The Blanton iTour - An Interactive Handheld Museum Guide Experiment
Anne Manning and Glenda Sims, University of Texas at Austin, USA
Can handheld multi-media technology enhance visitor learning? Is it possible that technology can upstage the object rather than encourage careful observation and critical thinking? The Blanton Museum, in collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin's Information Technology Services, developed, implemented, and evaluated an interactive handheld museum guide as part of a larger study on interpretation. The iTour handheld computers, made available to visitors during a three month study on interpretive technology, contained rich content including video of artists, audio of curators, textual information, and creative play components. Research data was collected and analyzed on two main foci: visitor engagement with the exhibit (with and without the iTour), as well as comparison of three different types of handheld computers.
Keywords: handheld computers, electronic guides, mobile computing devices, personalized experience
Experimenting with Interpretation
In 2003, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin organized a thorough examination of the viability and impact of mobile technologies on museum learning. The museum, in collaboration with UT’s Information Technology Department, developed, implemented, and evaluated the iTour—an interactive handheld museum guide (Pocket PC). These devices contained rich content including newly commissioned videos of artists and curators, textual information, and creative play components, and were available to visitors during a three-month study on interpretive technology. The museum collected data via written surveys, observations, usability testing, and iTour usage tracking. After careful analysis of this research data, the Blanton has concluded that mobile technologies present an opportunity to:
The Blanton iTour study was part of a comprehensive investigation, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, to assess the value and effectiveness of the Blanton’s interpretive programming. This larger study sought to determine characteristics, strategies, and principles that best support exemplary interpretive practice as the museum prepares for a new 155,000 square foot facility scheduled to open in fall 2005.
Technology at the University of Texas
The iTour project compliments and intersects with one of UT President Larry Faulkner’s key initiatives: UTopia (previously known as the Digital Knowledge Gateway). Unveiled in March 2002, UTopia is envisioned as an on-line service that will share the great intellectual and cultural treasures of the institution with all the residents of the state to whom they belong. ‘The university is setting the goal of providing a digital knowledge gateway to all Texans,’ Faulkner said. ‘We will provide access for every citizen, via a personalized Internet window, into the resources of our libraries, collections, museums and much more.’ Ultimately, the university’s intention is to be a leading player in an emerging new world where research, learning, and scholarly discourse are not limited by the walls of campuses and laboratories.
Designing the Exhibit and the iTour
Visualizing Identity – the Experimental Exhibition
The specific research question posed by Anne Manning, Curator of Education and Academic Affairs at the Blanton, was
Can handheld multi-media technology enhance visitor learning, or does it distract and reduce careful observation and critical thinking?
In spring 2003, Annette Carlozzi, Curator of American and Contemporary Art at the Blanton, in conjunction with Manning, designed a small experimental exhibition entitled Visualizing Identity, comprised of four works by contemporary artists. The exhibition offered a focused look at works by artists Jesse Amado, Radcliffe Bailey, Byron Kim, and Glenn Ligon through the lens of identity; it was also designed as a research study to investigate the role of interactive multi-media technology in the museum. The exhibit was designed to function both with and without the multi-media component.
Principles and components of the iTour
A project team including curators, systems analysts, a graphic artist, and a videographer was formed. The team gathered and reviewed information on the works of art, the artists, museum interpretation, interactive media, and handheld computers. Focus groups were held with UT students, museum colleagues, professors, artists and the Austin community to feed the design. Then a storyboard was developed based on the following principles:
Focus on the Object: The iTour should enhance rather than supplement interaction with the object. Content should be designed to stimulate observation and critical analysis of objects and to promote discovery, understanding, and continued learning.
Focus on the Learner: The iTour should give visitors with different backgrounds and learning styles the tools to understand works of art, reflect on the world around them, and take part in a broader, contemporary dialogue. The design should be intuitive so the visitor doesn’t have to “work at” learning.
Interactive, Personalized Learning: The iTour content should actively engage visitors, and allow them to direct their learning and make connections with their own knowledge, lives, and experiences. The iTour should promote curiosity, social interaction, personal reflection, and discussion.
The iTour storyboard for Visualizing Identity was designed by the curators and education team. The following components were created for each work of art:
Text: To allow visitors to read the traditional label information at their leisure and from any location in the gallery, the wall text was available in the iTour. In addition to the traditional label, an informal artist biography and an FAQ (frequently asked questions) section were also available in text format.
Video/Audio: Each artist was flown in during the project to participate in public forums and discussions with curators. The open forums were recorded and then edited by the curators and education staff. The iTour held a total of 17 video clips and 21 audio clips (ranging from 18 seconds to 3 minutes) of artists and curators discussing aspects of the art works including process, materials, inspiration, and possible interpretations.
Creative Play: To encourage visitors to explore art in a non-linear fashion, the education staff designed an interactive element specifically for each piece. One interactive piece allowed visitors to mentally peel back the layers of one of the works and hear about the significance of each layer in the artist’s own voice. Another encouraged visitors to compare their own skin color to the panels in Byron Kim’s Synecdoche and then choose that color on the iTour, adjust it lighter or darker, and submit it to be added to a digital canvas of all the other iTour visitors before them on the Blanton Web site.
The final storyboard resulted in the following hierarchical structure:
Based on recent UT research, the Pocket PC platform was chosen for the iTour. The specific benefits of the Pocket PC include proven ability to handle rich media content, high quality display, and content that can easily be multi-purposed for desktop machines/Web consumption. The project was seeded with five Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC 3670s by Daniel Updegrove, the Vice President for Information Technology at the University of Texas at Austin. Microsoft Research generously donated three Dell Axim X5s and two Toshiba e750s. All ten of these handheld computers had the following software: operating system - MS Pocket PC 2002, application - Flash Player 6 for PPC.
The units had enough memory to hold all the content needed for the small exhibition, so resources were focused on creating rich media that would be physically stored on the machine. If research findings supported continued use of media such as video, it was assumed that advances over the next year in wireless speed, on-board memory and flash memory cards would handle any future needs.
Benchmarking other handheld guides, the team decided to experiment with two different headphone options: a standard two-ear headphone and a single-ear headphone. The standard two-ear headphone worked best during the pilot when the museum was busy: the two ear headphones helped reduce the distraction of ambient noise. Usability testing demonstrated that two-ear head phones did not lead to a more isolated museum experience, as other studies have suggested, but rather promoted a more immersive experience with the object. Users appeared comfortable interrupting that experience to have a conversation with a friend or family member and then returning to the iTour. During a particularly busy day, the team also experimented by letting small groups use the iTour without headphones, relying on the pocket pc speaker. Blanton staff observed good group dynamics and no additional disruption to other visitors. Out of the three Pocket PC platforms tested, only the Compaq iPAQ 3670 had a speaker that was loud enough for this type of use.
Programming the iTour
Initial technical research led the team to choose Macromedia Flash and Action Scripting as the tool for the interface design. Flash was well suited for modular system architecture and was perfect for handling the interactive and creative elements. Flash did a reasonable job with the video and audio content. Screen loading speed was reasonable. Video quality was not as high as desired, but acceptable for this experiment. The team is anxiously awaiting the release of Flash Player 7 for PPC as well as faster processing speeds. Sound quality was less than desirable, but this was also a product of the original video/audio recording.
To accurately collect visitors’ usage patterns, the iTour was designed to automatically track individual start time, end time, each page visited, the order each page was visited, and the amount of time spent on each page . This data was stored in XML on each Pocket PC and then synchronized to a desktop PC running mySQL database. The XML was then parsed using a PHP script and stored in the mySQL database. A unique id was automatically assigned to each visitor.
Evaluation Methods for iTour and Non-iTour Visitors
A detailed written survey was developed by the Blanton staff to gather statistical data on the impact of the iTour. Altogether, 149 surveys were collected from non-iTour visitors (those who did not use the iTour); 239 surveys were collected from iTour users. Each visitor’s iTour usage pattern was linked to that user’s written survey data. In addition, Blanton staff conducted usability testing and training with visitors, docents, curators, and technologists. Prior to release, the iTour was tested by over 200 museum visitors while Blanton staff observed and solicited feedback.
Profile of respondents
About six in ten respondents were female and four in ten were male. A majority of respondents were White. The average age of respondents was 30-31 years old. There were not any statistically significant differences between iTour and non-iTour respondents with regard to gender, race, or age.
iTour respondents were more educated than non-iTour respondents (p<.01). The majority of iTour respondents had at least a four-year college degree, while the majority of non-iTour respondents had less than a four-year college degree.
Half (51%) of iTour respondents and 61% of non-iTour respondents were college students at the time of the survey. Of those who were college students, more non-iTour respondents (79%) than iTour respondents (61%) were UT Austin students (p<.01). Very few respondents were high school students; however, more users (3%) than non-users (0%) were in high school (p<.05).
A majority of survey respondents had visited an art museum prior to this trip to the Blanton, while about one-fifth had never visited an art museum. About half of the respondents had previously visited the Blanton; of those, most had visited one to three times. There were not any statistically significant differences in the previous museum experiences of iTour and non-iTour respondents.
Overarching Findings and Observations
The average amount of time spent in Visualizing Identity (which contained only four works of art) was nearly 21 minutes. Since this data was collected and recorded through the tracking device on the handheld, an equal measure for determining visitor usage without the iTour was not possible. However, observations of approximately 40 visitors indicated that visitors not using the iTour spent between one and eight minutes in the exhibition.
Observations of visitors using the iTour indicated that rather than spending their time absorbed in the technology, visitors demonstrated positive engagement with the works of art. Visitor viewing patterns appeared to be directed and active - seeking out details in the works, moving back and forth between works, moving closer to works, pointing out details to family members and friends. In an open-ended question on the visitor survey one person wrote: ‘I spent more time exploring exhibits I may have passed over more quickly without the iTour,’ while another stated, ‘The longer I spent with the works the more impact I felt.’
Visitor reactions to the iTour
Visitor learning about Visualizing Identity
Visitor responses to the questions Please take a moment to write down two or three of the most important things you learned from the works of art you just viewed in Visualizing Identity and Did any of the works in Visualizing Identity make a significant impression on you? Yes/No. If so, please describe further supports this finding. There was a statistically significant difference between iTour users’ learning and non-iTour visitors’ learning. Preliminary findings indicate that visitors using the iTour had more extensive learning experiences and were able to:
1. Describe the works using more detail.
I learned what ‘synecdoche’ means, and what the artist intended with these seemingly simple blocks of color (representing individuals in a group portrait). I learned what the meaning of the unusual items was in I Pray (mirror: self reflection, latex suit: artist, soaps: cleansing/purification). And I learned how Untitled and By the River represent the artists’ views of their place in society (the former) and within family and history (the latter)
2. Demonstrate a deeper level of understanding and critical thinking.
‘Hands – I found the artist’s comments of the absences and presence very interesting ‘(the March being about the absence/presence of the African American voice in politics yet the March has an absence of gays/lesbians, women, etc.).
I was especially interested in learning about the creative process behind both Hands and By the River. Both artists of those pieces were sensitive to the ambiguities of their materials—and I don't think I would have considered such ambiguities without the info from the iTour.
3 . Make more connections to their own history and background.
I Pray was striking and invoked memories of my Hispanic childhood.
To a certain extent, I identified with every piece. Though every artist is from a culture that is different from my own, I was given a chance to reflect and celebrate my own culture and beliefs.
4. Engage in greater personal learning.
Untitled (Hands) forced me to consider the special challenges that gay African-American men face. Being neither gay nor African-American, I felt like I glimpsed an entirely ‘new’ cultural vista.
I considered my skin color alone (without the rest of me) as a complete representation of my identity, in a way I had never experienced before.
What are we? Are we the same existence in our perception as in others eyes? These questions resounded within me when I was viewing the works.
Visitor interest in contemporary art
Visitor intentions regarding the Blanton
A majority of visitors were either somewhat or very likely to visit the Blanton again and to visit the Blanton Web site, and about half of respondents were likely to participate in a program at the Blanton. Visitors were less likely to join the Blanton than to engage with the museum in other ways.
There were no statistically significant differences between iTour and non-iTour respondents in their self-reported likelihood of engaging with the Blanton.
Benefits of the iTour
In response to the question, What was the biggest benefit to you of using the iTour? visitors described five elements that held strong appeal:
The study also revealed areas that can be strengthened in the future. Visitors specifically reported the following drawbacks and suggestions for improving the iTour:
Technical Challenges and Lessons Learned
In addition to the extensive data that was collected from both iTour and non-iTour visitors from the survey, the Blanton team documented the following technical challenges and lessons learned.
The battery life on the older iPAQ 3670s was approximately one hour when the units were run full-tilt (full bright, full volume). Both of the newer units, the Dell Axim X5s and the Toshiba e750s, had a battery life of approximately two and one-half hours when run at full-tilt. The recharge time for the Dell and Toshiba removable batteries was two hours. The recharge time for the iPAQ non-removable batteries was two and one-half hours. During the busiest day (more than 200 people), the iPAQs couldn’t keep up with the demand (and the batteries were not interchangeable). This issue is easily solved with the Dell and Toshiba and newer iPAQ models, which have removable batteries. Fully charged extra batteries were kept on hand so that those units could stay in use. Batteries, an ancient chemical cocktail, are indeed the biggest bottleneck for handheld computing.
Pocket PCs are fragile. Screens get scratched, the stylus can get stuck in some units (like the iPAQ 3670), and none of them bounce well. During the pilot, one unit was dropped and broken. Leather cases were used for the Toshibas and Dells. The Niteize Pack Strap was used for the iPAQs and offered some protection and gave the option to add a lanyard as well. For the most part, the Pocket PCs were used without cases or straps. Micro-thin screen protectors were not used because they reduced the clarity of the screen. PDA Screen Clean was used to regularly clean the screens.
Response time on the Pocket PCs was reasonable but not stellar. Video playback was acceptable, but not excellent. Macromedia is working to find ways to increase response time. When FlashPlayer 7 becomes available for PPC, it will provide a 200% speed increase in video playback. The team is confident that advances in the processor speed will continue to increase at a rate that will soon meet and exceed our needs.
Pocket PC reliability, stability and ease of use
All three brands of handheld computers, Dell Axim X5, Toshiba e750 and iPAQ 3670, performed well. The units were stable and reliable and proved easy to use, even by people with no prior computer or handheld experience. We specifically tested the use of the devices with children (as young as 5 years old) and computerphobes - people who dislike using computers. The children found the iTour easy to use. The computerphobes were able to use the iTour, but responded that they would prefer to have others run the iTour for them and then share the information with them.
Creating media rich content
Creating a high quality 30-second video is very time consuming! While the team knew that the original videos created for this project would be labor intensive, we were still surprised by the amount of effort required. Major steps in iTour video production included the following: determine purpose of video; coordinate video shoot, review video; select clips, edit and format video for Pocket PC, and install video in the iTour interface. Add to this the ambitious desire to video the actual artist discussing his or her own work, and the logistics involved in coordinating travel, dates, times, location, and compensation! While visitors clearly indicated that the artist videos were a key element to their satisfaction with the iTour; the study team advises incorporating high quality video only when it is of high interest and relevance.
Omni-directional microphones for video and audio content creation
The cardinal rule of creating rich media, whether it is audio or video, is that you must always use a high quality microphone. Never rely on the microphone on the video camera and never rely on an omni-directional microphone when trying to record a single speaker. Always use a unidirectional microphone and make sure to monitor the sound during recording using headphones. The iTour video production had the best success with a wireless unidirectional lavaliere microphone. The team learned quickly that you can shoot the most beautiful video in the world, but if you don’t have good sound, what good is your video?
Following our principle that the focus should be on the work of art, the designer developed an icon to represent each work of art. The icon for each work was a small keyhole, or detail, from the work. To figure out which icon represented which work, the museum visitor would have to look carefully at the physical work of art first. While this idea sounds good, it did not pass the usability test. Users uniformly were confused and frustrated by the keyhole navigation. This experiment confirms the principle that a handheld museum guide needs to be intuitive and not demand cognitive load for navigation. We want to encourage visitors to think about the art, not about the Pocket PC.
As museums move into the 21st Century, we are challenged to find new and dynamic ways to connect people, ideas, and objects. Mobile technologies offer a unique possibility to provide visitors with greater access to the intellectual and cultural resources of the museum. Digital images of works in storage and from other collections, conversations with curators and artists, contextual material in the form of photographs, film footage, music, and excerpts from related textual materials can all be made available to the visitor at the touch of a button. With the availability of these resources comes the opportunity for the visitor to personalize the experience and make connections with prior knowledge, experience, or interests. Moreover, mobile technologies can help museums fulfill their role as forums for public exchange and dialogue; visitors can now share their experiences and knowledge with the museum and other visitors. Thus museum space begins to expand beyond the gallery walls and into schools, homes, campuses, and across borders into other states and nations.
Colleen Manning, an education researcher with more than ten years experience in program evaluation, served as the evaluation consultant for this project, developed the questionnaire, and analyzed the data.
Many people, including Kelly Baum, Annette Carlozzi, Jenny Chowning, Kristina Elizondo, Andy Greer, Jessie Otto Hite, Amanda Jeronimus, Rolando Lopez, Kara Nicholas, and Daniel Updegrove, provided support. We gratefully acknowledge the donation of equipment by Microsoft Research.