Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


The Invisible Person: an Interactive Virtual Environment at the Technisches Museum Wien

Otmar Moritsch, Technisches Museum Wien, Austria and Harald Krämer, Museumskonsulent, Austria

About the philosophical backgrounds of the planning of an artificial intelligence installation at the Technisches Museum Wien:

A deluge of new information is produced. The discourse, the mise en scène, the documentation, the communication are transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, intermedial, hypermedial and gear together. They form a multifunctional network of informations, medias and communcational structures. The museum is going to change from a content pool to a content provider. The depository and knowledge about the objects become transparent. This is one side.

On the other side the value of information disappears. As there is no time to reflect on information and to discern its relevance, we are producing endless, register everything and are captured by the Tarantula of information technology. The accumulation of information with the aim of comprehensiveness but without a sense of the whole may be imposing, but it leads us nowhere. Technological developments are such that artists, registrars, curators, researchers and visitors alike get carried away.

The Invisible Person of the Technisches Museum can bridge this gap. Interactive multi-media technology and this artificial intelligence installation would enable people to obtain comprehensive information on the creation, occasion, materialization, function and original presentation of the museum objects, as well as reactions and documentations, the work set against the technical background, society, life in general and scientific discourse.

Each item of information has its raison d'être in terms of instructiveness. It makes little sense to feed more and more data into the computer, creating a collection of dead material, useless classifications and senseless information. Documentation is interpretation. This means, that registrars, curators and the visitors are responsible for the value of information. We need a discussion about the boundaries and possibilities. By defining the boundaries, the questions and the contents, working with information technology becomes useful for everyone. We have to realize that all collecting, researching, educating and conserving has no sense, if the actual egoistic thinking of our consumer society precipitates the collapse of humanity, culture and civilisation. The museum makes an important contribution to humanity. We all have the duty to lead our visitors and users to a critical seeing and understanding of art and reality. Critical seeing is distinctive seeing.

The Invisible Person is not only Dr. Jekyll, the scientist of facts and content but also Mr. Hyde, the story-teller of amusing informations and context. He is the personalized authority for that kind of important knowledge which has a relevance for human action.

The main question is not how can we transfer the content of our database managementsystems to our colleagues or visitors? The main question is how can we learn again to communicate together and with the following generations?

This is one of the main tasks of museum policy at the beginning of the 21st century. But there are a lot of other suggestions:

What is the real benefit of the using multimedia technology and database management systems in museums in proportion to the expenditure?

  • How does computer technology engage the objects and the museum?

  • How does the visitor handle the experience of electronic reproductions and originals?

  • What about the aura of the original?

  • When becomes the reproduction of a reproduction into an original again?

  • How interactive ist the interactivity really?

  • Do the registrars, visitors know something about the change of perception using computer technology in the museums?

The relation between virtuality and reality has changed. The question of the medium is rarely of interest nowadays. Interactivity can produce a specific relation to reality. Traditional categories are no longer valid, even though they continue to exist. Other special fields, such as genetic engineering, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, as well as ecology, sociology and politics are introduced. The traditional understanding of chronology disappears. Technological development and the media combine past, presence and future. The world becomes a museum.

Nowadays, one of the main tasks of the museum is to critically deal with the possibilities of electronic reproductions. The meaning and importance of museums are changing in the age of digital revolution. Notwithstanding its present main functions as an arthouse cinema, tourist attraction and boutique, the museum is still an institution of enlightenment in the classic sense, a "school of senses", and, now more than ever, it is obliged to guide the visitor toward critical viewing and experience.

The museum of the 21st century will have

  • to find his position in the community, his specific digital corporate identity,

  • to be a constructive counterpart to the deluge of reproductive media images, and

  • it will also have to consider itself an interactive transmitter actively influencing the opening of electronic "elbow spaces" and the creation of new visual codes.
With the Invisible Person - an interactive virtual environment, the Technisches Museum Wien will create a virtual moderator, a guide through the world of new visual codes, of reproductional reproductions, of originals, aura and interactivity.

Based on the concept of the ALIVE project, developed at the MIT Media Lab, future visitors of the Technisches Museum Wien will be able to interact with an artificial intelligence object, named the Invisible Person, based on an immersive virtual environment. That means, without any additional devices, the visitor will be able to communicate with the artifical lifeform through gesture elements (a later step is to incorporate audio) over a backprojection wall which acts as a virtual mirror. The complete scene will be generated on a SGI machine in realtime in a daylight environment. After a testing period in the museum, we want to bring the Invisible Person and the experiences we've made with him on the web.