Why Museums Should Dive Into VR: An interview with Susan Poulton of the Franklin Institute

Below is my latest post for DMLcentral, an interview with Susan Poulton of the Franklin Institute about their recent exploration of a museum-wide VR strategy. Please read it on DMLcentral or in full below.

The mobile 360 VR cart

The mobile 360 VR cart

Why Museums Should Dive Into VR

The photo I took as a boy visiting the Giant Heart in Philadelphia's Franklin Institute

The photo I took as a boy visiting the Giant Heart in Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute

As a young child, I took this photo (above), of the Franklin Museum’s Giant Heart, my way of expressing my love for this immersive, interactive experience. A few decades later, last month, I returned with my colleagues, on a field trip from NYC to Philadelphia, to visit this venerable institution and learn how they’d been implementing their newest museum-wide strategy for immersive, interactive experiences, but this time using virtual reality. Led by Susan Poulton, their Chief Digital Officer, I learned that the future might be arriving sooner than expected and museums need to develop more agile practices with rapid prototyping in order to catch up.

Susan, why don’t we start by learning more about you. How’d you get to the Franklin?

When I started here two years ago, I was new to the museum world. I come from digital publishing — 10 years at AOL and eight years at National Geographic — creating online storytelling experiences for broad audiences. I got really excited about science and communication at National Geographic, which has always been my true passion as a science nerd. So, I was really excited about the opportunity to come and develop a digital strategy for a science brand well known locally, but doesn’t have much of a national and global presence.

How old is the Franklin Institute?

The Franklin Institute was founded in 1824. We’re almost 200 years old. It was founded as a science and technology learning institute, like almost a technical college. And, the museum opened in 1932, here in Philadelphia, and we’ve been in this location ever since.

How do you begin to think about bringing digital learning into an institution that was founded before electricity was even invented?

The fun thing about the Franklin Institute is that its mission has always been to inspire learning for science and technology. As a result they’ve always been at the forefront of all of these new experiences as they were launched to the public. So, when electricity was kind of a new thing, the Franklin Institute did an entire exhibition on electricity to showcase it to the public in all of its wonder. It was almost a carnival, World’s Fair-style exhibition where the public could experience what electricity could do. And, we sort of continued that tradition with the observatory, with the planetarium. The Franklin Institute was the first place that a movie camera was demonstrated. It was also the first time live television was ever broadcast; the first sporting event ever broadcast on live TV was played on our front lawn. I’m not exactly sure who played whom, I think it was probably a Penn game. We’ve always been at the forefront, so this is really about taking that spirit and applying it to new and emerging digital technologies.

So, what is the new emerging technology today that you are introducing to the public?

The Holodeck

The Holodeck

Last October, we created a broad-based, virtual reality strategy that was built on top of a mobile app. The goal of both was to push what museums were doing in both of those spaces, to start to think about mobile technologies, virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality, including things that the public has not adopted broadly, and ask: How can museums be part of that?

Let’s expose the public to these technologies, get the public interacting with them, and get feedback about those experiences. And, let’s learn about how they can enhance the museum experience at the same time. I think museums tend to adopt things very slowly. In the technology world, it’s all about experimentation: try, fail, see what happens. Museums tend to take a much more academic approach to how they do things.

Usually, when you take an academic approach, that is a multi-year time scale. You test it, you study it, you evaluate it, you publish it, and then you release the published results, and then you build, and you iterate on published results, which is how the scientific process is done.

When you are talking about media and communicating to the public, the public is now moving at a different pace. The entire industry is now moving at a different pace, and it’s my personal belief that museums can no longer follow this rigid academic approach to testing technologies. We have to get more comfortable with just raw experimentation and prototyping much, much more rapidly than we have in the past.

What have you been prototyping recently?

Inside the mobile cart

Inside the mobile cart

We’ve launched a mobile app with an embedded virtual reality library, and paired that with an onsite virtual reality experience. The goal was to create the New York Times’ Virtual Reality experience for an all science-themed and educational experience.

There are virtual reality enthusiasts, or people with Google cardboards, or teachers who had download a set of nature-themed, or science-themed experiences, and have a library of that at the ready. But, I think, for everyone else, virtual reality is a bit of the Wild West right now, as far as content is concerned. It’s interesting — when a new technology comes out, we cycle back to some of the old ways, like with constant curation. That ship has sailed on so many other platforms, but it’s absolutely necessary in virtual reality, because right now we are just making content and organizing it, distributing it, going back to some of the basics. Content curation is really needed in the VR world. It’s not needed in the news world, or whatever people are using Facebook and search for. But, right now, in the VR world, people are really confused. They want people to just tell them what the good content is. “Here it is. We vetted this.” I think that was our goal in the virtual reality library in our mobile app.

And, then, we carried that out with an on-site experience, which is really about exposing the public to all the different virtual reality technologies that are currently available in the market. We have an Oculus Rift and a HTC Vive. We have device-based experiences that are thematic. You can just watch 360-degree videos. You can watch immersives, interactives on the Samsung Gear VR.

It sounds like you are describing an experience for visitors before their visit, throughout the museum during their visit, and to take home after their visit.

When I say it was a broad approach, it was an extremely broad approach. We tried a little bit of absolutely everything. What would it look like if you were to insert a themed virtual reality experience inside a 17-year-old exhibit? What would it look like if you created a permanent physical space to experience virtual reality? What would it look like if you made a mobile app? What would it look like if you handed out Google Cardboards?

All of these different experiences explore all the different ways visitors can encounter VR, and allow us to see how it goes.

I think probably most museum educators will be horrified by how I’ve implemented this, because we don’t have protocols. I set up parameters, we just did it, and we’re sort of anecdotally responding to the feedback.

What kind of feedback have you been receiving?

The Holodeck

The Holodeck

Visitors love it. They really enjoy engaging in it. The biggest thing that I think we’ve discovered is that most people just have never experienced VR in any format like Google Cardboard. So I think a lot people like myself who are involved in digital assume that the public is far more exposed to it than they actually are. And, when you think about the behavior sets of people who are going to try virtual reality, a lot of the resistance we got was, “You can just go demo this at the mall.” Well, people have to self-select for that, they kind of have to opt in to “I’m going to go to the mall. I’m going to go to the Microsoft store. I know what a HTC Vive is, so I’m going to stand in line to try one.” This is a certain type of person. It’s the early adopters. It’s the people who are probably aware of VR.

What I’m trying to do is put VR in front of people who came to a science museum, and just looked over and go “What the heck is that?” And, then gave it a try. So, it’s introducing virtual reality to new audiences that are not the sort of hyper-aware early-adopters. What you find is people are really excited by it; even the very, very simple experiences really light them up. And, some of the experiences I thought would disappoint the public, they love. I think 360-degree video has been around for ages, in my opinion. I see it on Facebook all the time. I’ve tried Google Cardboard compared to what you can do in a HTC Vive. Then, you see somebody try a device — you know a mobile app-based 360-degree video — and they freak out. They think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen.

And, so it goes to my lifelong philosophy that a focus group of one, myself, is a really terrible focus group.

As an educator myself, of course, I agree that other educators might not be happy to hear that there’s no education objectives connected to these experiences. But, why not? When do we get to see those incorporated as well? You will not only learn about visitor engagement, but also the kind of learning being achieved along the way.

I don’t think our experience is really designed for that. I have heard about virtual reality experiences that are being specifically created to see how VR affects the learning process. I’m not sure that will ever be one of our objectives. I’m more interested in how the public reacts to the technology. I’m more interested in exposing the public to the technology. I think we will probably learn from others about how it affects the learning environment. Virtual reality is a serious challenge in those experiences. Throughput is big — you know, if you’re going to put someone through a meaningful learning experience in virtual reality, it’s extremely hard to do that in two minutes or less.

Is it fair to say that you are currently content agnostic, as long as it’s about science, and you have no specific learning objectives connected to that learning of science? I do see you have learning objectives around teaching people what VR is, and offering them a context for understanding the VR they’ll experience after they leave the museum.

Right. And it might not be teaching people about virtual reality so that they walk away with specific knowledge points that they’ve gained about VR. It’s exposure, to the medium, exposure to what’s it like to have a 360-degree visual moment which you can explore, and how it can light people up with wonder. Again, I think there are experiences that we do, and museums should do, that measure outcomes, and then there are experiences that are just for the sake of experiencing. I think it’s a balance of both.

And, I think one of the challenges that we have in museums is, because it’s unmeasured and untested, we don’t do it. I think that’s a shame, a loss. I think museums have to get over some of these self-proclaimed barriers that they’ve put in place to using technologies. I hear this a lot. “We don’t know what its learning objectives and the impact are, so we haven’t adopted it yet.” I was like, “Well, quite frankly, by the time you figure that out, it won’t exist anymore.” It’s the truth. This is the pace at which technology development is happening now. If Moore’s law holds true, I mean, we’ll be down to every two days; we’ll be inventing something completely new, and everything will be out the window. We have to adapt our educational methodologies, for lack of a better term, to a process that involves rapid prototyping.

Also, the public expectation is changing. The public is going to expect that museums have these experiences. Their tolerance for museums being digitally behind will eventually wane, and that will spell trouble, I think, for museum visitorship.

Do you have any other advice for museums that are thinking about bringing VR or 360 video to their visitors?

Just do it. Don’t ever think it. Just do it.

Internal promotions for the Museum's VR strategy.

Internal promotions for the Museum’s VR strategy.

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Looking Back at Digital Learning at the Tate Gallery: an interview with Kat Box

Below is my most recent column for DMLcentral, which you can read in full here or below.

kids with signs

Disclaimer: The Tate Modern is one of my favorite museums. My previous apartment held a place of honor, above the couch, for a poster I picked up there. And, in 2014, I interviewed the developers of their awesome app, the Magic Tate Ball (re: Using “String and Sellotape” To Build the Magic Tate Ball). So, imagine my excitement when I was recently introduced to Kathryn Box at the Tate Gallery in London.

Kathryn manages and produces content for the Tate Kids website and the Tate Kids social channels, which focuses on games and films and articles that speak to kids’ interests in art and the wider world. After three years invested at the Tate, she seemed like the perfect person to speak with to learn about their latest innovations in digital learning and across the British art scene in general.

Kat, thanks for speaking with me today. How much of your work is focused on the physical spaces?

Kat BoxEighty percent of my job is online. The other 20 percent is mainly in the London-based galleries. There is a digital studio, Taylor Digital Studio at Tate Britain where I run a program with colleagues called Digital Makers. And, then, up in Tate Liverpool, I help with the families program as well, sometimes mainly recording and maybe capturing those events through digital content. And, then, down in St. Ives, they do like a competition to get kids’ art in the gallery spaces and I do a digital element for that, too.

What does digital learning mean for the Tate?

I think it’s just another form of engagement, and another form of connecting people to the collection. Everyone has a phone in their pocket now so it feels really natural for us to be using that as a tool to connect people to what we have in the building.

We’re really trying to work out as well not just using digital tools to connect people to the collection but also working with artists and showcasing artists that use digital in their practice and showing audiences and visitors that that’s a way of making art as well. There are just loads of different types of digital making now, like a digital painting on your iPad that we’re trying to show as an authentic way of making art. It’s really important for us because the future of our making will be digital. We’re trying to showcase that to the audiences and making sure that we’re making participatory projects so people really feel like they’re adding to something and not just, like, watching something on the wall.

When you think back at some of the successes you had with new digital learning initiatives in the past three years, what jumps to the top?

About three years ago, code clubs started really taking off in the U.K., and kids were really engaged in making video games, and I was excited to connect both that digital making with the collections at the Tate. So, everything we’ve done is part of an experiment to innovative ways of thinking about digital in kids. But, for me, the most exciting stuff has been when we did an activity with Aardman, an animation studios in the UK that made the Shaun the Sheep movie and the Wallace & Gromit cartoons. They came in and we did an animation workshop with them; that was really great. Super popular. It was really fun, and disrupted the gallery.

Another one that was really exciting is that we did a series of events with special educational needs children, who had learning difficulties. And, we worked with a group of sound artists called Pyka, that go into schools and teachers sound art. We made, like, a sound landscape with these young people. That was really exciting because it was part of a bigger project about diversity and thinking about how artists respond to that need.

What are some things you’ve done online or in mobile?

Back in May, we launched the new Tate Kids, based on really thinking about how kids are interacting online now. Tate Kids was launched in 2007 and was feeling a bit like a dinosaur. We did some research starting with what kids are interested in now and how they engage with digital now. Ultimately what came out of that is they’re going to have two personas: they’re looking for art homework help or they’re looking to just have fun online with art.

We were trying to also think innovatively, about how websites work now, and how people engage with content that is snackable, such as with short-form film content. They are a YouTube generation, wanting step-by-steps of how to do digital making. We also started producing more HTML5 games as well, thinking about art games and how we can inspire creativity online through the process of games.

One of our most recent games is Art Parts, basically a series of Tate artworks that have kind of had a piece taken out of them. And, the narrative of the game is that it’s the future and the machines have stopped working and that you have to use your human creativity to fill in that artworks. And, that came out of a conversation with children about the fact that they are quite intimidated sometimes by the work in Tate. Everything looked really professional and done and it took a lot of time to do. And, I was like, okay, well, we need to find an easier quick way for people to engage and kind of create and remake the Tate collection.

What’s coming up in the next year or two that gets you excited about digital learning?

I’m quite excited about getting more children’s voices on the site. I think, for me, that’s really exciting and important. We’ve a Tate Kids media team where we invite kids in to respond to the displays. And, I want to make more stuff with them, really, and to think about what other kind of digital experience they can co-produce.

I’m also looking forward to a kids game Jam. I’m looking forward to giving the steering to them and letting them be the ones in the driver-seat, doing some design thinking, and then pairing them up with some game designers. I think that will be super fun. So, if anything, I just want to have more kids involved with what I’m doing because I know they had all the answers.

When you look out at the landscape of digital learning in museums, what jumps out at you as major trends that you’re helping to lead or ones that you’re trying to learn from?

I am really inspired by the British Museum Samsung Digital Discovery Centre. They have made a VR Bronze Age site and to gets kids to experience history in that way is really exciting. They got school kids to come in and experience what it was like to be in the Bronze Age. Some of the objects had been scanned and you could see them actually working in this kind of virtual reality house. That was really good.

The FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) Gallery in Liverpool recently did an exhibition called Group Therapy: Mental Distress In A Digital Age, which explored the complex relationship between technology, society, and mental health.

And, then, in relation to trends, it’s kind of an exciting time but you’ve got to be careful with trends, not to get too excited by them. But, I think there is obviously something with VR and AR — we’re looking at how it could be really beneficial, as a beautiful and exciting and educational experience, which hopefully would create some empathy and understanding about art and artists.

And, then, what’s also quite interesting are the realms of chatbots and voice activated machines. We’re doing some research into that right now, and how we could potentially put content through voice in Amazon’s Alexa, how we can get audio content into the home differently.

I’m also thinking about STEAM, how we mix both engineering technology with art now and how we can make that as accessible as possible. There are some really cool festivals that happen in the UK like Blue Dot Festival and Abandon Normal Devices and Playable City. They’re all about bringing science and technology and digital into your everyday. And I feel art has a real part to play in that.

I’m in a constant state of jealousy around how cool the sector is. We really try to push people to connect to history and culture, and digital is definitely the transportation device for all that.

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New CNET Article on Use of Telepresence Robots in Cultural Halls

In their recent issue, CNET.com magazine covered the use of Suitable Technologies’ Beam robots within museums. One section detailed our work, now offered on a weekly basis over the summer, which I am delighted to share with you.



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June Update: Miniature Golf, Martian-style (or, adventures in mixed reality)

This post is part of an ongoing monthly series that  focuses on our current efforts in the Museum’s Science Bulletins team to create and test prototypes of Hall-based digital interactions using AR and VR using our scientists’ digital data, and to share some of the lessons we learn along the way.

If you’re like me, you knew the Curiosity rover is on Mars, sending back some amazing photos. But I had no idea that many of those photos were being used to create topographical maps at resolutions previous available only in a scientist’s dreams. In June we ported that data into a Microsoft Hololens to explore how our visitors might feel walking across the red planet… while playing golf.

a Curiosity selfie, on Mars

a Curiosity selfie, on Mars

Mars, however, was not where this project began. Originally, we were focused on the moon. We have a small section in our Hall of the Universe dedicated to our little Luna, with signage, a metal globe, and a floor scale that displays your weight on the moon.

Moon exhibit

Moon exhibit

That scale became our inspiration. Think about it a moment  – the design of the experience is so elegant. You stand on it, because you already know what to do with a scale, and all it says is “Your weight on the moon” while a red digital number appears on the display. And that’s it. It’s like an intellectual pile of lego blocks, that  challenge you to put it all together to make sense of your experience, which most people do standing up straight, head down reading the display. Hmm? The number I see on the display is NOT my weight. What’s going on? Comparing the two – what I know with what I see – I realize I weigh less on the moon. That might make me wonder why. Maybe I know that gravity is less on the moon, and maybe I realize that is because the moon has less mass than the earth. Or maybe I don’t. But in an instant the scale tossed me a challenge and I can then choose whether or not to accept it.

It can be quite wonderful watching visitors go through all of the above, again and again, in just a few seconds, and note how they often bring the people around them into the experience.

Your weight on the moon

Your weight on the moon

So that’s where we started: What if you took the elegance of the scale, and expanded it through digital tools, allowing the visitor to both see the moon all around them and then explore how gravity differs on the moon (perhaps through tossing a ball). Working with Nathan Leigh, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics, we explored a number of game options. A tossed ball? Basketball? Throwing a ball into a bucket? It turned out a nice arc to the ball helps to illustrate some of the gravitational differences, and that led us to golf… Mooniature Golf!

We had presumed we had access to good lunar surface data – and we do – but positioning at the human-scale was a level of resolution we just couldn’t acquire. Luckily, the lunar scale is only one of a number of scales sending our visitors around the universe. And that’s when we learned about our interplanetary photographer, Curiosity, and considered our Mars scale. That’s how Mooniature Golf turned into Martian Golf.

We wanted to hue close to the existing Hall experience – you look at the scale and you’re invited to make a comparison between what you already know and what it tells you. After a number of over-elaborate concepts, we came up with the idea for a single golf hole, on the Martian surface, next to Curiosity itself.

For the user interface, we went with the Hololens clicker. We wanted something physical, that could be swung like a golf club, with a simple user interface. So one click and hold to start the swing, and then let go to end the swing, sending the ball flying. To bring home the educational objective, the ball now flew in two arcs Continue reading

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Gutsy Video Review by Zee Garcia

Thanks to Eric Teo for notifying me of this wonderful new video review by Zee Garcia of our card game, Gutsy, from the Dice Tower. Check it out below.

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Gamifying the Museum with NYU Game Center Graduate Students

This Spring, the American Museum of Natural History and the NYU Game Center partnered to create a classroom-in-residence at the Museum for a course entitled “Designing for Museums.”

Students DinoPosterpartnered with different departments at the museum to create prototypes, both digital and physical, of new playful experiences and games that educate as well as entertain. With the museum acting as a client providing feedback and guidance, these students created a wide range of different prototype designed to further the museum’s learning goals.

They developed six prototypes. I invited the students to describe their project and share some visual assets.

AstronoME: This card games helps players understand the different techniques that astronomers actually use to learn more about objects in our universe!

DinosAR: Help a modern day bird learn about his ancestors in this AR scavenger hunt!

IMG_0155 IMG_7983 IMG_7985

Food or Foe: By allowing you to see the world through the eyes of several different sea creatures, Food or Foe helps players understand why it’s so easy for animals to confuse food, such as jellyfish, with trash that is harmful for them to eat, like plastic bags.

Food or Foe

Food or Foe

Snacky: Insert yourself into your exhibits and make your friends jealous with the AR selfie app!

snackyposterLook Up: Using cranks and gears, Look Up shows you what the night sky looks like in New York City during different times of year.

Skeleton Closet: Skeleton Closet is an interactive exhibit in Augmented Reality using the Google Tango. In the exhibit, users learn about the skeleton of the whale by piecing one together. Users will be able to manipulate and interact with the digital objects that seem to be existing in the physical world in this educational and engaging experience.
IMG_0015 IMG_0031

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Our work in the Verge: “20,000-year Old Artifacts, 21st Century Technology”

A new piece came out a few days ago in the Verge, “20,000-year-old artifacts, 21st century technology: Museums are turning to virtual reality, apps, and interactive experiences to keep tech-savvy visitors engaged“. It’s a lovely overview of how a number of NYC-based museums are taking on this topic.

The work of my museum shows up in a number of places. Below I’ll highlight the work from my area, Science Bulletins:

In nearly two decades working at the American Museum of Natural History, Vivian Trakinski, director of the museum’s Science Bulletins, has witnessed the evolution of visitor experiences firsthand. Originally hired to produce short science documentaries, Trakinski now spends most of her time working on data visualizations in a variety of digital formats.

“When I came here [in 1999], we were focused on video,” she says. She still produces videos, but says that “now, we are focusing on more immersive and interactive platforms […] People want to be able to curate their own content. People want to be engaged in the creation of it.”

 Image: American Museum of Natural History

Trakinski’s team is currently working on a number of augmented reality prototypes that will allow visitors to more actively engage with the museum’s specimens and datasets, including an immersive AR experience of what it would be like to play golf on Mars, using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Context Camera. Her team also took a CT scan of a Mako shark and created an AR experience in which visitors can look through a Google Tango tablet or a stereoscopic AR headset, see the scanned skeleton overlaid on top of the museum’s actual shark model, and make the shark swim or bite.

“It’s not a passive experience where we’re telling you something,” says Trakinski. “[Visitors] are actually creating the learning through the interaction with this real artifact of science.”

And then later on:

For Trakinski and her work on data visualization, the future revolves around “communal creativity,” like open-source projects that elicit involvement from partner institutions and outside developers. She cites the Museum of Natural History’s current involvement in the NASA-funded project OpenSpace — an open-source data visualization software to communicate space exploration to the general public — as an example of a growing movement.

“I think sharing resources, sharing knowledge, open-source software development, customization, [and] using common tools is something of a trend that I would see driving all of our work forward in a communal context,” she says.

I recommend reading the entire piece here.

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