How smartphones can bring on a museum renaissance
The product I’d like to present today is a platform for augmented-reality experiences targeted to museums and art galleries. The decline in attendance to museums is a problem I care about. Despite numerous attempts to attract new visitors this trend doesn’t seem to slow down any time soon. It’s becoming increasingly important to leverage new technology to enhance the value proposition of exhibitions. The presented platform would consist primarily of a customizable mobile app that replaces the old devices used for guided tours and enables new interactions.
The considerations provided thereafter are not only given from personal experience, but also from dedicated sessions of ethnographic observations in visited museums. Upon entering most museums today we are offered the possibility of use old, clunky devices: the audioguides. They come in different shapes and sizes, but for the most they’re neither convenient nor attractive. Museums could leverage smartphones to entice visitors. Attendees would be offered either use their smartphones by downloading the dedicated app or borrow the museum’s devices. Using smartphones instead of audioguides has two positive effects, let the visitors use a device they’re familiar with and save on the cost of maintaining and acquire physical audioguides. The shift to smartphone technology would also ease content management.
Transitioning to a mobile-centric “audioguide” would let us leverage all of the phone sensors. One of the greatest trend of these years is AR and using it here would be perfect considering the visual and experiential component of the exhibitions. The novelty could draw more people in, becoming a unique selling point, especially for young people and children. Leveraging AR would enable us to give a more immersive presentation e.g. showing related real-sized paintings side-by-side to the real ones and personalised paths in the museum based on the user’s interests.
Regarding the design, the exhibition must remain protagonist, giving the idea that the phone is just a window to the real world. The interaction would be minimal and intuitive, imitating similar AR apps. Spatial awareness would be used to guide the visitor through the halls, giving you a map and overlays (directions) onto the world. The possibility for gamification is explored further in the document.
The issues that this app is trying to solve are multiple ones.
First there’s the declining attendance to museums and art gallery among young people and adults. It’s important for these venues to keep up with technology, both to provide new interactions and to get an enticing fresh look. The proposed solution addresses the problems by not only attracting more visitors through the novelty aspect, but by also enhancing the experience in meaningful way. The difficulty in the approach is to achieve the goal without getting in the way of the main attraction, the art pieces.
The second issue that the app is trying to solve is simplify the management of
the services offered. These primarily come in the form of audioguides. Most of the
audioguides are using old technology and that shows both in connectivity and
usability. There are several considerations on the ergonomics and their limited functionality, but the biggest hurdle is the cumbersome management of these devices. Not only they need large storage spaces and custom built charging stations, but in some cases they incur in the repeated cost of earphones. The earphones in some case are disposable, in other are to be refurbished. Furthermore, adding new content, being it a recording or an exhibition path, is a not a trivial feat. Letting visitors use their phones would help the curators save on physical devices and their management; or lending smartphone, simplifying the process. Every update would consist in uploading the content to the cloud platform instantly, letting the museums easily add informations.
Giving all the mentioned above problems I think the market is ripe for disruption. Overall the use of new technologies would help facilitating the approach of people to the arts and ease the workload of museums: saving money and attracting new visitors.
Following there are some mockups I made, that represents how the app will look like and the relative design choices commentary. The mockups are presented to give an immediate guidance for further design explorations. In the main panel we see the camera (painting) taking up most of the screen estate. As we said before it is important for the app to not take the focus away from the art pieces. The interaction available is minimal, presenting the appropriate actions situationally. On the left we see what happens when the user is pointing the camera towards a painting. The app would recognise the specific painting and if available super impose an icon indicating that a track is available to listen to. The user could then tap on either the icon or underneath where a card would contain the usual set of operations.
The possibility with AR here are endless: similar or related paintings could be shown side-by-side. In the image on the right we see an example of what we said above, a real sized and high fidelity painting popping up on the (right) side for immediate comparison. Other informations/photos could be accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen like shown on the left, The informations could include articles or short texts that are relevant to the discussion.
Above we see the menu, which should be as intuitive as possible. Here it contains four possible options: map, recordings, achievement and settings. The Map is used simply to orient in the exhibition and obtain directions on the next art piece in the pre-decided path. Recording is used to listen to the the tracks in a linear way, while Settings is used for routine actions like languages and path selection. The interesting thing here is Achievement, the new device would allow to gamify the experience, especially for young attendees. After listening or seeing a number of paintings multiple achievements could be unlocked, increasing the engagement. Achievements could lead to discount in the gift shops and free tickets for friends and family. Next to the menu screen we see the render of what happens when the user asks for directions. Leveraging the possibility given by AR we overlay arrows on the ground that guide the visitors on the appropriate room in the exhibition, the card would update the informations appropriately, with the name of the target room made as clear as possible.
Some consideration regarding the possible alternative markets for this app. While the main targets are museums and art galleries, multiple expansions could be possible once the platform is developed. One possibilities are public administrations for localities that mainly rely on tourism. Certain spots could be augmented with the app in a simple and accessible way. Other historical venues could be served, by showing old architectures and buildings restored on the screen. Every touristic attraction and educational locale could be augmented with the app. Feasibility for the adoption is justified from the market size. The direct and indirect impact of museums and galleries on the economy is non-trivial, being in the billions for countries that relies on tourism.
The app would be sold as a SaaS: a service to migrate existing solutions and working with clients to create custom experiences. The setup fee for the museums would vary depending on the needs, but the pricing structure would have a yearly fee for management (of software and smartphones, if required) and support. The main cost would be the setup process, while earning from recurring managing fees. To reach breakeven, the initial platform cost would be amortised over multiple customers.
In conclusion, I there’s an opportunity for museum and art galleries to leverage smartphone technology and especially AR. With a tactful design work the proposed app could help facilitating the approach of people (especially kids and teenagers) to the arts. The upgrade to a cloud based solution would also ease the workload of museums on the management of the exhibition content.
Thanks to the one of you who read the article! I’d love to hear from you, feel free to reach out here in the comment section or on Twitter.