Caught in Time: a photobooth project (Dinos, Space, Marine Life, Together)

I’d like to go on a journey, and invite you to join me. I’m not sure exactly how it will go, which is scary, but that’s part of why it’s exciting, and why I don’t want to go alone.

Last week I watched the latest episode of Netflix’s remarkable series, ABSTRACT: The Art of Design, featuring the photographer Platon, A British portrait photographer. At the same time, I was listening to the Photochemical episode from the podcast Love and Radio, about, let’s just say, photobooths. That got me thinking about professional and amateur photography, about the photobooths I pass every day in the Museum, and all the opportunities I’ve clearly been missing.

Meags loves photobooths. From http://loveandradio.org/2017/10/photochemical/
I thought,  There must be something I can do here, something curious, and small, that can gain meaning as the collection grows (like the Wonder exhibit in D.C.).

I considered how photobooths capture people in place, and in time. They can be personal, letting us share a creative, maybe even vulnerable, side of ourselves. They can be unexpectedly intimate, providing us with the unusual opportunity to ask someone else to join us in a cramped space, in public yet behind a curtain. And they can force us to take risks, challenging us to improvise in front of a camera’s recording eye.

So what did I want to focus on?

The place? My Museum.

The people? My colleagues.

The topic? Our relationship with the Museum, and each other.

So starting in January I am going to aim to do ONE a WEEK, for the entire year (not counting when I go on vacations). I am curious to see how it develops and changes over time.

I did a test below, theming it as follows.

Photo 1: Dinosaurs!

Photo 2: Outer Space…

Photo 3: Partner’s choice (Asish below chose Hall of Marine Life)

Photo 4: Together

We’ll see over time how the photos theme’s shift. And I am curious to hear what prompts YOU would like to see us use (and if you’d like to join me).

But here we go – the first test:

Caught in Time: a photobooth project (Dinos, Space, Marine Life, Together)

Visit the full set on Pinterest here.

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Snigglings (tooting my own horn)

Here’s a post listing some recent mentions of the work I’ve been privileged to be involved with.

Last week I was in Pittsburgh at the Museums and Computer Network conference, now one of my favorite. I offered a session called Making a Dino Dance: integrating a user-centered design process into a natural history museum, a ten minute overview of our work in FY17 (re: Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: Lessons Learned in FY17). It was a nice opportunity, among peers, to explore how the sausage is made.

Christine Murray, from Antenna International, wrote in her report-back from MCN that this session provided her with one of her key takeaways from the event:

Match Content Goals to Technology

The best example I saw of this in the VR space was Barry Joseph’s presentation on the usercentric approach to data visualization adopted by the American Museum of Natural History.  For one exhibit, they tested three ways to communicate a complicated concept about space: stars appear two-dimensionally in the night sky because our eyes view them from a fixed point, but actually, those stars are in motion, moving at different speeds.  The museum took an agile approach, prototyping great interactive experiences employing a different kind of technology or gaming strategy each time.  Their prototypes failed, and then failed again, until they discovered that VR – and the inherent nature of the medium itself – was the best tool for their message.  VR allowed visitors to “physically” move through constellations, changing their relative perspective and seeing the results in real time, which helped them grasp the concept instantly.  This was the first time deploying VR has ever made sense to me in a museum context.

Thanks Christine! So glad to see it was useful.

A broader review of our work, both here at the Museum and, in my previous life within the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids, became the subject of a delightful podcast with Marc Lesser, of the after school program Mouse, in his new series No Such Thing. In “Episode 9: New Realities in Museum Learning,” Marc, whom I have known for years, invited Jessy Jo Gomez (a former student of mine, now educator herself) to join in as co-host for the episode. We talked about games-based learning, how to parse VR, AR and other emerging media platforms and what they afford for learning, and shared how much we love each other (because we do!).

If you’re ready to feel the love, check it out here.

Finally, StoryEngine is the Mozilla Foundation’s “deep listening, learning, and impact narrative methodology.” In other words, they interviewed me, about my 17 year history in youth development, with a focus on digital learning, and where it aligns with Mozilla’s interest in an open and safe Internet. Read it all here.

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Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: Lessons Learned in FY17

It’s been awhile since I last posted, in part because we’ve been making sense of all we learned last year prototyping interactive data visualizations and developing new projects this year to build on all we learned. At last I am happy to share below some of what we learned. This post will focus on the top-level key findings, followed by posts drilling into the details on each prototype (and the lessons learned there-in).

If you are new to my work at the American Museum of Natural History, I sit in the newly-renamed Science Visualization Group. We’re essentially doing experience design to engage visitors in our dozens of permanent halls with modern science practices, through the addition of digital layers of interpretation. What this looks like on the ground is working with one of the Museum’s scientists (we have over 200) and then turning their digital specimens (CT scans, genomic data, astronomical observations) into a digital asset we can port into a variety of digital tools to be tested with the public (Google’s Tango, Hololens, the Vive, Merge Holocube, and more).

We once went by the name Science Bulletins – bringing the work of scientists into the permanent halls through videos. Now, we are deploying a user-centric design process to publicly prototype and evaluate the data we collect by observing and interviewing the visitors. Last fiscal year, for example, we spent 57 hours over 34 sessions observing over 1,000 people who experienced our new type of interactives (and interviewing over 500 of them.)

After 15+ years of bringing the work of scientists to permanent halls through videos, the challenge for us now is to learn best practices for bringing digital specimens from AMNH scientists into the Halls through interactive, emerging media platforms.

Here is some of what we learned:

  • Data visualization provides a natural opportunity for engaging visitors with authentic science content and cutting-edge technology

Researchers across the natural sciences (and across the Museum) are creating digital content that we can leverage to serve AMNH’s mission and generate interest and excitement among visitors and staff.

  • Scientists are essential and enthusiastic collaborators

To visualize data accurately and surface compelling narratives, it’s critical to work directly with scientists. The more familiar a scientist is with the data, the more insight he or she can provide. Our colleagues are excited by this work and eager to provide assets, as well as ideas and content oversight.

  • Easy interaction is key

Visitors expect to interact with digital content. However, steep learning curves and uneven performance quickly frustrate them. The more sophisticated the technology, the more intuitive and seamless the interaction should be to meet expectations.

  • One asset, many platforms, different opportunities

With some effort, visualizations can be optimized for different platforms. However, all content does not work equally well across all devices, which vary in their resolution, stereo capabilities, tracking, and modes of interaction. Content goals should be matched carefully to the technology.

  • Location, location, location

Lighting, noise levels, traffic flow, crowd density and the design of physical exhibits must be taken into account when developing experiences for existing halls. Hall of Biodiversity is too dark for some technologies, while Hall of the Universe is too light. Object recognition requires clear targets and sightlines. Noisy environments will impede voice commands. Constraints will change as technologies evolve and improve, but the need to consider each unique environment we are designing for will remain constant.

  • Make experiences social

Visitors come to the Museum primarily to socialize with friends and family. Our work can support social interaction, specifically when we: develop content for multi-user platforms such as touch tables and large displays; create simple games with focused learning objectives such as Explorer’s Tree of Life and Avatour (learn the rules once, play many rounds, level up); and promote active spectating by setting up live preview screens that broadcast VR experiences or by creating interactive experiences on large public displays such as the Astro Bulletin.

  • Aim for universal design

Technology enables us to push the envelope on universal design with varied strategies including multiple languages, audio controls, and gesture-based interaction. User experience (UX) design to create successful interactives for a wide range of our visitors’ characteristics and needs– age, language, abilities – requires thoughtful development and design practices. We lack sufficient expertise in this area and should invest more resources.

  • It takes a village

Museum staff have valuable knowledge about our visitors. Youth and Teacher Educators, Public Programs staff, Visitors Services employees, Exhibition designers, Communication and Digital staff all have relevant experience and knowledge that can help inform our work.

We developed these findings during FY17 through iterating prototypes of digital interactives that brought scientific data to visitors within our halls. Below is a review of each series of prototypes and what they taught us, each in their own post:

  1. AR SHARK (learn more)
  2. CT SCANS WITH HOLOCUBE (learn more)
  3. VR WEEVIL (learn more)
  4. AR CONSTELLATIONS (learn more)
  5. ESCAPE THE PLANET (learn more)
  6. AR SCALES OF THE UNIVERSE (learn more)
  7. MEAD FESTIVAL 360 VIDEOS (learn more)
  8. PALEONTOLOGY 360 VIDEO (learn more)
  9. CT MUMMIES (learn more)
  10. TREE OF LIFE (learn more)
  11. ASTRO BULLETIN GESTURE-BASED INTERACTIVE (learn more)
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Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 11. ASTRO BULLETIN GESTURE-BASED INTERACTIVE

The following is a deeper dive into one of the projects developed at the American Museum of Natural History in FY17 to help us better understand how to bring the digital work of Museum scientists to visitors through emerging media. Read the top-level findings from the year or carry on below. 

11. ASTRO BULLETIN GESTURE-BASED INTERACTIVE

Assets: Digital Universe

Technology: Kinect

What we did: We turned the Astro Bulletin screen into an interactive exhibit in which visitors flew through the Universe using only physical gestures.

Key findings: There’s strong enthusiasm for using one’s own body to control content on a large screen.

Other Findings:

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Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 10. TREE OF LIFE

The following is a deeper dive into one of the projects developed at the American Museum of Natural History in FY17 to help us better understand how to bring the digital work of Museum scientists to visitors through emerging media. Read the top-level findings from the year or carry on below. 

10. TREE OF LIFE

Assets: Phylogenetic tree data in Newick format

Technology: iPad & smartphones 

What we did: We developed a version of the Explorer “Tree of Life” game that placed insects (rather than mammals) into a phylogenetic tree. It differed from the Explorer game in that it resided on a tablet, instead of smartphone, and was a stand-alone game, not integrated with other exhibit content. We tested the prototype at an insect-focused event for school groups. Combining those findings with the results of a formal evaluation of the Explorer app (by Frankly, Green & Webb).

Key finding: This simple game provides a fun, accessibly entry into the tree of life, and spurs visitors to continue exploring.

Other findings:

  • Message received. Even with little or no live facilitation, most people understand Continue reading
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Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 9. CT MUMMIES

The following is a deeper dive into one of the projects developed at the American Museum of Natural History in FY17 to help us better understand how to bring the digital work of Museum scientists to visitors through emerging media. Read the top-level findings from the year or carry on below. 

9. CT MUMMIES

Assets: CT scans of mummies from the Field Museum, presented via touch tables at the Mummies exhibition

Technology: Touch-screen table

What we did: To see how cultural content could be enhanced with AR, we focused on an interactive table produced by the Field Museum. We observed and interviewed visitors at the Mummies temporary exhibition to understand how they engaged with the interactive touch tables that featured CT scans of mummies.

We conducted 2 hours of public evaluation over two sessions (33 people observed. 19 people interviewed). Findings:

Key finding: Mummies are a natural fit to the medium (users can “unwrap” the specimen without causing damage). Visitors enjoy manipulating CT scans on a touch table, but without time limits and crowd management, the table may become dominated by very few users.

Other findings:

  • Interactive scans can be “stickier” than their related objects… On average, visitors spent twice as long interacting with a CT scan of an object than Continue reading
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Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 8. PALEONTOLOGY 360 VIDEO

The following is a deeper dive into one of the projects developed at the American Museum of Natural History in FY17 to help us better understand how to bring the digital work of Museum scientists to visitors through emerging media. Read the top-level findings from the year or carry on below. 

8. PALEONTOLOGY 360 VIDEO

Assets: 360 “behind-the-scenes” video shot by Science Bulletins, showcasing the Museum’s paleontological spaces

Technology: Samsung Galaxy 5 headset

What we did: Inspired by the Mead Festival, we created a prototype 360 video that takes visitors behind the scenes to the Museum’s paleontological spaces. Using a rig of six cameras, we filmed three semi-scripted scenes:

  • An AMNH tour guide speaking in front of the T.rex on the 4th floor
  • Daniel Barta talking bones in the Big Bone Room
  • Mark Norell, walking around his own office, discussing dinosaur research

We created two versions of the 360 video: one for an immersive headset (Merge VR) and one for a flat mobile screen (Samsung Galaxy 5), which visitors could choose between. We set up stools in three locations on the 4th floor (near T. rex, near the Big Bone Room exhibit by Titanosaur, and in the Astor Turret) and invited visitors to “go behind the scenes with Museum paleontologists.”

We conducted 12 hours of public evaluation over two sessions (101 people interviewed).

Key finding: Visitors are eager to see what goes on behind the scenes at AMNH, and 360 video appeals to a wide swath—even those who are not facile with technology. The lack of interactivity makes it easier for visitors to “master” than immersive VR. But we should be careful not to overload our videos with information and narration.

Other findings:

  • Behind-the-scenes 360 video meets a need. Visitors of all ages and backgrounds found the experience compelling and Continue reading
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