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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Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 7. MEAD FESTIVAL 360 VIDEOS

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. 

7. MEAD FESTIVAL 360 VIDEOS

Assets: 360 documentaries presented at the Mead Festival 

Technology: Samsung Gear headset

What we did: Our first foray into 360 videos was observational. We observed and interviewed 2016 Margaret Mead Film Festival attendees who had watched short (7- to 12-minute) documentaries on VR headsets (Samsung Gear).

What we learned through 3 hours of public evaluation over two sessions (27 people interviewed):

Key finding: 360 filmmakers have homed in on a style that clearly differs from traditional documentary videos: minimal storyline and sparse narration. With planning and ample staffing, crowds can be managed.

Other findings:

  • How to set up. Having viewers sit on swiveling stools worked well. People could Continue reading
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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. 

6. AR SCALES OF THE UNIVERSE

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 Continue reading
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