Magical Interpretation

The Harry Potter movies have always intrigued me with their imagining of one particular feature of the magical world – those newspapers with the moving pictures. The first time I saw them I thought they were the coolest thing, and immediately wondered when I could have one. Ten years later (has it really been that long?) it occurs to me that for exhibits, we actually do have them now.

Well, not newspapers exactly, but we now have interpretation and interactives that incorporate short bits of video and animations seamlessly within regular exhibit panels. By using small self-contained LCD media players that were originally developed for point of purchase displays, we can incorporate video into our interpretation without all the technical complexity that attended just a few years ago. These units are completely self-contained and can run simple content from SD or CF cards completely autonomously. I’m talking about (and advocating) really short clips that illustrate some principle or aspect of a concept or artifact that cannot be conveyed effectively through words or pictures. In one of my recent projects, a very short clip illustrated how a “strike-a-light” can be used to start a fire. It’s one thing to explain it in prose, but showing it with a 10 second clip conveys so much more. In this case, the museum had the resources to produce the video clip themselves, but in many situations, the right footage could well exist in the public domain. Lack of resources does not necessarily have to be a barrier to implementing rich media.

This kind of thinking does not have to stop at a video screen. There were a few stories recently about a change that Apple has made in their retail stores – installing ipads as interactive kiosks beside displayed merchandise instead of using printed paper sales sheets. It’s a natural for Apple, they make the hardware they’re using – and now they have five interactive tabs that allow them to provide a full list of features, comparison tables/price this configuration, as well as three types of support options. Will it help them sell product? Almost certainly – their customers will be more engaged by this approach than by the previous paper sales sheets. It got me thinking about the possibilities of using ipads built into museum interpretation to increase visitor engagement. There is always a push and pull between providing enough information, but not too much. There are always some visitors who would like more, and there are almost always curators that would like to say a whole lot more than there’s space for. Imagine the possibilities for providing greater context or more data or explanation for those who seek it. Integrating a powerful touchscreen device like this, at a fraction of the former cost is very close to Harry Potter magical. The possibilities for rich and deep interpretation for those who want it (including video) are almost limitless. Content for this type of “extended label” could be developed in templated HTML, which could then be deployed at the same time on museum websites, for greater reach.

I’m curious to know if anybody has experience with deploying these technologies in their exhibits. Have you done it? Have you seen it? How did it work out? Please share your experiences and opinions in the comments below.

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  • […] using Apple’s iPads in public spaces for exhibits, interpretation and wayfinding. I’ve written about this in the past, but I thought I’d share a really interesting enclosure designed specially for […]

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