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At the Museum, All Things Are Possible

At the Museum, All Things Are Possible

There aren’t many magical places within easy reach for most of us, no matter where we live. Museums are the exception, transporting us to the past and future, and offering a glimpse of AV’s highest potential.

London’s The View From the Shard is powered by Dataton’s WATCHOUT.Given their abilities to create stimulating experiences, are museum exhibit designers a breed apart, and among the most favored clients in the AV realm?

“We certainly enjoy working with museums, especially those that are tapping their creative resources to deliver interactive environments,” said Michael Bridwell, director of marketing for Digital Projection, Inc.

The combination of education plus entertainment makes for incredibly fertile possibilities, he added. “It’s always interesting to see how the venues enlist technology to create an impactful experience.

Jeremy Scheinberg, COO of Alcorn McBride, is unequivocal in his take on exhibit designers as clients. “They’re great clients. They are always looking for new ways to solve problems, and they have to do so in an efficient manner. They have to present designs that are easy for museum personnel to use and maintain but also present a great experience for the patrons. Plus, they are working on really cool projects with fascinating subjects. It’s always fun to work with them.”

AV clients, typically, are extremely professional, and museums do understand that technology is best used when their stories have to be told, said Mike Garrido, senior product manager for Christie.

“Film reel projectors, small monitors, and media in general have been used by museums for a long time, and museums appreciate the value that technology brings to presenting their collections to capture their audience’s imagination,” he said.

Without a doubt, museum exhibit designers often are allowed to spread their wings further than designers working in other disciplines, offered Simon Matthews, systems specialist for Meyer Sound. “This creative flexibility allows them to think a little further out of the box in deploying audio technology, and this makes the collaboration more exciting.”

The Creativity Button

The marriage of technology and art happens everywhere, including museum exhibits, theatrical productions, and beyond, Matthews observed. “Many content and system designers capitalize on new technologies to satisfy their creative appetites. Our D-Mitri digital audio platform is an example of a product that is often used in these creative applications.”

Sometimes, requirements for designers’ projects can inspire and drive new product development as well. “For example,” he said, “the Meyer Sound MM -4 loudspeaker was the result of sound designer Bill Fontana’s need for his art installation project in Lyon, France. This extremely compact loudspeaker later became part of the Meyer Sound product line and is used in permanent installations and rental events around the world.”

Andrew Kidd, business development manager and technology consultant for Electrosonic, suggested that media producers are often the ones who push particular technology. “Exhibit designers usually are not particularly tech savvy. The museum market is too small to influence AV as a whole.”

It’s no secret that museums are fighting the impact vs. budget battle that all public venues are presently embroiled in. “As these venues compete for attendees, the exhibits that invite attendees to interact and engage will rise above the more passive, set-based attractions,” Bridwell said. “I’ve seen set constructions that, though beautifully and elaborately built, are overlooked in our regional science museum as they don’t engage an action or invoke a thought experiment from the viewer.”

Conversely, Bridwell points to interactive projection displays with touch sensors, such as in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, with relatively simple functions. “People will stand in line to wait their turn to participate,” he added. “The venue that creatively enlists advanced technology to form a bond with their attendees has a much better chance of membership renewals and lasting perceptions of value.”

Creativity, though, comes with challenges, Scheinberg weighed in. “In many cases, the exhibit design budgets are not what you would see in other venues such as theme parks or corporate visitor centers. That efficiency leads to the need to do more with less. There are more distributed media sources at the exhibit and more distributed control. This benefits AV in one way—usability. Since many museums don’t have dedicated on-site technical staff, it forces manufacturers to design systems that are easier to use and maintain. These are systems that last longer and provide more information about status as well as easier methods for operations personnel to change content and schedules on the fly.”

As a result of creativity presented through interactivity, advancements in technology are moving ahead as interactivity brings out the creative aspects, Garrido said. “This is done with crisper, more realistic images with more detail and better color reproduction. As a whole, AV benefits by being less obtrusive. When people interact with the images and forget about all the technology, that’s when AV is working as it should.”

What’s in Store

Museums will continue to move toward the higher-resolution interactivity platforms, Garrido offered. “It draws people in and allows for a more personalized experience with the museum collection.”

Having a higher resolution is obviously a key item looking forward, but the answer is deeper than that, he added. “The higher-res image has to have exceptional image processing speeds and excellent bit depth. This is why you see progressive companies like Christie pushing the envelope with the development of TruLife electronics. More resolution requires more processing power, which will take us to more detailed and smoother images than ever before. The audience members will stop seeing the pixels on the screen and allow themselves to be immersed in the image.”

With personal budgets currently limited, museum patrons want to be engaged on a memorable level when they spend their money, Bridwell observed. “After all, this may be their only entertainment expense for the week. Immersive environments that pull the viewer into the experience accomplish this by delivering impact. Watch for less money to be spent on constructed sets and elaborate but short-lived build-outs, and more investment in virtual experiences engineered specifically to engage the visitor on a personal level.”

And, Scheinberg noted, the greatest opportunity is for the use of iPhone and Android apps to provide more information about exhibits as well as supplementary content. “There are still some architectural challenges in terms of device support within the museum as well as the resources necessary to keep the apps current. However, there are still some incredible opportunities for interactivity between the mobile device and the exhibit/facility, using show control, media playback, effects, etc., once those architectural challenges are overcome.”

4K will make better image resolution accessible to every type of facility, he added. “In the short term there will be content limitations, but those obstacles will be overcome quickly. It makes sense to have local content playback for 4K, and as people start to see that resolution around them in signage, retail, and eventually in their homes, patrons will start to demand better resolution in their venues.”

Interactivity will drive new experiences as patrons continue to realize that the old way of seeing an artifact in a case with a little placard trying to explain its significance doesn’t work anymore, Scheinberg stated. “With video content, new control opportunities, and mobile interactivity, it will really drive a new way of experiencing a museum, whether it is history, art, or science. Immersive audio is a little more complicated. Museums tend to be fairly conservative when it comes to exhibit design. Other than theatre venues, they don’t want too much audio to pollute the museum. Through greater use of directional audio, they will be able to improve the experience while keeping the audio contained.”

Museums do not have huge budgets for technology and usually prefer to put what they have into more exhibits rather than lots of money into one exhibit, Kidd cautioned. “Very few museums can afford these technologies. A few will use 4K as an iconic piece, but not many. Interactivity has always been a big part of the museum toolbox, from the days of pure mechanical interactives through to today’s multi-screen, multi-touch tables. This will continue. Immersive audio, or soundscapes as they are called in the museum business, are always a draw, but aren’t often done well. With new technology like Timax Soundhub and Tracker, it might become easier and less expensive from a media production point of view.”

There’s also a collaborative aspect to 4K, Matthews concluded. “4K projection resolution, together with high-fidelity audio, means that content creators can work more collaboratively in real time, resulting in more dynamic and transformative experiences. Immersive audio and video can be used to help transport participants into a story and elevate the overall experience.”

Sometimes, he said, an immersive audio experience can be ear candy, but that shouldn’t diminish its usefulness. “If the goal is to get people to spend an extra few minutes watching and listening, it can be just what is needed to hold someone’s attention.”

Karen Mitchell is a freelance writer living in Boulder, CO.

The Tom Hennes Experience

Tom Hennes, founder of the NYC firm Thinc Design, has an uncommon perspective on the museum world. His nearly 20 years of exhibition design experience is coupled with a 15-year background in theatrical design.

“Museum exhibit designers have a unique circumstance, in that we are often dealing in a kind of total environment that includes spatial elements, thematic elements, storytelling, and all sorts of interaction,” Hennes said. “This creates some really interesting potential for digital media.”

Thinc’s museum exhibition approach is to start with what is going to be made; what is it that people can encounter, how they can connect with it, and how can they make sense of the experience.

“For the most part, the people who use the applications we create are not particularly interested in whether they’re digital, real, innovative, or tried-and-true,” he offered. “They’re interested in whether they can connect with something that feels really significant, interesting, or beautiful. I think that it’s important to be very smart about how the technological intersects with this kind of encounter, how the experience plays out for the individual or group engaged with it. That often requires a novel application of an existing technology, and sometimes it requires something new altogether.”

Hennes would like to believe that some of this feeds back into the larger technological universe, in that what Thinc does in exhibits can be immediate, engaging, and real. “Shouldn’t other areas of technology be aiming for the same kinds of goals?” he asked.

As for the coming year, he doesn’t see many firsts in the works. “Many of the firsts of the last few years are becoming more consolidated and robust. Things like widespread use of mobile apps in exhibitions, increased digital information throughout exhibits, and very intuitive gesture-based interaction are really coming of age. I think as LED lighting and projection comes online more widely, we’ll see a profound technological shift toward greater stability and sustainability in these systems, but few people who use exhibits will notice.”

The advent of 4K, interactivity, and immersive audio makes technology less visible and more immediate. “A 4K image feels more like a view into reality than something where the pixels are more apparent,” Hennes said. “Interactivity that utilizes our body and has a really intuitive feel supports an illusion that there’s nothing between us and the thing we’re interacting with. Immersive audio is the same: the presence of the sound is more immediate, the sound system less a presence.

“I have begun to speak about digital objects in museums as having, under certain circumstances, equal footing with physical objects. These can be virtual re-creations of something physical, but more often they are things like scientific visualizations that have no physical analog. The more immediate they feel the more directly people can engage with and experience them.”


Coming to a Museum Near You

What better place to consider the future than in a museum, where imagination runs wild? So what’s hot now, and what’s coming in five years or so?

The future is hard to predict as the world of technology moves so quickly, Meyer Sound’s Simon Matthews said. “I expect that we will see many more interconnected systems both within a singular facility and, even more interestingly, systems that connect from different locations. This would allow two or more museums to have exhibits that could be dynamically interactive without the constraints of geography. This is only achievable through low-latency and high-resolution networked audio and video technology such as AVB.”

Faster image processing for the more realistic motion and images is new now, Christie’s Mike Garrido said. “What will be new in five years is better implementation of this process in technologies that will be more realistic and more engaging. Interactivity with the images will become a standard offering, but more importantly, it will become seamless. I would not be surprised if museums start presenting totally projection mapped imaging halls that can be changed hourly to show different collections with full interactivity at each piece.”

High frame rate—60fps and higher—is really new and provides an incredible boost to content, maybe even more than the jump from 2K to 4K, Alcorn McBride’s Jeremy Scheinberg offered. “But content production is really new right now; once there is more content, this will really take off because the difference is profound. Five years down the road, he said, using movies as a guide, we may see more holography in venues or more museum content in our homes. Either way, people will continue to depend on their devices more and more, and their expectations about how that device—whether a phone, Google Glass, or eventually some kind of implant—will interface with the world around them, including museums, will present new challenges for museum designers.”

Digital lighting and LEDs in their many forms will become increasingly prevalent, Thinc Design’s Tom Hennes said. “This is quite invisible to users in certain applications such as lighting, where the most people may notice is that the color of things seems more vibrant. But the use of LED surfaces, in combination with diffusion and textiles, will give us opportunities to create active architectural surfaces that carry images, change with the day, animate the space, and respond to people’s presence.”

Above all, it’s the stories exhibit designers present that will remain as the most significant elements, Electrosonic’s Andrew Kidd stated. “Museums don’t generate new technology: the budgets aren’t there and the need for reliability is more important than the latest gadget. With exhibits having to work eight to 12 hours per day, every day of the year, with minimal intervention, bleeding edge is not good for museums.”