Mobile Interpretation

As a follow-up to my recent post on Smartphones and their huge potential for sites and museums, I’ve collected three examples that use mobile technology in clever and engaging ways to make visitor experiences richer. I’m excited by the potential of these apps, and inspired by how they might be extended and re-imagined in the future.

Leafsnap is a cool app developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution with a core functionality that could have some really useful applications in public programming. The app makes it easy for anybody to identify a tree species by simply taking a photo of the leaf using their smartphone camera. The app compares the photo to a database of leaf photos and attempts to make a match. The database also provides images of other characteristics of the tree, including flowers, fruit, seeds and bark that can help confirm the identification and provide deeper information. Users of the app can upload their photos and geo-tag them, which will eventually build a useful database of information about geographical distribution for the developing institutions. The app can also be browsed as a more traditional “field guide”. Shape recognition software has wide applications in interpretation for sites and museums if we have the insight to think deeply about it. It can help provide rich interpretation in immersive or natural environments where traditional panel-based approaches can degrade the very environment they seek to explain. Potentially, shape recognition could recognize anything, from public art to artifacts in a museum – applications are limited only by imagination! Thanks to Paul Orselli for his tweet on Leafsnap.

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo iphone app is an implementation of inSitu Solutions, an application developed by Quebec-based firm Kanvasys. The app itself helps visitors to the 183 acre zoo site orient themselves and find their way around, also providing interpretive information about the exhibits. Perhaps even more interesting than this particular app is the underlying inSitu framework that allows for easy updating of the content through a CMS (content management system) that is built in. Inclusion of a CMS is really important for this type of app as it ensures that it can be kept up to date and fresh over time. Without a CMS, updates would require going back to the developer, a potentially costly step that would likely be delayed longer than optimal due to the cost. With the CMS baked in, the potential for varying the content adds value to the app, for both the users and the institution. The app can remain relevant over time, reflecting seasonal changes and new additions, eliminating the crickets and tumbleweeds.

Created by Agency Magma, this unique interactive event for Arbor Day in Central park, NYC really illustrates the power and potential of QR codes in public programming. World Park turned Central Park into part Easter Egg hunt, part interactive board game through a series of temporary signage installations with cleverly integrated QR codes that take the user’s smartphone to a question relating to the specific location (along with a rich media answer). The installation could be played as a game, competing against companions using a built-in scorecard. As a designer, I find this installation inspiring not only in its scope, but also in its details. I’ve never seen QR codes so well integrated into a graphic design. Interpretive planners would have to be very unimaginative indeed not to see the huge potential in this project. It really does point the way to a very interactive future for interpretation for events, sites and museums. Thanks to Kathleen at Expose Your Museum for turning me on to this.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts or experiences with this technology…