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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:
November 7, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License

Make Your Museum Talk: Natural Language Interfaces for Cultural Institutions
Giuliano Gaia, Italy
Stefania Boiano, Italy
Morgana Caldarini, Italy

Session: Design Issues

A museum usually talks to its audience through a variety of means, such as websites, help desks, human guides, brochures. A considerable effort is being made by museums in order to integrate these different means; for example, by creating a coherent graphic layout for digital and printed communication, or by giving the possibility to contact the human helpdesk via e-mail or chat. The website can be designed so as to be reachable or even updateable from visitors inside the museum via touch screen or wireless devices.

But these efforts seem still far from reaching a real, complete integration due to the difficulty of creating a coherent and really usable interface for different means and situations. We have all experienced how difficult it is to integrate different information, coming from different sources, with different formats, inside a common frame like the website, and how difficult it is to update it continuously. Moreover, the website is simply inaccessible for computer-illiterate persons.

One way to achieve a deeper integration comes from a new generation of natural language recognition systems and their user-friendly interfaces. These applications are able to understand text inputs and spoken language coming from any source (e-mail, chat, web forms, phone). After getting the input, the system will try and find the appropriate answer by applying complex interpretation rules and by searching different databases inside or outside the museum's infosphere. After the answer is found, it can be transmitted to the user by different means: web, e-mail, cell phone messages, vocal messages.

Such interfaces can integrate many useful applications: museums's mascot, interactive guide, shop assistant, first level help desk, e-learning tutor and customer care. It is also easy to imagine a proactive role, e.g. with the system personally inviting people to museum events, always in a very interactive and natural way, since the system can dialogue in real time with users, getting also valuable data about their needs and desires.

Is this science-fiction, particularly for low-budgeted museums? Perhaps not. It is now possible to develop powerful and easily maintainable solutions on low-cost platforms, integrating the museum's IT infrastructure with artificial intelligence based characters. They could act as a front end for natural language recognition engines, speech recognition systems, and existing database and content management applications. The paper will present these new solutions, together with the first case-histories of natural language interfaces usage. Finally, the paper will explore some of the exciting possibilities opened by the integration of these innovative means for museums and cultural institutions.