During the workshop with MA Cultural Heritage and Museum Management students we showcased an early stage prototype of an Augmented Reality modular visitor experience to participants to help gather feedback and discuss openly the issues that arise from open platform development. This post will summarize the project, collate the feedback, and showcase some of the development so far. We have used the guiding principles developed in consultation with the sector to share the direction of the project as an example of best practice, and what can be achieved under the core design principals.
We showcased this early stage prototype which has a floating white block. When the user rotates the phone so that the blue circle is over the white block it transforms into a black rectangle. This works in a mobile browser by accessing the accelerometers in your phone to know which way the phone is angled, or in a desktop browser by clicking and dragging.
The project explores ways to create accessible Augmented Reality experiences that can be developed, maintained and supported in-house by museums. Augmented Reality is a process of overlaying information, content or experiences over the real world. This means that a device, usually a smart phone, is used to look through onto the world. The program adds content as a layer that users can experience and often interact with. Historically this type of developed has required specialist software, apps and high-end equipment to produce. We wanted this to work on non-specialist equipment that visitors had with them rather than having to managed by the museum. This also means that, in a post-pandemic visit, visitors bought the devices with them, they didn’t need to be cleaned between use, and were managed, maintained and provided by the visitor.
We wanted to create a project which was more of a platform, than an experience. Something that was modular so was easy to scale up, or scale down for different sizes of museums. We wanted to create something that was free to use, free to develop, and free to deploy. We wanted to create something which was open source, so that anyone could use the code, with instructions they could modify and customise it, and could work for the smallest and the largest museum.
We wanted to create something that museums had access to, and that it didn’t take high levels of production knowledge to redevelop into something bespoke for their museum. This meant that we picked a framework that museums could add jpeg images to from their collection, modify the text, and add some audio. These are the most achievable for people without specialist training.
We developed this prototype further so that it could take in the feed from a mobile phone camera, or desktop computer, and place the cube into a space. Then when the circle marker touches the white box it expands into a black rectangle (which will become an interpretive panel). The black box can hold text, images, and also plays a persistent mp3 file (that means it keeps playing after the box has shrunk again). These white boxes are then points of interaction for the visitor that can be located in the museum, either by hard coding the latitude and longitude, or by producing markers that the camera can recognise, and then the white box will float above the markers. At present, each marker is 11 lines of HTML code. We have used a piece of sample audio from the Ulster Museums response to covid video for testing this.
When this project was presented to students as co-producers and collaborators they raised some core issues and ideas that we are using to help shape future development.
If the code looks for latitude and longitude data, what about museums with multiple floors?
- It is easiest to produce and modify the code on lat/long but we will look to develop and easy to deploy marker recognition system which means that the box floats above a marker.
If the code is open source and anyone can use it, what if the public make unwanted or unsanctioned experiences for the museum?
- This could be a real issue, and museums are shared community spaces. We are hoping that a marker based system where a physical printed marker is added to the museum space will lock this in place. The code could be used by groups to create ‘alternative tours’ of the museum with particular political slants, but visitors would need to go out of their way to find them, know the URL and there would need to be markers in place in the museum.
What specialist skills and knowledge are needed?
- At the moment the project sits on an open development platform called glitch. It is open source, open access and free. This means that anyone can use the code, remix it, adapt it and no specialist equipment is needed. A museum could host the code in their own server space and a full guide will be developed to help museum staff adapt the code to match their needs.
The introduction of our MA students to this digital design work contributed to recommendations made in our Museums and Digital Media report.