately start looking around for context. It made me realize a bit more how different it is when you work at the institution: we’re surrounded by build-up for months, we can’t help but picking up tidbits of interpretive material and context and stories. I think our audience approaches the show much more like we did at Yerba Buena – “Cool! Um, what?”

458177717_a57a450c9f.jpgWhich is why I was so happy to find that they have a cellphone-based audio guide! They’re using Guide By Cell, and the interface is very bare-bones, really just a welcome menu. Some of the audio quality (true with some of Art on Call as well) was spotty and hard to understand, and some of it also sounded like the artist had simply called into the system to record their comments. I love the immediacy of that connection, the ability to rapidly update content, and the informal comments it generates. Very cool.

The other exciting thing for me was their “Shotgun Reviews”: they have several kiosks right in the galleries inviting comments on the exhibitions, and the reviews end up on the web. I didn’t leave a comment so I’m not sure if they’re moderated, but it seemed to have gotten a fair bit of use. I’m not sure if we could pull off a similar concept, but it was refreshing to see that much trust in their users, since that’s been a strong theme at MW2007 so far.

Art on Call: What’s new?

Art on Call is constantly being improved to make it more functional and easier to use. Last month we released a new version with revised scripts and features. The script changes are meant to tighten the call flow and correct problems in the navigation (e.g., callers didn’t understand that stop numbers could be entered from […]

Art on Call is constantly being improved to make it more functional and easier to use. Last month we released a new version with revised scripts and features. The script changes are meant to tighten the call flow and correct problems in the navigation (e.g., callers didn’t understand that stop numbers could be entered from the root welcome). The new features–TalkBack and breadcrumbing–take advantage of caller id to capture the stops requested by visitors and allow them to leave their own audio commentary.

TalkBack

The option to record your own comments about a work of art is available after listening to an Art on Call stop. Callers can leave one comment per work and retrieve them by entering their phone number at the website (newmedia.walkerart.org/aoc). By leaving a comment, you’re also giving the Walker permission to share your recording with other visitors. Visitor comments selected by Walker staff will appear in the program and on the website.

Breadcrumbing

Art on Call automatically keeps track of the works of art you access so that after your visit, you can retrieve your stops and find additional information as well as any comments you may have saved. Each time you dial Art on Call from the same phone number, we extend the collection of stops. Like TalkBack comments, your collection of Art on Call stops (should we call this a playlist?) is retrieved by entering your phone number in the search box on the project website (newmedia.walkerart.org/aoc).

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