Blogs Media Lab

8-Ball (Eyeo Edition): Cédric Sam

With the Eyeo Festival bringing an international array of coders, designers, and artists to the Walker this week, we decided to open the Media Lab blog to conference speakers. To give all presenters a chance to introduce themselves, we’ve sent out our 8-Ball artist questionnaire, in which we pose some of life’s most–and possibly least–pressing […]

With the Eyeo Festival bringing an international array of coders, designers, and artists to the Walker this week, we decided to open the Media Lab blog to conference speakers. To give all presenters a chance to introduce themselves, we’ve sent out our 8-Ball artist questionnaire, in which we pose some of life’s most–and possibly least–pressing issues. The first to take us up on our offer is Cédric Sam, a designer and coder who hails from Montréal but has lived in Hong Kong since 2009. Tomorrow morning he presents on what he’s learned about social media in China and how his experiences there might inform the work of designers, programmers, and journalists into the future.

Describe a recent dream in 15 words or less.
I was lost in an endless indoor shopping mall in Hong Kong…

What technological innovation is going to most dramatically alter our near future?
I think it‘s going to be affordable mobile broadband Internet. I lived in Hong Kong for three years and fast Internet on the go is relatively affordable and created many new use cases that we don’t yet see in North America.

What’s your most embarrassing moment?
When I was in high school, we participated in an overnight quiz competition. I was so tired by 1 am that I entered and used the girl’s bathroom. And they printed it on the event’s newsletter. So here it is again. :)

Fill in the blank: What the world needs now is _________________.
More delightful data experiences. Or more experiences with delightful data.

If you could have any career, what would you choose?
Dataset tamer.

What’s your most vivid memory from childhood?
Playing in cornfields in suburban Montreal. They’re now occupied with houses and a Canadian Tire.

What’s your favorite comfort food?
Shepherd’s pie (aka Pâté chinois, in Quebec). And my Chinese comfort food is congee.

What is your advice for young people today?
Avoid bandwagons. Talk to people (not just at your school or in your own country) to figure out what those bandwagons are!

Getting Mobile in the Garden

This summer marks a major milestone for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden: 25 years as one of the country’s premiere public sculpture parks. The New Media Initiatives department’s contribution to the celebration comes in the form of a brand new website for the garden, a fully responsive “web app” that has been an exciting challenge to […]

This summer marks a major milestone for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden: 25 years as one of the country’s premiere public sculpture parks. The New Media Initiatives department’s contribution to the celebration comes in the form of a brand new website for the garden, a fully responsive “web app” that has been an exciting challenge to build.

Opening screen of the web appMap view of the garden

The new site is a radical shift from the static, research-focused 2004 version, and instead becomes an on-demand interpretive tool for exploration in the garden, including an interactive, GPS-capable map, audio tour, video interviews, and short snippets called “fun facts.” One of the most exciting features is the new 25th Anniversary Audio Tour called Community Voices. Last summer we recorded interviews in the garden with community members, first-time visitors, and some local celebrities, and it’s all come together in this tour to present a fantastic audio snapshot of just how special the garden is to people.

Detail view of Spoonbridge and CherryInterpretive media for Spoonbridgegarden_phone_5_sm

The site provides light, casual information “snacking,” with prompts to dive deeper if time and interest allow. It gives visitors a familiar device (their own!) to enhance their visit at their own convenience.

Of course, we didn’t neglect our out-of-state or desktop visitors, but the site’s focus remains on getting people to the garden. For those unable to experience it physically (or for those frigid winter months), the new website provides a browsable interface to familiar favorites and up-to-date acquisitions and commissions.

Behind the scenes

MSG Web Data

Our proof of concept for the site was lean and mean, built quickly using open source tools (leaflet.js) and open data (OpenStreetMap). We didn’t have latitude/longitude positioning info for our public works of art, but as it turned out some kind soul had already added a significant number of our sculptures to OpenStreetMap! We set about adding the rest and knocked together a new “meta API” for the garden that would unify data streams from OSM, our Collections, Calendar, and existing media assets in Art on Call.

Fuzzy GPS

garden_2

Next we began the process of verifying the data. We’d created custom map tiles for the garden so we could maintain the designed look and feel Eric was going for (look for a future post on the design process for this site), but it involved  some compromises to make the paths line up visually. The New Media team spent a few hours walking the garden in the early spring, making notes on sculpture GPS anomalies, misplaced paths, and trying to avoid having anyone appear to be inside the hedges. No two devices gave the exact same GPS coordinates, so we ended up averaging the difference and calling it close enough.

Native-ish

It’s not a web app. It’s an app you install from the web.

As we discovered while building the mobile side of the new Collections site, a properly tuned webpage can start to feel a lot like a native application. We’re using swipe gestures to move between information “slides,” pinch and zoom for the map, and followed most of the tips in the forecast.io blog post (above) to further enhance the experience. We’ll never be quite as snappy as a properly native app, but we feel the cross-platform benefits of the web fully outweigh that downside. (Not to mention our in-house expertise is web-based, not app-based.)

Need for Speed

garden_pagespeed

This was the make-or-break component of the mobile site: if it didn’t “feel” fast, no one would use it. We spent untold hours implementing just-in-time loading of assets so the initial site would by tiny, but then we’d have the images we need just before they were supposed to be on screen. We tuned the cache parameters so anyone who’s visited the site in the past will have the components they need when they return, but we can also push out timely updates in a lightweight manner. We optimized images and spread the map tiles around our Content Delivery Network to prevent a single-domain bottleneck.

Finally, and perhaps foolishly, we wrote a safety fallback that tries to estimate a user’s bandwidth as they load the welcome image: by timing the download of a known-size file, we can make a quick decision if they are on a painfully slow 3G network or something better. In the case of the slow connection we dynamically begin serving half-size images in an effort to improve the site’s performance. We’ll be monitoring usage statistics closely to see if/when this situation occurs and for what devices. Which brings me to…

Analytics

garden_heatmap_sm

I hope I’m right when I say that anyone who’s heard me speak about museums and digital knows how adamant I am about measuring results and not just guessing if something is “working.” This site is no exception, with the added bonus of location tracking! We’re anonymizing user sessions and then pinging our server with location data so we can begin to build an aggregate “heatmap” of popular spots in the garden. Above is a screenshot of my first test walk through the garden.

We’re logging as many bits of information as we can about the usage of the new site in hopes of refining it, measuring success, and informing our future mobile interpretation efforts.

Enjoy!

Please visit the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden website and let us know what you think!

 

Secrets of a Museum Social Media Manager

Two or so years ago, Kristina Fong, the Walker’s Marketing and Audience Research Coordinator, was handed the keys of the Walker’s social media accounts and, ultimately, a new title: Digital Marketing Associate. At that point, social media at the Walker meant accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Today, the Walker has 374,000 Twitter followers, 49,000 Facebook […]

FongHands

Two or so years ago, Kristina Fong, the Walker’s Marketing and Audience Research Coordinator, was handed the keys of the Walker’s social media accounts and, ultimately, a new title: Digital Marketing Associate. At that point, social media at the Walker meant accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Today, the Walker has 374,000 Twitter followers, 49,000 Facebook likes, 13,000 Tumblr followers, 8,800 Instagram followers, and a presence on other platforms, including Pinterest and Storify.

Today, sadly, is Kristina’s last day at the Walker, as she heads on to other adventures. Hers are big shoes to fill, but Kristina has kindly laid out some must-read tips for whomever succeeds her here–or for anyone doing social media for museums or other institutions. Here are the first five tips, but please go read the rest at her blog:

1. Know your museum, know it well. This is more important than knowing how to use TweetDeck, HootSuite, Instagram, Statigram, Facebook Pages, Google Analytics, etc etc. If you don’t really, I’ll say it, love your museum, you are lost. You may not love everything about it all the time (I never fell in love with dance, or other types of programming I felt I ought to love, although I tried to understand it), but the most important thing about social media is being genuine.

2. Your social media person has to be a good writer. You’re writing every day and you have to relay your message in short, pithy statements. You have to have a voice. It’s also not a bad idea to make sure your person has written online somewhere. How does the internet talk? You should be fluent in that. Confession: I’m not a great talker, unless I’m really comfortable in a situation. Words feel more like my ally when my hands are creating them, not my mouth. Someone whose personality screams social may not be able to present that online.

3a. ‘Likes’ and followers matter (even though the opposite was probably the first thing uttered at the very first social media panel at a conference). Is it the end all be all? Of course not (especially if you’ve gotten cheap ‘likes’ by saying “If you agree with this obvious statement that everybody likes, click ‘like.’) But they matter because it’s a simple fact: you’re growing your audience. Tell me this, would you be worried if you suddenly lose 5,000 fans on Facebook? Or you just stopped at 10,000? Probably. They matter. If you’re getting likes, that’s a vote of confidence. When I post something that people really respond to, ‘likes’ go up.

3b. Caveat: If your likes go up and your engagement numbers also don’t go up (number of active comments and conversations), that’s a problem. That means you’re boring your new followers. You’ve got to grab them when they’re fresh—that means every day, since you’re getting new followers every day.

4. Talk to people. There’s a lot to strive for on social media: engagement numbers, responses, participation, qualitative data. But overall, they’re the exact same goals as our general mission statement and our website/blogs. Engage, ask questions, be a catalyst for critical thinking, connect. Be available. Build intrigue & trust—if those two things are possible simultaneously. I strive to make our audience feel like they can approach us and that in turn builds a positive relationship with us. (Think how much more you like a person you meet if they simply ask you a question, say your name, or turn to say something directly to you.) So that can be through direct conversations, yes, but also just by sharing knowledge (you get the exclusive) and giving people the opportunity to make a comment (you feel knowledgeable).

5a. Make it genuine. I know when I’m forcing a tweet. It’s burdened with edits and necessity. (Necessity = “you have to tweet about this poorly selling event or else!!!”) You also can’t be excited about everything. An institution is an entity online. We read these accounts because they’re one stream, as one being. So Walker is an entity that loves contemporary culture and thought, dance, music, visual arts, family programs, esoteric artists-in-residence, a restaurant, and a Shop, and everything related to those things. That’s a lot!

But do you tweet about all the things you love all the time? No. You may have, say, 5 things going on the week. Some of them are big, some of them aren’t. You don’t talk about each with equal excitement. In your mind, you prioritize their importance and that’s what you communicate.

Same thing with museums. Not everything deserves three exclamation marks and a post every day. (Especially those esoteric artists-in-residence.)

5b. A confession: I’m hyper-aware about the number of messages being sent out from each channel every day.  Probably too much so. People don’t mind if you post several times on Facebook in a day, as long as those posts are spread out a little bit, but I’m very sensitive about it. You have to consider the reader’s feed, not just what you want to push out. I have tried, again and again, to stress the importance of “keeping it cool” to the various departments who have their own Facebook pages/Twitter feeds, and it does not always work. You may take 8 photos back to back, but you do not Instagram them all in a row. You may have a list of events to upload to Facebook, but you do not make them all in a row because every time you do, it shows up as another post on a user’s newsfeed. You see? You have to be aware of your mark. You have to look at the world outside your world. A few studies have declared that they have found the “sweet spot” of Twitter posts: 3. Or something. I forget. They say that engagement goes down after you tweet more than 3 times. This is null and void if you’re doing it right.

5c. What is doing it right? Paying attention to Twitter, what’s trending nationally, internationally (to a certain extent, don’t talk about pop stars in scandals), and within your sphere. That’s right. Follow influencers, follow places just like you, places you want to be like, the people who are talking about you, and share their information. You know very well that your museum is not a bubble.

5d. The argument for different voices is a consistent argument. I realized I just called the Walker an “entity” up above. But I also realize that every museum is a complex organism and that we appreciate more when we understand. If by voice one means perspective, I wholeheartedly agree. People need to see beyond the “voice” of the institution. Does that mean that they need a dozen different styles of writing, humor, grammar, and abbreviation in their lone Walker feeds? No! It is that designated person’s job to draw out what they need from the different voices, assess what might work well for social media, and invite them in to talk to you (quotation marks? super easy to drop into a post) and show their hand. Some people are terrified of social media. So don’t say, “Write a post for Facebook about this”, just ask them about it. The multiple voices are for blogs, and those blogs can be shared through social. (Ask A Curator-type days not included in this. Besides, maybe curators/programmers should just have their own Twitter accounts for this kind of thing and also everything.)

Thanks, Kristina, for everything. See you online.

 

Out with the Dialog Table, in with the Touch Wall

If you’ve explored our galleries, you’ve probably noticed the Dialog Table tucked into the Best Buy Info Lounge just off one of our main arteries. It’s a poster child of technical gotchas: custom hardware and software, cameras, projectors, finicky lighting requirements… Despite all the potential trouble embedded in the installation, it’s actually been remarkably solid […]

If you’ve explored our galleries, you’ve probably noticed the Dialog Table tucked into the Best Buy Info Lounge just off one of our main arteries. It’s a poster child of technical gotchas: custom hardware and software, cameras, projectors, finicky lighting requirements… Despite all the potential trouble embedded in the installation, it’s actually been remarkably solid apart from a few high-profile failures. At last tally, only the CPUS, capture cards, and one graphics board are original; the rest has been slowly replaced over the years as pieces have broken. (The graphics and video capture cards have drivers that aren’t upgradable at this point, so I’ve been trolling eBay to acquire various bits of antique hardware.)

It’s been a tank. A gorgeous, ahead-of-its-time, and mostly misunderstood tank. I’m both sad and excited to see it go.

I am, however, unequivocally excited about the replacement: two 65″ touch walls from Ideum. This change alone will alleviate one of the biggest human interface mis-matches with the old table: it wasn’t a touch surface, and everyone tried to use it that way.

presenter1

Early meeting with demo software

We’re moving very quickly with our first round of work on the walls, trying to get something up as soon as possible and iterating from there. The immediate intention is to pursue a large-scale “big swipe” viewer of highlights from our collection. Trying to convey the multidisciplinary aspect of the Walker’s collection is always a challenge, but the Presenter wall gives us a great canvas with the option for video and audio.

prsenter2

The huge screen is an attention magnet

With the recently announced alpha release of Gestureworks Core with Python bindings, I’m also excited for the possibilities of what’s next for the walls. The open source Python library at kivy.org looks like a fantastic fit for rapidly developing multi-touch apps, with the possible benefit of pushing out Android / iOS versions as well. At the recent National Digital Forum conference in New Zealand I was inspired by a demo from Tim Wray showing some of his innovative work in presenting collections on a tablet. We don’t have a comprehensive body of tags around our work at this point, but this demo seems to provide a compelling case for gathering that data. Imagine being able to create a set of objects on the fly showing “Violent scenes in nature” just from the paired tags “nature” and “violent”. Or “Blue paintings from Europe” using the tag “blue” and basic object metadata. Somehow the plain text description imposed on simple tag data makes the set of objects more interesting (to me, anyway). I’m starting to think that collection search is moving into the “solved” category, but truly browsing a collection online… We’re not there.

Touch screens, and multitouch in particular, seem destined for eventually greatness in the galleries, but as always the trick is to make the technical aspect of the experience disappear. I hope by starting very simply with obvious interactions we can avoid the temptation to make this about the screens, and instead about the works we’ll be showing.

Beyond Interface: #Opencurating and the Walker’s Digital Initiatives

The new Walker Art Center website “heralds a paradigmatic shift for innovative museum websites in creating an online platform with an emphasis on publishing,” write Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna of the Barcelona-based curatorial office Latitudes, who add that the site places the Walker “at the centre of generating conversations around content from both inside […]

The new Walker Art Center website “heralds a paradigmatic shift for innovative museum websites in creating an online platform with an emphasis on publishing,” write Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna of the Barcelona-based curatorial office Latitudes, who add that the site places the Walker “at the centre of generating conversations around content from both inside and outside the Walker’s activities.” The pair discusses ideas behind the site with Robin Dowden, the Walker’s director of new media initiatives, web editor Paul Schmelzer, and Nate Solas, senior new media designer, as part of #OpenCurating, Latitudes’ new research effort investigating the ways contemporary art projects “can function beyond the traditional format of exhibition-and-catalogue in ways which might be more fully knitted into the web of information which exists in the world today.” Consisting of a moderated Twitter discussion, an event in Barcelona, and a series of 10 online interviews, #OpenCurating launches with the conversation below. As #OpenCurating content partner, the Walker will host conversations from this developing series on its homepage.

(more…)

Introducing Media Lab and the New Walker Blogs

It’s been seven years since we launched the Walker Blogs and with the release of our new website back in December we thought it was finally time for a refresh. You’ll notice that the design has changed to align with our new website and we’ve used the redesign process as an opportunity to rebrand each […]

It’s been seven years since we launched the Walker Blogs and with the release of our new website back in December we thought it was finally time for a refresh. You’ll notice that the design has changed to align with our new website and we’ve used the redesign process as an opportunity to rebrand each of our core blogs. It was an interesting exercise and allowed us to assess the state of our collective blogging efforts – how each of our (now) nine blogs serves a different audience, how they all have different use characteristics by their audiences, and how they could all be focused into tighter streams of content. The blogs definitely represent the long tail side of our publishing efforts – lots of small bits of specialized content for micro-niche audiences – so maintaining a strong emphasis on the personalities behind the Walker and their specific interests was key. And the rebranding process illustrated for us that when you present people with tangible criteria to change, such as a new name, tighter description, graphic – an understandable format to inhabit – it helps them better speculate on what their blog can be.

We decided on a system of flag graphics to represent the various blogs, since each blog is really a representation of a different group of people at the Walker (in most cases the individual programming departments). It’s a tricky balance to strike between striving for traditional, recognizable flag forms and having a graphic that cleverly plays off the title, but we’re glad to have a consistent vocabulary to build on in the future, especially since the blogs now match our comparatively monochromatic main site. We’re particularly fond of the Green Room’s flag.

Beyond the simple graphic forms, this is the first truly responsively designed Walker site – resize your browser window to see things reflow to fit a variety of screen sizes. Content and interface elements of lesser importance become hidden behind links at certain screen sizes. The main content area, on the other hand, stretches to fill a large width when called for. It leads to some pretty long line lengths, but gives our older, image-heavy content the space it needs to fit. We’ll be soon applying this technique to the redesigned Walker Collections, which features a strong publishing component. With the easy adaptations to tablets and mobile devices, it’s a good fit for our eventual goal of efficient multi-channel communications.

Other, smaller items of note include the addition of a grid/list view toggle in the top left to make skimming easier, smarter ordering of categories and authors (by popularity and date of last post, respectively), and a fun little flag animation when you roll over the left-side blog names (in full-width view).

And just for kicks, here are some rejected flag sketches:

Walkerart.org Design Notes #1

As you’ve likely seen, we recently launched a brand new, long overdue redesign of our web presence. Olga already touched on the major themes nicely, so suffice it to say, we’ve taken a major step towards reconceptualizing the Walker as an online content provider, creating another core institutional offering that can live on its own […]

As you’ve likely seen, we recently launched a brand new, long overdue redesign of our web presence. Olga already touched on the major themes nicely, so suffice it to say, we’ve taken a major step towards reconceptualizing the Walker as an online content provider, creating another core institutional offering that can live on its own as an internationally-focused “digital Walker,” instead of something that merely serves the local, physical space.

We largely started from scratch with the user experience and design of the site; the old site, for all its merits, had started to show its age on that front, being originally designed over six years ago – an eternity in web-years. That said, we’re still traditionalists in some ways where new media design is concerned, and took a really minimal, monochromatic, print/newspaper-style approach to the homepage and article content. So in a way, it’s a unique hybrid of the old/time-tested (in layout) and new/innovative (in concept and content), hopefully all tempered by an unadorned, type-centric aesthetic that lets the variety of visuals really speak for themselves.

Our inspiration was a bit scattershot, as we tried to bridge a gap between high and low culture in a way reflective of the Walker itself. Arts and cultural sites were obviously a big part (particularly Metropolis M and it’s wonderful branded sidebar widgets), but not so much museums, which have traditionally been more conservative and promotionally-driven. With our new journalistic focus, two common touchstones became The New York Times’ site and The Huffington Post – with the space in between being the sweet spot. The former goes without saying. The latter gets a bad rap, but we were intrigued by it’s slippery, weirdly click-enticing design tricks and general sense of content-driven chaos enlivened by huge contrasts in scale. The screaming headlines aren’t pretty, but they’re tersely honest and engaging in an area where a more traditional design would introduce some distance. And the content, however vapid, is true to its medium; it’s varied and easily digestible. (See also Jason Fried’s defense of the seemingly indefensible.)

Of course, we ended up closer to the classier, NYT side of things, and to that end, we were really fortunate to start this process around the advent of truly usable web font services. While the selection’s still rather meager beyond the workhorse classics and a smattering of more gimmicky display faces (in other words, Lineto, we’re waiting), really I’m just happy to see less Verdana in the world. And luckily for us, the exception-to-the-rule Colophon Foundry has really stepped up their online offerings lately – it’s Aperçu that you’re seeing most around the site, similar in form to my perennial favorite Neuzeit Grotesk but warmer, more geometric, and with a touch of quirk.

Setting type for the web isn’t without it’s issues still, with even one-point size adjustments resulting in sometimes wildly different renderings, but with careful trial-and-error testing and selective application of the life-saving -webkit-font-smoothing CSS property, we managed to get as close as possible to our ideal. It’s the latter in particular that allows us elegant heading treatments (though only visible in effect to Safari and Chrome): set to antialiased, letterforms are less beholden to the pixel grid and more immune to the thickening that sometimes occurs on high-contrast backgrounds.

It’s not something I’d normally note, but we’re breaking away from the norm a bit with our article treatments, using the more traditional indentation format instead of the web’s usual paragraph spacing, finding it to flow better. It’s done using a somewhat complex series of CSS pseudo-elements in combination with adjacent selectors – browser support is finally good enough to accomplish such a thing, thankfully, though it does take a moment to get used to on the screen, strangely enough. And we’re soon going to be launching another section of the site with text rotation, another technique only recently made possible in pure CSS. Coming from a print background, it’s a bit exciting to have these tools available again.

Most of the layout is accomplished with the help of the 960 Grid System. Earlier attempts at something more semantically meaningful proved more hassle than they were worth, considering our plethora of more complex layouts. We’ve really attempted something tighter and more integrated than normally seen on the web, and I think it’s paid off well. That said, doing so really highlighted the difficulties of designing for dynamic systems of content – one such case that reared it’s head early on was titles in tiles (one of the few “units” of content used throughout the site).

A tricky issue at first considering our avoidance of ugly web aesthetics like fades (and artificial depth/dimensionality, and gradients, and drop shadows…), but one eventually solved with the implementation of our date treatments, whose connecting lines also function nicely as a cropping line – a tight, interlocking, cohesive system using one design element to solve the issues of another. We’ve tried to use similar solutions across the site, crafting a system of constraints and affordances, as in the case of our generated article excerpts:

Since we’re losing an element of control with freeform text fields on the web and no specific design oversight as to their individual display, we’ve chosen to implement logic that calculates an article title’s line-length, and then generates only enough lines of the excerpt to match the height of any neighboring articles. It’s a small detail for sure, but we’re hoping these details add up to a fine experience overall.

Anyway, there’s still more to come – you’ll see a few painfully neglected areas here and there (our collections in particular, but also the Sculpture Garden and to a lesser extent these blogs), but they’re next on our list and we’ll document their evolution here.

Process/miscellany

Event Documentation and Webcasting for Museums

At the Walker, we webcast many of our events live. It is a history wrought with hiccups and road bumps, but doing so has given our audiences the opportunity to watch lectures, artist talks, and events live from their home or even abroad. More importantly, webcasting has focused our technique for documenting events. In the […]

At the Walker, we webcast many of our events live. It is a history wrought with hiccups and road bumps, but doing so has given our audiences the opportunity to watch lectures, artist talks, and events live from their home or even abroad. More importantly, webcasting has focused our technique for documenting events. In the broadcast world, “straight to tape” is a term used for programs such as late night talk shows that are directed live and sent straight to video tape, free of post-production. For the most part, we also try to minimize our post-production process, allowing us to push out content relatively quickly before moving onto the next show.

At the heart of our process is a Panasonic AV-HS400 video mixer, which accepts both an HD-SDI camera feed and a VGA feed from the presenter’s laptop.  The video mixer allows us to cut live between the speaker and his or her presentation materials, either with fades or straight cuts. In addition, the mixer’s picture-in-picture capability allows us to insert presentation materials into the frame, next to the speaker.  Doing so gives viewers both the expressiveness of the presenter and the visual references live audiences are seeing. One thing to note: if a speaker begins moving around the stage, it becomes difficult to frame a picture-in-picture, so the technique works better when people stand still.

        

The camera we use is a Sony PMW-350K, which is part of the XDCAM family. We shoot from the back of the room in all of our public spaces, putting a lot of distance between the camera and the subject. As a result, we need all the zoom our camera lens can give. Presently our lens is a Fujinon 8mm–128mm (16x), but realistically we could use something longer for better close-ups of the speaker. This is an important factor when considering cameras: where will your camera be positioned in relation to the subject, and how much reach is needed to get a good shot. Having a camera close to the speaker isn’t always practical with a live audience present, so many of shooters push the limits of their camera lens. Being so far out also puts a lot of strain on a tripod head. It is very easy to jiggle the frame when making slight camera moves fully zoomed out, so a good tripod head should go hand in hand with a long video lens.

For audio, our presenter’s microphone first hits the house soundboard and then travels to our camera where levels are monitored and adjusted. At that point, both the audio and the camera’s images travel through a single HD-SDI BNC cable to our video mixer where audio and video signals split up once again. This happens because the mixer draws audio from whatever source is selected. As such, if a non-camera source is selected, such as the PowerPoint, no audio is present. To resolve this, an HD-SDI direct out from the camera source on the mixer is used to feed a device that re-embeds the audio with the final mixed video signal. The embedding device we use is an AJA FS-1 frame synchronizer.

         

With the frame synchronizer now kicking out a finished program, complete with embedded audio, our AJA KiPro records the content to an Apple ProRes file. We use a solid-state hard drive module as media, which pops out after an event is over and plugs directly into a computer for file transferring. An important thing to remember for anyone considering a mixer is that an external recording device is necessary to capture the final product.

To webcast, our FS-1 frame synchronizer simultaneously sends out a second finished signal to our Apple laptop. The laptop is outfitted with a video capture card, in our case a Matrox MXO2 LE breakout box, that attaches via the ExpressCard slot. Once the computer recognizes the video signal, it is ready for webcasting. The particular service we use is called Ustream. A link to our Ustream account is embedded in the Walker’s video page, titled The Channel, and viewers can watch the event live through their browser. Live viewership can run the gamut from just a few people to more than 75 viewers. Design-related programs–like the popular lecture by designer Aaron Draplin in March–tend to attract the biggest audiences. Once an event has concluded, Ustream stores a recording of the event within the account. We have the option to link to this recorded Ustream file through our website, but we don’t. Instead we try to quickly process our own recording to improve the quality before uploading it to YouTube.

       

The most frustrating part of our webcasting experiment has been bandwidth. The Walker has very little of it and thus we share a DSL line with the FTP server for webcasting. The upload speed on this DSL line tops out at 750 kbps. In real life, we get more like 500 kbps, leaving us to broadcast around 400 kbps. These are essentially dial-up numbers, which means the image quality is poor and our stream is periodically lost, even when the bit rate is kept down. Viewers at home are therefore prone to multiple disruptions while watching an event. We do hope to increase bandwidth in the coming months to make our service more reliable.

Earlier I mentioned that the Walker does as little post-production as possible for event documentation, but we still do some. Once the final ProRes file is transferred to an editing station, it is opened up in Final Cut 7. The audio track is then exported as a stand-alone stereo file and opened with Soundtrack Pro where it is normalized to 0db and given a layer of compression. With live events, speakers often turn their head or move away from the microphone periodically. This can make audio levels uneven.  Compression helps bring the softer moments in line with the louder ones, thus limiting dynamic range and delivering a more consistent product.

After the audio track is finished, it is dropped back into the timeline and the program’s front and back end are trimmed. We try to cut out all topical announcements and unnecessary introductions. Viewers don’t need to hear about this weekend’s events two years from now, so we don’t waste their time with it. In addition to tightening up the top of the show, an opening title slide is added including the program’s name and date. The timeline is then exported as a reference file and converted to an MP4 through the shareware program MPEG streamclip.

MPEG streamclip is a favorite of mine because it lists the final file size and lets users easily adjust the bit rate. With a 2GB file size limit on YouTube uploads, we try to maximize bitrate (typically 1800–3000 kbps) for our 1280 x 720p files. Using a constant bit rate for encoding instead of a variable bit rate also saves us a lot of time. With the runtime of our events averaging 90 minutes, the sacrifice in image quality for a constant bit rate seems justified considering how long an HD variable bit rate encode can take.

Once we have the final MP4 file it is uploaded to YouTube and embedded in the Walker’s video page.

 

Museums & the Web 2012 Conference Notes

It’s been a couple of years since I attended the annual Museums & the Web conference. A must-stop for professionals working in the field of museums + all things online, this conference celebrated its 16th anniversary under new management with the same great content we’ve come to expect. A few of my conference takeaways: Cultural […]

It’s been a couple of years since I attended the annual Museums & the Web conference. A must-stop for professionals working in the field of museums + all things online, this conference celebrated its 16th anniversary under new management with the same great content we’ve come to expect.

A few of my conference takeaways:

Cultural data sculpting
Sarah Kenderine kicked off the conference, wowing us with her work in immersive environments using panoramic and stereoscopic display systems. I was entranced by recent installations using 3D imagery, high resolution augmented panoramas, and circular screens to recreate cultural heritage sites, performances and narratives (imagine dancers animating images in a cave painting and physical interactions with enormous datasets). From Hampi, India, and the Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China, to adaptions of Beckett narratives, the work of Kenderine’s lab at the City University of Hong Kong demonstrates the amazing possibilities for enhanced exploration, interactive interpretation, and new modalities of human interaction for cultural heritage preservation. Project documentation available here.

Be where the puck is going
In a session on Digital Strategies, Bruce Wyman evoked Wayne Gretsky’s advice to “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Bruce spoke to the permeability of place as the future of interactive media and suggested restrictive digital strategies may run counter to our needs. In a period of fundamental change, we need to evolve the things that we are good at, be nimble, and design not for the device but for the visitor and their engagement. Wyman encouraged us to trust our audiences and serialize the experience by developing content that transcends and crosses platforms.

Like Wyman, Rob Stein is an eloquent technology advocate. In the same session, he advised to make sure your digital strategy reflects the larger museum strategy. And all you technologists who think you have difficulty getting upper management’s ear, work on your communication skills. Learn to write! Despite his claim that writing doesn’t come easy, Stein’s paper is excellent: Blow Up Your Digital Strategy: Changing the Conversation about Museums and Technology.

After Gutenberg
There was much talk in conference sessions and informal meetups about changing publishing models. In the session After Gutenberg, the Whitney’s Sarah Hromack described the evolution of Whitney Stories, a blog wherein the museum is wrestling with questions of authority—what stories do we want to tell, which staff are qualified to speak on behalf of the museum, editorial approval—and issues of sustainability. I haven’t had a chance to read the paper but the presentation was a refreshingly honest assessment of the inherent problems in this work and the reality of making it a part of our daily practice (not in addition to what we do but rethinking how we do our work).

A museum without labels
The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is Australia’s largest private museum, a “secular temple” of 6,000 square meters to worship materialism with nary a label on the walls. Visitors use the ‘O’ mobile device to read about art on display and listen to interviews with the artists. The museum’s unique take on audience engagement—including claims to remove the most popular work as evidenced in ‘O’ stats and restricting online collection access to visitors who have actually experienced the artwork—suggest this is indeed a museum visitors are unlikely to forget. I enjoyed this article on MONA’s founder, David Walsh, describing his vision for this “subversive Disneyland.”

Spreading an analytics culture
There were a number of good sessions addressing the importance of continuous evaluation and building a culture of analytics. The panel on the Culture24 research project focused on the key findings in their recently published report. Among them, be clear what you are trying to do online and who it is for. Revise the whole suite of metrics you care about and the tools used to measure them. Google Analytics is only part of a multi-tool solution that begins with a good problem definition.

One of the participants in the Culture24 project, the Tate went into more detail on its efforts in a subsequent session and paper Making Sense of Numbers: A Journey of Spreading the Analytics Culture at Tate. Using the Tate Liverpool Alice in Wonderland exhibition as a test case, they described the analytics tools used (including Hootsuite, Adwords, Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, ticketing system, and YouTube analytics), matrices, and reports built in response to the exhibitions communication plan and areas of activity, both on and offline. While the exhibition reporting was awe-inspiring in its quality and thoroughness, Tijana Tasich, Tate’s senior digital producer, admitted that more work, training, and resources are required to implement similar evaluations across the organization and its programs.

Epic fail
There’s much to learn from failed projects in our field and #MW2012 used this as a topic for its closing session. Hats off to the project cases studies that took the stage to reveal what didn’t work and why. Each project report included a round of bingo, with categories for failure occupying spaces on the card. Among them: poor organizational fit, must-be-invented-here syndrome, feature creep, tech in search of a problem, no user research, pleasing donors and funders, no local context, no backup plan, and not knowing when to say goodbye. Wifi was off during the session, forcing all of us to listen, learn, and not tweet specifics. Everyone should feel good after their time in the chair with therapist Wyman and his Labrador. We appreciate your honesty and hope we’re brave enough to take the stage at future conferences.

Best of Web Awards
The Walker was lucky enough to walk away with two awards for the redesign of our website (best in the category of Innovation/Experimental and best Overall). We are honored to receive the recognition of our peers and humbled to be in the company of so many excellent projects. The full slate of winners is available here.

Honeybees and Confetti Drops: Having Fun with Web Design

We’re a serious bunch at the Walker Art Center, except when we aren’t. Cat breaks have made their way into Art News from Elsewhere, and we’ve tucked in a few Easter eggs for fans of these hidden amusements. Our new site includes a confetti drop that appears when you click on Parties & Special Events […]

We’re a serious bunch at the Walker Art Center, except when we aren’t. Cat breaks have made their way into Art News from Elsewhere, and we’ve tucked in a few Easter eggs for fans of these hidden amusements. Our new site includes a confetti drop that appears when you click on Parties & Special Events in the calendar. And for those who find their way to a place that they shouldn’t, there’s a custom 404 page. God forbid there’s a server crash, we’ll send you to a page featuring Charles Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture.

Last week Eric added accumulating bees to the Lifelike exhibition page. The longer you stay on the page, the larger the swarm.


For those of you hoping to attract a few bees of your own, here’s Eric’s script.

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