Smartphones, Goggles and Museum Interpretation

Smartphones are everywhere these days, and I’ll be the first to admit that I love my iphone only a little less than I love my wife and kids. The capabilities of these devices are astounding, and it seems like applications that combine their processing power, accelerometers, cameras, proximity sensors and GPS in new and exciting ways crop up almost daily.

The applications that I’ve been seeing lately that intrigue me most are those that use some form of photo recognition, perhaps combined with GPS. An example of this in a fairly raw form is Google Goggles, a free app for Android and iphone that can identify things from landmarks to product labels, and provide additional information about them, even translating text at the same time. The power of this technology is incredible to ponder, especially when you start thinking about it in the context of environmental graphics. The number one constraint in graphics for signage, interpretation and exhibits is always the amount of space available for messaging. There is inevitably a push and pull between designers wanting to limit messages and content specialists desiring to say more. Think of the possibilities offered by a technology that can provide greater depth to those that want it, and hide it from those that don’t. Think about the ability to do instant translations, solving the language inclusivity problem for sites with a high volume of international visitors. Think about the ability to guide visitors through complex historical sites without having to deploy a signage program that may degrade the quality of the experience.

Until fairly recently, the leading edge solutions available were mainly based on some form of coded information that would direct the smartphone browser to a web site when scanned with the phone’s camera. These solutions rely on a printed QR (quick response) code, which is an otherwise inexplicable piece of visual noise to non-smartphone users. The intended user needs to have installed a proprietary app onto their phone, and of course needs to have a smartphone to begin with. The pace at which these systems evolve suggests that building this kind of code into elements with longish lives may be a bit risky. (On the other hand, Google Goggles probably recognizes these legacy codes too)

With the emergence of applications that deliver information based on what the camera sees in the immediate environment, it seems to me that we’re getting closer and closer to durable solutions that will endure for longer, certainly improving over time, but operating on a consistent principle. I see several hurdles to clear in this – here they are, in no particular order:

– for applications that require GPS (wayfinding in particular), the utility in an indoor environment may be limited. The GPS signal, originating from satellites, generally requires line of sight to the sky. Not a problem for outdoor sites, but a big issue for indoor museums. Maybe there are ways around this, but I’m not aware of a fix for this GPS issue.

– the requirement for the visitor to have specific software on their phone is a bit of a barrier as well. If they need to have it, then sites and institutions requiring it will need to make it easy to add it on the spot. I think that means providing WiFi hotspots and extremely simple directions for downloading. Even at that, not everybody will be comfortable with this.

– how many of your visitors will be carrying a smartphone? It will probably be a long, long time before it’s 100%. In the interim, alternatives would need to be supplied. Those alternatives would quite likely end up being the self-guiding brochures that the technology displaced, maybe not such a bad thing.

– if your smartphone app requires data to be downloaded (and realistically, I can’t imagine this not being the case) then the issue of international roaming charges has to be considered. We’ve all heard the stories of people travelling with their iphones out of country and racking up thousands of dollars of data charges with little or no use. Your visitors have heard those stories too, and may be very reluctant to use their smartphones at all. Provision of WiFi hotspots may help alleviate this issue, but maybe only for the more technically savvy users. For many reasons I hope this issue will disappear soon, but perhaps I am naive.

I sense tremendous opportunity in this technology in the future, and have every confidence that really smart people are going to solve these issues, and ones I haven’t even thought of. It will be interesting to see if separate applications will crop up for each site deploying this technology, or whether a single app will accommodate many sites (iFodor anyone?). I’m very curious to hear your thoughts or experiences with this technology, let’s get a dialog going!