What’s on your lanyard? What Disney World Can Teach Us About Museum-based Learning, Part 2

“Barry has crushes,” my supervisor explained to one of my colleagues. “You just have to let him talk them out.” Truer words have never been spoken, at least not about me. My crush of the week – that is, my latest source of inspiration I wanted to share with all I meet – is all about what I experienced last month during my family trip to Disney World.

In my previous post I wrote about the ripples that spread throughout my work after my February, 2014 trip to all four parks in Disney World. This post will focus on one of my take-aways from my recent trip: Accessorize Yourself!

Mickey ears – those ubiquitous hats with the matching ovals, the owner’s name etched in italics and yarn – are common sights around Disney World. They allow visitors to don a costume of sorts, to dress for the occasion. When Disney sells a set of ears they are inviting you to join the party. Putting one on is to announce you’ve accepted their invitation, you’re ready to enter their magic circle, with its own culture and rules, that set you free to express yourself and act in ways that distinguish this time and place from the rest of your life.

It’s part of how they get families to justify coming in person. It’s how memories are made.

400116184821Growing up in the ‘70s, all I saw at Disney were the ears. But last year my family discovered the power and joy of trading pins and, this year, Disney’s latest offering: Tagalongs.

It’s hard to miss the pins. Everywhere you turn people sport lanyards covered in them. In any Disney store you can buy a starter kit – a lanyard and a number of pins, perhaps even some duplicates for trading. Maybe you want the princess kit, or one with a Disney/Star Wars theme. The options are endless. The pins are metal, with cute images and one clear subject – a particular character, a favorite Disney ride, even the resort you’re staying at. Some are interactive – a TV set you tilt to reveal different images, a cellphone that snaps open, a wheel that spins, a book that opens, etc. Others are simple 2D images. But each reflect something about the person who chose to wear it.

There are two ways to get new pins. They can be bought in the store for between $8-15. But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is getting new ones through trade. Almost all cast members (AKA, a Disney Park employee) wears pins. It is understood that ALL cast members MUST trade with you, and accept any trade you offer (cast members even receive exclusive pins that are not for sale). But it has to be a 1:1 exchange. In other words, as my children ran through the Parks, whenever the fancy struck them and they saw a cast member, they would review the pins offered and then make an exchange. During this time the cast member would talk with my children and make a connection with them.

The other type of exchange is between visitors – as with cast members, park visitors are constantly engaged in exchanges. But now there are no rules. A seasoned veteran might just give away their pins to a child new to the game (this happened to us on more than one occasion). I saw one boy dump a bag of pins on the ground while others surrounded him to make trades. Wearing a pin becomes a sign visitors wear that announce “Come talk with me. I might have something you want.”

Last year my son was motivated by the sheer joy of collecting and making exchanges. This year he was equally motivated by finding pins that reflected his identity and interests. He acquired one with “2015″ on it (to mark this visit), one for our resort (to mark where he’d stayed), a Star Wars rebel emblem in the shape of Mickey ears, a rock climbing pin (he is in a rock climbing club), and more.

This made me reflect on how Disney used pins to engage its visitors, deepening their in-person experience, and what it suggests for museums:

Social: With pins, visitors flock to Disney cast members in an endless stream, who often use the interaction to turn the focus from pins to their experience within the Parks. Museums work so hard to motivate the public to speak with the docents and volunteers who offer guided tours, interactive carts, and more. Could museum-content related pins generate a higher quantity and quality of visitor/staff interactions? And what about visitor to visitor? I rarely see strangers in the Halls talking to one another (if only to hold their camera and snap a photo). How different would it feel if visitors instead felt welcome to engage one another throughout their visit?

Collecting: The pins speak to an interest in collecting in general, reviewing other’s collections, and building one’s own. What interests me most here, however, is how public collecting provides the opportunity for visitors to make identity-shaping decisions (see below).

Identity: When my son drapes himself with pins marking his connections with his time (2015), his place (our resort, favorite rides), and interests (star wars and rock climbing) he is shaping a personal resume and taking pride in both building it and sharing it with the world. What could that mean for museums if visitors could similarly shape and display their own personal identity related to museum-based content? Imagine you are in an elevator between floors. The person to your right has pins featuring a T. rex, a dinosaur egg, and the latest space show; the person to your left has pins with a totem pole, the 2015 Night at the Museum sleepover, and the Kwanza celebration. Then they both look at you. What’s on your lanyard?

Interests over credentials: Disney pins are not earned for surviving the scariest ride or attending a special Disney show. They are strictly by choice – anyone can own any pin. They in no way suggest credentials for an achievement. But what if they did? How might that change the social ecosystem and people’s identification within it? What if visitors during the first week of a new exhibit all received “1st timer” pins, or a content-related pin after going on a Hall tour, each becoming markers for what they have done or know? What if our youth and adult education programs offered pins related to the content taught, the pins becoming markers of accomplishments? And is it even possible to think about this having a digital component someday? (Did someone just say digital learning badges?…)

Over the shoulder: Now, along with Mickey ears and pins, Disney recently offered something new, so new in fact that most cast members I encountered had no idea what they were: DisneyPark Tagalongs. When I first saw the Buzz Lightyear in his box, across from the Hollywood Studios insanely popular Toy Story Mania ride, I presumed it was an action figure. But Buzz had no moveable parts. He was just a tiny statue. But Buzz came with a coin-sized magnetic disc. Slide the disc onto your shoulder, under your clothing, then place Buzz on top. Now you have a buddy to walk with you through the park. My son wore Buzz while my daughter tried to take my Yoda from me until I got her a Tinker Bell (her choice).

I don’t want to get into what I thought about it from a product design perspective, other than to say they were fun to wear and, as with the pins, created opportunities that were both social (“Dude, your Yoda is sleeping” one man informed me, as my Tagalong drooped forward) and identity-shaping. What I did want to share is what happened my first day back from Disney, when I returned to work. I decided to wear my Yoda all day, to see what happened (and, yes, share my latest crush). But this time everything felt different. Sure, no one else was wearing one, but neither was anyone else in the Parks (as they are so new). And yes, I was now in an office setting. But my office is also a museum. Wearing my Tagalong at Disney felt fun; wearing it in the museum felt awkward. When my colleagues asked about what was on my shoulder, I usually inquired, “And what if it was a dinosaur? What would you think? What might we talk about?”

This experience led me to think about how Disney encourages its visitors to see their visit as a time to let their Disney freak-flag fly; to what extent do we, as a natural history museum, encourage our visitors to let their science freak-flag fly? When is the museum presented as a temple for deep contemplation and when is it presented as a celebration of science – and you’re invited to join the party!

So try an exercise with me: Picture all this available in your favorite museum. What’s on you lanyard? Who’s on your shoulder? Please share below.

I’ll go first: My lanyard would include pins featuring the Pterosaurs card game pin (the Dimorphodon will slide on a track), a 2013 Night at the Museum Sleepover (my son’s first), and one in the shape of the Willamette Meteorite. And on my shoulder? Franz Boaz on my left and a totem pole on my right (the Neil degrasse Tyson isn’t out yet).

Okay, your turn!
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On Beyond Maps: Video as Museum Wayfinding Tool

There are many challenges before us in the development of our upcoming mobile, site-specific game MicroRangers, not the least being the “game board” covers four different halls. If we need visitors to easily navigate amongst them, to places they might not even know exist, can we do better than maps?

Matt Tarr, who is the Museum’s Digital Architect (great title, right?), recently suggested to be that we consider video, specifically Instagram’s new Hyperlapse. From Wikipedia:

Hyperlapse is a mobile app created by Instagram that enables users to produce hyperlapse and time-lapse videos.[1] It was released on August 26, 2014. The app enables videos to users to record up to 45 minutes of footage in a single take, which can be subsequently accelerated to create a hyperlapse cinematographic effect.[3] Whereas time-lapses are normally produced by stitching together stills from traditional cameras, the app uses an image stabilization algorithm that steadies the appearance of video by eliminating jitter.

I downloaded it to my iPhone and was stunned by the smoothness of the finished video. Once you make your film you can then choose the speed of the playback, which is a lovely feature, but then must lock it in when outputting it to master video (which is not).

At first I made many newbie mistakes:

  • I might pan right or left while walking, to show my surroundings. On playback, it looks like the camera is flying left and right in a spastic motion. After that, I kept the camera looking as straight as I could to either my destination or my next turn.
  • Don’t turn when the image is up-close. I imagine this something Imax videographers must learn. In other words, I can’t zoom in on an object and then turn to walk away. Instead, I learned to frame something in close up and then slowly back away to show the full context, moving from a close-up to a medium shot, and only then turning.
  • I learned to find at least one major visual anchor at every moment then maintain it in view as long as possible. For example, when walking from the protist to the beaver, I choose to walk straight to and then turn at the Teddy Roosevelt statue – that would be immediately identifiable to the visitor. But rather than just make a quick turn I try to get him into frame as soon as possible and not let him leave until I have to; my presumption is this will help orient and anchor wayfinders to the required turns.
  • Don’t start or stop too fast. Since everything is being sped up, I realized my initial and final establishing shots needed to be uncomfortably long to film to feel natural when sped up. Otherwise I risk running away from the starting point before the wayfinder has a chance to figure out where we began (or concluded).
  • Light changes can be an issue. You CAN touch the screen to re-calibrate the lighting but I had to learn to predict when it would be required, but after only a few fails. Otherwise the switch to black or dark might create a lack of continuity.
  • I found sometimes 4X worked best while other times 6X.
  • I have no idea if ANY of this works – next step is testing these out with videos to see if this can guide them from point A to point Z.

Below are a few examples:

This MicroRangers Hyperlapse Wayfinding Test demonstrates moving from the bleached coral in the Hall of Ocean Life to the crystal protist in the Hall of Biodiversity:

This MicroRangers Hyperlapse Wayfinding Test demonstrates moving from the crystal protist in the Hall of Biodiversity to the Forest Floor exhibit in the Hall of Northeast Forest:

This MicroRangers Hyperlapse Wayfinding Test demonstrates moving from the Forest Floor exhibit in the Hall of Northeast Forest to an exhibit within the same Hall that most don’t know exists:

This MicroRangers Hyperlapse Wayfinding Test demonstrates a long move – from the crystal protist in the Hall of Biodiversity to the Beaver in the Hall of North American Mammals:

This MicroRangers Hyperlapse Wayfinding Test demonstrates a long move – from the crystal protist in the Hall of Biodiversity to the Beaver in the Hall of North American Mammals.

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Impressions from the MicroRangers prototype

Hey there everybody. I’m Carl, a new digital learning and game design intern at the museum. I’m going to be working with Barry and others on the MicroRangers project, and I’m super excited about it! For a bit of background about me, I’m a game designer from Beirut, Lebanon, currently finishing his Masters at NYU. When I’m not making games, I’m either wandering the streets of New York searching for the perfect burger, or binging on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Here’s me!

PicBut enough about me. Time to talk about the cool stuff we’re doing here at the museum! Last week I had the chance to try the prototype for Microrangers: Keeping the Balance developed almost a year ago. It’s an augmented reality game that will have visitors playing as a MicroRanger-in-training, going from exhibit to exhibit solving “MicroCrises” threatening the Museum’s imagined biodiversity levels. How it works is that you scan a character card with the iPad, and a scientist will seem to pop up off the card, explaining what you have to do next. The MicroCrises are presented as a concerned citizen explaining what’s going wrong, such as a glass-bottom boat guide complaining about colorless (bleached) corals. Going to an exhibit will lead to a couple of “MicroGames” the visitor identifies the problem and then proceeds to solve it. There’s a lot of potential on the narrative and gameplay side of things.

I can talk about the game design stuff all day long, but I’m more curious to hear what the high school students from the MicroRangers youth program have to say about it. Over the next few months they’re going to be contributing a lot to what actually gets put in the game, from a narrative and game play standpoint. They played the prototype, and here’s some of what was said:

Continue reading

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Preparing the Virtual Neanderthal Flute for Crime Scene Neanderthal

Crime Scene Neanderthal (CSN), launching in beta to the public within our Hall of Human Origins this April, will feature (amongst other things) a virtual Neanderthal flute that visitors can play. Maybe you’ve seen this type of thing before on your mobile phone: you see a picture of a flute and then, by blowing into the phone’s microphone and strategically placing your fingers on the photo, you can actually play the virtual flute.

There is only one flute that has ever been identified as POSSIBLY being of Neanderthal origin. Known as the Divje Babe Flute, it is a cave bear femur pierced by spaced holes that was found in 1995 at the Divje Babe archeological park located near Cerkno in northwestern Slovenia (and currently resides in the National Museum of Slovenia).

The CSN flute, however, will offer visitors more than just a cute interactive of the replica on display in our Halls; the experience is designed to walk visitors through the same evidence-based decision making process scientists use to interpret this remarkable fossil find.

It was easy for us to imagine how we might acquire the photos we needed. But where is one to find audio of a Neanderthal flute? That’s where Jelle Atema came into the picture.

Jelle Atema is a Professor of Biology and Adjunct Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He is also an accomplished flautist with a particular interest in making Neanderthal flute replicas. Jelle was generous enough to visit the museum this week and demonstrate how this flute might have been played.

Jelle went to both our sound and photography studios to provide us with all the assets required for us to produce the virtual Neanderthal flute. Below are a few videos we made to communicate with our development partners, Geomedia, about how the sound and photos fit together. With Jelle’s permission, I am excited to share them with you below.

(While Jelle is an accomplished flautist, I should note we asked him to demonstrate the flutes in the driest possible way, so we could focus on the different ways the original fossil can be reconstructed and how the fingerings produce different pitches. He quite deliberately avoided making music which would have imposed his personal taste on a Neanderthal flute.)

In the first video, Jelle plays the quena-style flute (3 holes), as developed by the Slovenian museum and as seen at AMNH:

In the second video, Jelle plays the fipple-style flute (4 holes), developed by himself using a modern black bear bone provided by a museum:

In the third video, Jelle plays the fipple-style flute (4 holes), developed by himself using a 50-100,000 year old European cave bear fossil provided by a European museum (not that Neanderthals would have used fossils, but still…):

Finally, Jelle plays a lobster. (Did I mention Jelle’s research focuses on lobster’s fine sense of smell and what they teach us about chemical communication under water?). Why do we want Jelle to play a lobster from his research collection? To demonstrate his point that even if Neanderthals did not MANUFACTURE musical instruments that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have PLAYED the ones provided by nature:

We can’t wait to see next month how it all comes together and how museum visitors respond to the experience. You can find more photos from the visit here.


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What Disney World Can Teach Us About Museum-based Learning, Part 1

Last year when I returned from on a one-week family trip to Disney World, I brought back more than just a bag full of Mickey-shaped chocolates. I was inspired by the myriad ways the Park designers had created games, activity guides and more to augment and enhance the visitor experience. I shared my experience with my colleagues (and tested their patience, I imagine, on more than one occasion) but, looking back, much of our work has been influenced by those seven short days. In this post I want to highlight how that trip has influenced our programs in the past year (while my next post will reflect on things I learned from my most recent trip).
Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom
what Disney did…
Last year I was particularly take by both Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom (SoTMK) and Animal Kingdom’s Wilderness Explorers. SoTMK is a game played throughout the streets and alleys of Disney’s main park, the Magic Kingdom, using Pokemon-style collectible cards featuring over 70 Disney film heroes. Players use a card key at select locations to unlock a “portal” – a video screen – to present the visitor the next segment of the story and allow the player to use their hero cards to fight Disney movie villains. From an outsider’s perspective, players wait in line to watch videos in shop windows who then, after about a minute of video watching, hold cards up in the air before moving on. At the time I was amazed at the seamless way Disney had hidden the technology (in the cards and the video kiosks) to create an intuitive, location-specific, collectible card game.
what we did…
Now, a year later, SoTMK is no small source of inspiration for our upcoming MicroRangers game, which invites Museum visitors to experience the Museum at the microscopic scale and protect our microbiomes. There is much different between the two games, which is appropriate – Disney is brand-oriented while we, as a natural history museum, are collections-based. In other words, Disney is more interested in asking visitors to help Disney’s Pocahontas fight evil settlers while we’re more interested in sharing authentic Native American artifacts. But I look forward to learning what SoTMK fans think about MicroRangers once we launch it later this year.

SoTMK promotional poster.

MicroRanger players trig the AR video.


Wilderness Explorers
what Disney did…
Traditional print activity guides aren’t dead, particularly for families. While often maligned as restaurant place mats to distract children before the arrival of their meal, families desire scaffolding to support and guide their children to connect with content within cultural and civic institutions, like museums, zoos and, yes, even Disney World. Wilderness Explorers – inspired by the movie Up – invites children to join the Explorers then, using their print guide, complete missions throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom (which my kids called the Disney Museum of Natural History). To get the badges – stickers within their booklet – children need to interact with Wilderness Guides (college students studying content-related fields) who are well trained to ask processing questions to help budding Explorers better understand both the animal kingdom and world cultures. Last year my kids loved both the Guide and the Park; this year my children did not use the guide – and were totally bored by the park. It was a remarkable testament to how effectively the Guide had engaged my children a year earlier and helped them to draw deeper meaning from the Park.
what we did…
In the past year we’ve developed two projects that studied guides from not just Disney but also from museums like the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of the American Indian and others, like the New York State Parks Department. One project integrates a traditional print guide, a children’s story and a digital component that brings the child’s print art to life (through an augmented reality, interactive animation), with each section focusing on a different cultural treasure within our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians (like a puffin mask, a button blanket, and our famous hanging-from-the-ceiling canoe). When we launched the youth component of the development process we invited Nadine Kocanjer, who leads the Wilderness Explorer program at Animal Kingdom, to speak via Skype with the students. Currently called Dreams of the Haida Child, it currently just finished its first prototype phase. The second project, in the midst of its own prototyping period, is called CSN: Crime Scene Neanderthal. Focused on Neanderthal content within both our Hall of Human Origins and its Sackler Lab for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins, CSN is letting us explore what happens when we combine a traditional print guide with integrated mobile activities and live facilitators. While Dreams is heavy on the stand-alone print activities, the CNS co-developers within the youth program moved much of the activities into the Lab and the mobile app, with the print guide playing more of a supporting player role.

A new crop of Wilderness Explorers.

A new crop of Neanderthal Detectives.

Next post I’ll review some highlights from my trip to Disney this year.
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Augmented Wearables and the Future of Museums

Below is a re-blog of my most recent column on DMLcentral.

Augmented Wearables and the Future of Museums: HoloLens and Oculus Rift and Google Glass (oh my!)

Wired’s recent cover article, “Microsoft in the Age of Satya Nadella,” is a fascinating piece about how the software giant is aiming to reposition itself to remain dominant in the next operating system revolution. They missed the boat when the rest of us migrated from desktops to mobile devices but this time their sights are focused on the next potential disruptor: augmented reality wearables. And Microsoft’s unanticipated new play in this space was announced this past January: Project HoloLens.

The article rightly grouped HoloLens with Google Glass, Oculus Rift and the largely-unknown Magic Leap. It’s hard to predict which of any of these devices will tip with the public (none are actually available on the consumer market), but it’s clear that if a significant number of users drift from mobile operating systems to augmented wearables, the potential impact on museum-based learning is significant. But what sort of impact?

Unfortunately, these devices get lumped together as if the user experience were all the same. But they’re not. And the different user experiences suggest different areas of impact, in museums and elsewhere. To get my head around all this, I mapped the four devices against two axises – space and people – and created the following chart, which I named, for better or worse, the Mooshme Matrix of Place-based Augmented Devices: Continue reading

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MicroRangers Behind-The-Scenes: Katie in the Recording Booth

Last summer, when we completed the prototype for the Museum-based game, MicroRangers, production was put on indefinite hold. Since then, the Museum has given this exciting new game the green-light and a funder has stepped up to turn our dreams into reality. This month the “production lights,” so to speak, have been turned back on. This post will be the first of a number over 2015 that take you behind the scenes.

Today we take go into the recording booth, with Katie! Katie helped develop the prototype last year, and was featured within the prototype as the MicroRanger Dispatcher, who guides the players along. Below is a photo of her viewing the augmented reality version of herself, triggered by the card in her hand, revealing a floating video of her character in action.

This time around, the video will be replaced by an animated character (we are anxiously awaiting the first designs). Red-headed Katie is not-so-secretly hoping the animated protist – or whatever microbe the Dispatcher ends up looking like – will also have red hair.

Yesterday, Katie came in to record all of her lines for the first level of the game. Here’s what I like to think of as the new MicroRanger’s theme song:

Here was Katie’s first take of the day…

… and here was her last:

All and all, it was a great session and an awesome way to start production back up.

Was Katie having a good time? Listen to these and tell me what you think?

In a few months, the scripts will be completed and we’ll return to the recording booth to capture all of the audio for the game. I look forward to our working with more AMNH youth and discovering who is going to bring each character to life.

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