I don’t know much about Google Glass. I don’t own a pair. But I am fascinated by how electronic wearables, augmented reality, and cloud-based mobile computing are changing how we interact with the people and places in our lives. To learn more about how they might influence, perhaps transform, the museum experience, I borrowed one from a (very generous and trusting) colleague and took it with me to D.C. with my family this past Memorial Day weekend.
Last Saturday, I Glass-enhanced three museums: The International Spy Museum, The National Museum of the American Indian, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
But first, let me define some terms and why they are relevant for museum-based learning:
- Electronic Wearables – Whether through a watch or a pair of glasses, electronic wearables allow us to access and integrate digital tools, and what they afford, deeper into our lives.
- Augmented Reality – AR combines the world around us with layers of related digital media, empowering us on demand to make visible what usually remains hidden or out of reach.
- Cloud-based Mobile Computing – When your data is in the “cloud” your digital life is integrated – your email, your Facebook account, your photos, your contacts – so you can benefit from a network effect, and you can integrate it with public data online (Wikipedia, Google searches, etc.)
These create both challenges and opportunities for museums, because visitors will increasingly use them to mediate museums trips and because they offer us new and possibly deeper ways to engage our audience.
Google Glass isn’t actually a pair of glasses. You wear them like a pair of glasses, but there are no lens. Instead, over the right eye, there is a tiny unframed transparent screen. When the Glass is off, you just look through it. When it is on, you shift your focus and can read and view anything on the screen. Imagine talking with someone across a restaurant table while reading a menu. Most of the controls rely on finger gestures on the arm between the screen and your right ear – single and double tap, swipe down, swipe forward and back, etc. The glass can be kept off most of the time and only turned on when required. When it is on, people can see a little rectangle of light above your eye, and, when it is taking photos or videos, a second light is visible. To be clear, this is NOT an always-on secret camera – in fact, it couldn’t be more obvious, which I will get to later.
THE INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM
The Spy Museum is what you might imagine – a museum about the history of spies, presented as a form of training. When you enter you choose your cover from options listed on the wall and then proceed – room by room – to learn about how to use drop boxes, disguise your appearance, and more.
It is hard not to feel conspicuous wearing a Google Glass. There’s an unusual electronic contraption hanging from my face. I actually wore it the previous day at work, without it even being on, just to see how people responded. Most were curious, asking questions and wanting to try it out. At least two people expressed discomfort and one even asked me to remove it during a meeting.
Yet here I was in my new role as an international spy pretending to be covert and surreptitious, learning all about hidden surveillance techniques – cameras hidden in a toy truck, the button of my coat, a pen – while wearing the most obvious camera imaginable. I felt like a satirical spy, like I had misunderstood the rules. As a society, we are growing increasingly aware of and concerned about the growth of our surveillance culture. Being in the museum highlighted for me the gap between ubiquitous and invisible government surveillance and the transparent observations of ubiquitous smart-phone cameras; it made me wonder if anxieties about perceived powerlessness in the face of the former are getting written on top of the obvious example at hand – Google Glass.
Towards the end of the museum visitors are challenged to get through a passport control interrogation. I had chosen my “cover” at the start of my visit, but never imagined I’d need to defend it in person! But I had no problem.
“How old are you?”
“Are you sure?”
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”
And so on. What was my occupation? Who was I visiting? For how long? And I got it all perfectly right.
But how could I not? With each question I visually referenced the photo I had taken with my Google Glass (shown above). Had I consulted a cheat sheet or writing on the back of my hand, my interrogator would have noticed right away. But since Glass is so new, my (friendly) interrogator had no idea I was actually reading the original wall signage as we spoke. The Glass put the information I needed right at my digital fingertips. I have little doubt had I relied on my memory I probably would have blown it at the first question.
The store employees asked about the Glass and what I could do in the museum. I told him about keeping my cover at passport control, but I also suggested how it might be used with a Spy Museum-specific Glass app. There could be an augmented game embedded throughout the halls, challenging me to find drop boxes, interrogate secret agents, and what not. It would be a game layered over the museum experience but invisible to those not playing (sort of the whole idea of drop boxes in the first place – public places to secretly leave clandestine information).
I asked them if they wanted to see how easy it would be to take their photo, and then showed them.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
So far I have only talked about the Glass as a way to take photos, or, by referencing photos, as a way to extend memory. I also used the compass, to see where I was located, the mapping tool to give me directions (which wasn’t working at the time), and the Google search app to answer my kids’ questions (my daughter was particularly interested in knock-knock jokes). Glass gives me the option to send photos to my Google Plus friends (to whom I accidentally sent way too many), but I didn’t have time to figure out how to properly email or Tweet them – if I had, I could see how my museum experience could have connected me deeper with my social network (especially my mother-in-law, who was awaiting evidence of her grandkids in D.C.).
Every once in awhile, with the Glass screen off and in waiting mode, I would suddenly find I was taking a photo of whatever I was doing. By the time of arrived at NMAI, I had figured out why I was occasionally taking these random photos. It turned out I had intentionally turned on “wink” mode but didn’t realize how it worked. Once I trained Glass to recognize when my right eye winked, it would watch for the wink (even with the screen off) and use one as a trigger to take a photo. Normally, if I wanted to take a photo, I might have to tap the glass to turn on the screen, then say “OK Glass, Take a photo”. Not that much, but still it took awhile. Now I saw I could literally just look and wink to snap the shot I wanted. This feature would turn out to be tremendously useful at NMAI.
The oldest hall where I work is dedicated to the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast (now, I think, called North Pacific). Designed by anthropologist Franz Boas based on a series of expeditions he coordinated, the very structure of the hall articulated a new view on not just the subjects of the Hall but all world cultures. And that was the point – not “culture” – singular – but “cultures” – plural. The hall introduced the notion of cultural relativism, that objects and rituals and such only make sense within the context of the culture which produced them. This was a radical idea, running counter to the prevailing racist notion of the time, which held that Native peoples around the world were a “lower” form of culture on a continuum that eventually leads into the “higher” culture of Europeans. The Hall and its history is not immune to the problems which challenged the field and museums at the time, but it was a major step forward. And as you walk through the hall today you don’t experience the artifacts as you might have at other museums at the time – e.g., utensils from all the communities in one case, another case with all the masks, etc. – but instead each section is dedicated to its own tribe, each with their own objects given meaning by that context.
I am currently working on a project this summer with high school students to think about ways to augment or enhance the experience of visitors. In other words, how can we use contemporary perspectives and techniques to engage current visitors in a hall designed over a century ago. With that in mind, I was fascinating to explore how the NMAI came about the challenge in a different direction – starting with a collection of hundreds of thousands of objects, how could a NEW museum be built, from scratch, to engage contemporary visitors. I wanted to learn what a hall about Native peoples might look like unshackled by the physical legacies so many of us in Natural History museums must contend with.
As soon as I entered, I was immediately struck by the conceptual framing I was offered. As I walked down a circular ramp, I was presented by a few objects, with a concept and some descriptive sentences. For example, children’s moccasins and “Community: Native Identity,” a tomahawk and “Encounter: Contact and Confrontation.” I was in a rush – I had left my family on line at the Air and Space Museum, and had 30-45 minutes before I’d promised to return – so I didn’t have time to take it all in. But now, with my newly discovered “wink” feature, I could pause slightly at each station, wink, and move on, leaving the information to be reviewed once I returned home. The Google Glass proved great for documentation.
I focused my time on the “Our Lives” exhibit. As described on a wall panel (which I can share with you now by first reviewing one of my “wink” photos), the exhibit “is about the lives and identities of Native people in the 21st century.” The central area looks at key elements that have affected Native identity – such as language, place and political awareness – and focuses on identity not as a fixed thing but a lived experience. The surrounding walls feature eight “community galleries” which each focus on one particular Native community as experienced by community members selected by their peers.
This was the first time I’ve experienced the Native experience or story framed this way. When I think about a museum about American Indians, it is hard for my mind not to go to thoughts about genocide, and betrayal, and heartbreak, and more. But this time was different. The exhibit didn’t avoid these challenging topics – they were all there, explored in fascinating and throughout provoking ways – but they weren’t the foreground. What the exhibit put front and center is the eight communities represented in the Hall as distinct, vibrant communities that are alive and active today. As the sign first promised: “…the lives and identities of Native people in the 21st century.” The exhibit explored the past and the challenges it offers for the future, but it started from the vantage point of the present.
So in the end, it wasn’t the struggles of the Native communities that made me cry but, rather, contrasting our current Hall from a century past with this very room, with its crystal clear clarity of the lived-presence today of Native communities. And what struck home even deeper was noticing that the room was very much designed in a way that would have made Boaz proud – each section is dedicated to its own community, with the shared photos, objects, and stories given meaning by that context.
And, to my surprise, I learned that blinking away tears can, at least to a Google Glass, look the same as a wink.
As with the International Spy Museum, the store staff were very interested to talk about the Google Glass. “Is that for augmenting?” the cashier asked? I said it was. I said imagine if you could look at any object in the museum and it would pull up text, audio or video, or a map, to give it context and let you go deeper. She playfully asked me to take her photo and to revisit it should I ever need a boost of energy.
The Air and Space Museum has always been one of my favorites, ever since I was a child. I could never resist the enormous scale of the rooms and the fantastic ships that filled it. And by the time I’d arrived at my third museum of the day, I was not only tired but I was learning to master integrating the Google Glass into my experience.
Before the trip, I had asked my colleagues for museum recommendations, so I could learn of anything new not to miss. Someone turned me on to: Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There. My son wanted to check it out so off we went. The exhibit focuses on why a good clock is crucial to navigation – from 18th-century mariners to current-day GPS users. It opens with some questions, which I turned into prompts with my kids.
“How did we get here today?” I asked. We walked, they said.
“But how did we know where to walk?” I asked. We used a map, they said.
“Did we use a paper map?” I asked. No, they said, and pointed to my Google Glass.
I did not in fact use the navigation feature on the Google Glass, although I did try to. But I did use the GPS on my mobile phone to pull up a map, our location on it, and learn how to walk from there to the museum. This highlighted for me how much of the Google Glass is just a new way to access what my smart phone can already do. But rather than have to disconnect from my current focus of attention – say, my child’s face – I can multitask and do both at the same time. When my daughter was asking me funny jokes she could write down, I COULD have turned away to do a Google search on my iPhone but, instead, while still looking at her, I could say “Ok Glass. Google Funny jokes for children about animals” and then read her the results. I can see the power of moving current smartphone functionality into a wearable device. But that’s not enough. That’s just the same-old using a new tool to do an old tricks. What I wanted to discover over my Google Glass-enabled museum day was what some of the new tricks might be.
At this point, completely unsolicited, a woman came up to me, a mother of two whose husband used to work at Microsoft (which she told me, again unsolicited, as if the Google Glass was a digital confessional). She told me she thought the Glass was creepy and made her feel funny. She told me she felt like she was being watched all the time. Prompted by my thoughts from earlier in the day at the Spy Museum, I pointed out there were cameras observing her all over the place, about which she was not aware. But with the Google Glass, at least I was being upfront about it all. Then I noticed her husband had his camera out and, joking with her, I said with mock concern, “Is your husband about to take our photo?” She then told me her concerns about Google learning about her through her searches, and I had to remind her that I didn’t work for Google.
Recalling Google Glass has not just photo but video features as well, I asked if she wanted me to record her concerns about the Glass. “I am just a common person,” she said, “I can’t afford to have Google comes after me.” I think she was kidding, but I’m still not sure.
We then went across the hall to a great exhibit about the rovers on Mars. By now, I was finding it easier to take “wink” photos of my family when the perfect shot appeared, rather than risk losing it given the second or two it would take to turn on and focus my camera.
All in all, I learned a lot taking Google Glass into museums. My highlights:
- As long as people feel anxious about the emerging surveillance state AND are confused about what a Google Glass can do, their concerns will get projected onto Glass wearers (making wearing one a potential awkward experience).
- As an enhancement, and occasional replacement, to my bevy of camera and video equipment, it greatly enhanced my experience, both documenting information and capturing candids of my family (even if I did look a little funny to them craning my head and winking over and over).
- The potential for exhibit-specific augmentations is tremendous, but that remained in the realm of my imagination
- As smart-phones have transformed the museum experience (take a photo and then send to Facebook, or give it a filter and sent to Instagram, or search for more info on Google, or…) wearable computers combined with cloud-based mobile devices will also transform the museum experience by both accelerating current trends while introducing new ones. However, I can’t yet see the shape or those trends, nor am I convinced wearable computers can get back past our social concerns about surveillance (and, if we do, how the affordances of wearable computers might be limited in the process).
I am happy to have had a chance to borrow the Google Glass for the weekend. I can’t say I am ready to run out and buy one when they become available but I will certainly be keeping a close eye on them as an indicator of future changes in digital media and museum-based learning,.