Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 6. AR SCALES OF THE UNIVERSE

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. 


Assets: Astronomical visualizations and audio guide, built in collaboration with Brian Abbott

Technology: Tango tablet 

What we did: Our next prototype aimed to help visitors navigate and enjoy an exhibit that already has an interactive component. In Scales of the Universe, on the 2nd floor of the Hall of the Universe, label decks tell visitors to imagine the planetarium dome to be a series of objects (e.g., the Sun, the Oort cloud, the Milky Way) and to compare it to physical models of other objects along the walkway. The comparisons help visitors grasp relative sizes of objects in the Universe. We explored ways of using digital media to augment the exhibit, including an overlay of data mapped directly onto the dome (when viewed through a Google Tango tablet), animated graphics, and a voiceover from Brian Abbott. We conducted 6.5 hours of public evaluation over five sessions (49 people observed and interviewed).

Key finding: This prototype, along with AR Shark, helped us identify the limitations of current mapping technology. We should choose exhibits and design experiences for which perfect matches aren’t essential to the user experience. In addition, overlaying a digital interactive onto an existing analog interactive is especially tricky and not the direction we want to go.

Other findings:

  • Most people want digital augmentation, but technical hurdles prevailed. Visitors enjoyed seeing videos of celestial objects augmented on the sphere and hearing a Museum scientist speak; few said they would not want to experience the exhibit this way. But numerous technical obstacles emerged: the glare of sunlight on the tablet screen, the tablet’s limited field of view vs. the huge dome, and the current level of mapping technology, which made a precise overlay of images elusive. All of these detracted from the user experience.
  • Augmenting an interactive exhibit is tricky. Scales of the Universe is already an interactive experience, albeit an analog one. We found that enhancing it with a digital layer was more challenging than creating a stand-alone AR experience, or layering data on a static exhibit (e.g., the mako shark). Many decisions go into choosing what aspects of the analog experience should (or should not) be conserved, and what should (or should not) be enhanced.
  • Draw from AMNH educators, not just scientists. A YI educator gave us a tour of the Scales of the Universe walkway, sharing the metaphors and explanations she uses when communicating with different age groups, and noting common questions and misconceptions. We agreed it would be great to tap into educator expertise as we design new experiences.

Learn more about the other prototypes:

  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)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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