A&MI home

158 Lee Avenue
Toronto Ontario
M4E 2P3 Canada

ph: +1 416-691-2516
fx: +1 416-352-6025

info @ archimuse.com

Join our Mailing List.



published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:  October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License


Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Multimedia Handhelds: One Device, Many Audiences

Chris Tellis, Antenna Audio, USA


In 2004, the first fully featured, wireless handheld programs will open at the J. Paul Getty Museum and at several other institutions throughout the world.  New pilot programs are under way at Tate Modern, Te Papa Tongarewa, The Royal Institute, and several other sites in Europe, North America and Asia. In these and other locations, the handheld installations are moving well beyond the traditional adult tour and are being used for way finding, chat rooms, bookmarking, disabled visitor access, and interactive family tours. Over the past 12 months there has been a tremendous amount of progress that has moved the wireless handheld platform from the theoretical realm into the practical for museum guides.  Third generation user-interfaces are more intuitive, battery issues have been resolved, and museum touring applications have been tested and proven to be stable and effective. This paper looks at the new applications for this platform and describes representative handheld programs at five museums.

Keywords: Handhelds, Wireless, Audio Tours, PDA, Multimedia, Sign Language


In previous papers over the past three years (Proctor and Tellis, 2003. Tellis and Proctor, 2002, Tellis, 2001) we have described the evolution of the handheld platform and the transition from mobile audio to mobile multimedia within the museum touring context.  Throughout this period we have advocated a cautious approach to these next generation touring devices and suggested a thorough examination of the capabilities of the audio-only players, while the newer screen-based systems pass through their teething pains and the technology catches up to the expectations of the end user.

The earlier PDAs tested in various prototype installations were slow, bulky and delicate devices with insufficient processor power to handle the demands of audio, still and moving image.   At the same time, compact mp3 audio devices had become extraordinarily capable. These players now have the capacity to hold up to 140 hours of content and offer superb audio reproduction, random access and linear tours, visitor tracking capabilities, automatic triggering, and the ability to synch the audio track to films and videos in any language. Each year approximately 35 million audio tours are distributed in museums, cultural sites and attractions around the world.

For many museum installations, audio devices will continue to be the most appropriate mobile education accessory.  Many museums will prefer the more minimal approach of audio-only interpretation that focuses visitor attention upon the work of art and directs the eye to the artwork, never to the device. Most current audio devices also have integrated speakers allowing them to be used as wands, as well as headset devices, whereas PDAs will always need a wire to a single or stereo earpiece.  Finally there is the reassurance that comes with veteran technology that ensures a consistent, seamless visitor experience.

Nevertheless, significant progress has been achieved in PDA technology. Several prototype installations over the past three years have taught us a great deal about the capabilities and limitations of these devices.  Probably the most significant study was undertaken at Tate Modern in the fall of 2002. As reported last year (State of the Art in Museum Handhelds in 2003, Proctor and Tellis), the Tate Modern Multimedia Tour Pilot ran from July through September of 2002.  Sponsored by Bloomberg, the 45-minute program focused on select objects in the Still Life/Object/Real Life galleries.

Our objective was to push the capabilities of the player by combining all potential wireless, multimedia features into one device. Visitors were able to experience audio, video, still images and a variety of interactive applications via handheld iPAQs loaned by Hewlett Packard.

Since the primary purpose of the program was to evaluate visitor response, each user was asked to fill out a questionnaire.  In total, 852 questionnaires were collected from both UK and international visitors, with UK visitors representing slightly more than half the user population (56%). In addition, the museum sourced independent evaluation from the Susie Fisher Group. The results of the Fisher study, along with observations by Antenna and Museum staff, are reported in detail in our earlier paper..

Applying Results

The extensive testing at Tate and other sites has resulted in vastly improved user-interfaces that follow the chronology of the touring experience. Initial screens now reflect the information requirements at precisely the distributions area, followed by menus that cater to visitor needs as they navigate the galleries. In addition, our experiments have revealed the level of content optimization required to work within the current processor and transmission capabilities. More recent programs reflect these upgrades, with dramatic increases in visitor satisfaction.

Any platform that is to make it to ‘prime time’ on the museum floor needs to reach the required intersection of capability, reliability, availability and affordability.  Only in the past six months have we seen the screen-based players cross this threshold.  In addition, for a new technology to graduate into fully functional touring installations it is necessary for the player to meet minimum standards of weight and working life.  Visitors will not accept the transition from compact mp3 players to multi-media devices if the players are excessively heavy and unwieldy. Although fine for a pilot program, the iPAQ players used at Tate Modern in the fall of 2002 were clearly not ready for widespread visitor acceptance.  With removable wireless cards and bulky cases, they were much too large and heavy to burden the visitor with for an extended visit. Operating in a constant wireless mode, the players had a battery life of only 1.5 hours, completely unacceptable for any permanent collection installation.

However, all this changed with the players released in 2003.  Wireless capability was integrated into the basic design.  Processor speed and energy management increased to the required levels.

This steep trajectory of change is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, a little patience rewards the museum with an enhanced set of features and reliability. On the other, there is the potential for rapid obsolescence with a major investment. New generations of players are typically released every six months.  Although the angle of innovation is declining a bit, we currently advise museums of a strong expectation any technological choice will be eclipsed in 24 to 30 months.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the current capabilities of the wireless PDA platform represent the most exciting development in museum education appliances in the past two decades. As the PDA platform comes of age, we are seeing that comparisons to audio tours are increasingly less valid.  Wireless, multimedia handhelds are not really equivalent alternatives, but instead represent a new generation museum appliance with multiple but different applications and, often, different audiences as well.

Handhelds in 2004

In last year’s MW paper I mentioned that there have been only two technological breakthroughs in the 35 years since the first audio tours were introduced.  These were the compact cassette and the transition from analog to digital audio.

With wireless PDAs we are crossing three distinct but complementary thresholds: wireless, multimedia and location-based services.  Each of these developments opens up a wide range of services:


Memory: The great hurdle in audio tours has always been the trade off between audio quality, capacity and expense. In the most fundamental transformation, wireless eliminates this problem with the transition from memory-on-board to centralized storage. Centralized content transmitted wirelessly removes all limits to the capacity of the players. This is essential for the memory-hungry multimedia applications.  In addition, updates and changes need only be made in one centralized location, rather than uploading to each player.

Interactive Educational Programs: Wireless allows two-way communication with centralized programs or with teachers and museum educators.

Personalized Content Delivery: Because each player has a separate address, it is possible to establish a separate identity for each player and create individualized content streams for each user.

Bookmarking: With a constant connection to the server, the user can establish, at any time, a link to any work in the tour and send these links to a  home e-mail address.   Once at an outside computer, the visitor can activate these links to pursue additional information on the areas previously  bookmarked.

Visitor Surveying: With a continuous connection to all the players in the museum, applications can be installed on the central server to allow for visitor tracking and downloading of survey questions. Survey results can be instantly compiled and graphed with the composite results immediately available to the user.

Paging Services and Alerts: A constant wireless link to each individual player allows for individual and group messages to be transmitted at any time.

Communication & Experience-Sharing among Visitors: Each player has the capability to send messages to any of the other players on the wireless network. Although these discussions need to be moderated, the capability exists for lively real time dialogue among all the museum visitors.

Interface with Internet and/or Intranet: Although unfettered access to the Web is likely to be restricted, specialized links to complementary Web sites will allow additional, individual research to occur within the galleries.

Retail Promotions and Wireless Commerce: Inspired by the works around them, users can peruse the museum shop and order or reserve products on demand while still in the galleries.

Booking Services: Visitors can reserve a spot in a lecture, a seat in the dining room or entry to an upcoming exhibition.


Multimedia represents the most exciting and controversial aspect of screen-based players. Looking at this from the content side, while it not hard to envision a screen-based experience to complement a science museum or natural history museum, the introduction of handheld multimedia devices into art museums is decidedly more controversial. Art museums represent one of the few places that guarantee an encounter with exquisite, original objects. They afford the visitor the opportunity to closely observe the hand of the maker and the texture of the materials.  Art museums are supremely focused on the importance of looking and seeing. Should screen based players interfere with this process, they will never find acceptance within the galleries.

The challenge lies with the educator and the content provider to develop experiences which augment the accessory role of the interpretive device.  For the most part the interpretation will still be primarily audio-only, focusing on the artwork. When screen images are introduced, it is essential that they seamlessly integrate into the overall message in a way that does not break character with the interpretive experience. The way to achieve this is by making the screen an interpretive detail that is handled in the same way as a reference to a feature in the painting or an adjacent image.  This means the screen component should be relatively brief and should be bracketed by the instruction on when to look and when to look away. At no time should visitors feel there might be something happening on the screen that they are missing because they have not been told. The visitors need to learn early in the touring experience that there will be a consistent reference whenever a screen image is available.

Differences still exist about whether the screen should be left blank or should contain a simple screen saver whenever there is nothing showing. Our experience at the first Tate pilot indicated that blank screens caused some visitors to assume their player had gone dead.  This led to unacceptable screen-poking as the visitors attempted to resurrect their players. Tate 2003 has a default screen with a colored background image and a series of dots moving across the screen to indicate it is still alive.  Still unresolved is whether even the most benign screen can still cause a distraction. In both cases it is possible that the screen viewing directives were simply not effective and consistent. This is an area that will require additional study.

For some museums, the issues of rights clearance and funding will slow the arrival of images onto the players. There is no reason to display images just because you have a screen. It is a simple matter for the players to be used as audio-only devices, using touch screen keypads, which duplicate the keypads found on audio players.  Museums which already have extensive audio programs can instantly migrate to the new devices, using the same numeric access codes currently in place, and still take advantage of the wireless and location features. The Getty Museum, for instance, is opening an extensive wireless handheld installation this spring, with no interpretive images, but with full reliance on centralized data storage and with elaborate bookmarking capabilities.

PDA screens and the prospect of numerous miniature television sets invading the galleries appall some museum professionals. But it would be a mistake to simply dismiss this technology. Even in the most conservative institution, it is still possible to envision situations where secondary images can add interpretive value. The possibilities are too broad. To ban screen-based images completely would be like banning all brochures or conversation in the galleries. The goal of the educator should not be to dismiss the medium, but to gain firm control and strike the balance that best serves the needs of the individual institution. For example, there is the opportunity to see the back of a sculpture or vase, or to see an artist’s original studies, or relevant portions of a collection that must stay out of view for conservation reasons. In the 21st Century, as more artists create in a variety pf mediums, multimedia players have the potential to be significant exhibit accessories, providing sound tracks or personal video created by the artist. Again, pilot programs have been extraordinarily useful for provoking a dialogue about which techniques enhance the experience and which components subvert it.

Even without images to enhance the educational purpose of tours, it is inevitable that screen based players will find their way into museums in order to assist visitors in other ways.  An obvious example is way-finding.  Independent of wireless or location services, it is still possible to enter a gallery number into your player and locate your position on a screen-based map. Wireless and positioning makes this even easier, allowing visitor to press a single button to display their location at any time. An additional function would allow visitors to locate any work of art and display the most direct path to it from their immediate location.

Screens can also be employed to clearly display label text, liberating the visitor from the need to move in close to the wall. If the museum’s chosen font and lighting level is not accessible to certain visitors, the screen text can be customized to whatever standard works for the individual viewer.

Screens also allow graphic user interfaces, which enable visitors to simply tap an image or title of the artwork rather than enter a number to gain access to the message.

Screen-based systems can also provide remarkable solutions for special audiences.  As mentioned earlier, visually impaired visitors can adjust font size and contrast to enable them to more easily read label and wall text. For hearing-impaired visitors, it is possible either to caption videos or to provide full-featured sign language guides that translate all the audio tracks into an accessible format.  A highly successful sign language guide is already in place at Tate Modern, and we are currently captioning all the in-gallery videos for the Spy Museum.

Location-Based Services

Location-based services (LBS) determine your position within the galleries and provide a series of related enhancements. It is not essential to have wireless capability, as positioning can be determined by infrared triggers (IR) or radio tags (RFID). These transmitters are usually attached to a wall and are picked up by the player when entering the range. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Infrared requires line-of-site, but as a result can be focused and is more accurate than radio. RF tags represent a more economical way of tagging objects and do not require line-of-sight contact with the PDA, but their range is very short (generally under 12 inches) and can be impractical. For occasional positioning, IR or RFID are attractive options, allowing single point triggers for specific purposes.  For comprehensive positioning throughout the museum, the software based positioning systems are more practical as they require less hardware to cover large areas and have a higher degree of flexibility.  Essentially these systems work through triangulation, using a minimum of three different access points to establish the location. Software based systems also make it easier to map irregular spaces.  Once the access points are in place and communication, via a laptop, is established with the central server, the installer simply walks the perimeter of the designated zone and assigns it to a common location, be it a single gallery or entire section of the museum. Some of the applications available from LBS include:
  • Location-Specific Content Delivery: This is particularly useful for downloading programs or restricting access to information relevant to the visitor’s immediate surroundings.
  • Way-finding: Discussed previously.
  • Device tracking: LBS allows the museum to see the location of all the devices at any given time.  If all players are clustered in one location, a message can be sent to the users, suggesting another area of interest.
  • Security Alarms: If a player moves beyond the perimeter, LBS can tell the player to active an alarm.
  • Queue-monitoring:  Again, the museum can use one central location to scan when lines are getting long at any entrance within the museum


To turn the corner from pilot programs into actual installations, it has been necessary not only to achieve a working balance between content and technology, but also to develop the accessories necessary for tour distributions. These include long-life batteries, charging systems and carrying cases.

For the time being, we have settled on the Toshiba line of players as the most reliable and feature-appropriate, using first the e750 and now the e800 model.  For smaller and temporary installations, it is possible to use the supplied battery which provides two to three hours of use in a continuous wireless environment.  For the larger, permanent collection installations, it will be necessary to add extended life batteries, which provided eight to ten hours of continuous operation in tests conducted over the summer.  Actual field applications may differ, and we will be watching this closely as the projects open.

In addition, we have worked with a number of different casing options, testing fully reinforced cases, simple lanyards and a position in between.  Each has its merits and uses.  The reinforced cases offer enhanced protection and, if well designed, can accommodate future PDA model variations, but risk being bulkier and more inconvenient than necessary. A simple lanyard solution is elegant, but less protective against accidental damage, and we found that visitors were fiddling with some of the default settings.  The neoprene ‘shoe’ option will both provide sufficient protection and insulate the critical buttons from the visitors, but may require more frequent maintenance or replacement.

For our first installations, we provided a 25-unit charging suitcase to handle the 100-player installation. For the 500 player Getty installation, we are developing a 50 unit mobile charger that will allow users to move players around the museum.

Current Programs

With the extraordinary potential for this medium, it is reassuring to see that in 2004 we are now beginning to advance from the pilot stage into fully functional wireless handheld installations operating as the primary museum touring installation. At the same time, several pilot programs are still underway at museums around the world.  The wireless handheld programs are vastly more complex than traditional audio tours, and there is still a great deal to be learned.  But the level of expertise, combined with progress in the technology, has now reached a point where properly conceived systems and programs are ready to be placed in the visitors’ hands.

In the following section I will briefly describe three pilot programs and two installations that illustrate current applications.

Pilot Programs

Tate Modern

This project is be covered in greater detail in Gillian Wilson’s paper, Tate Modern Multimedia Tour Programme, also part of Museums and the Web 2004.

Highlights Tour

The 2003 pilot has several components, one of which is a highlights tour, ostensibly created for 16-25 year olds, but available to any interested museum visitor. As described previously, the pilot program created for Tate Modern in the fall of 2002 was designed to push the limits of the technology and content. The production style was inconsistent and fragmented, with different approaches to each room. The 2003 installation reflects several of the findings from the 2002 pilot and displays a consistent style more closely illustrating how an actual permanent collection handheld installation might appear. The content has also been optimized for the player capabilities in order to increase reliability.

Sign Language Guide

Running in parallel with the Tate highlights tour is a program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  The program should be rightly considered a translation into British Sign Language (BSL) rather than a special program.  BSL is the preferred language of 50,000–70,000 people in the UK and is more widely used than Welsh or Gaelic.

The Sign Language Guide is a perfect example of the expanded opportunities with multimedia guides. The response has been nothing less than overwhelming.  At the debut of the program, John Wilson, Arts Officer for SHAPE, the UK's disability arts organization, gave a keynote speech in which he said the Sign Language Guide “…would bring access for the deaf in museums out of the dark ages and into a golden age of interpretation".

The users that evening made the following comments:

I've always been kind of interested in art but never really bothered to go to museums - now I will if they have a BSL guide.

I've seen Rothko many times before, but I never understood what was going on in those paintings until now - my head is so full of information and ideas, it's wonderful!

Royal Institution

For over 205 years, the Royal Institution has been the home of science research and communication in Great Britain. The complexity of this mission is reflected in the multi-faceted nature of the organization. The Royal Institution’s Davy Faraday Research Laboratory has seen 14 of its resident scientists receive the Nobel Prize, and witnessed the discovery of 10 of the chemical elements. Famous scientists such as Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, James Dewar and William and Lawrence Bragg all based their innovative and groundbreaking work at the Royal Institution, the discoveries of which still have an impact on our daily lives. The Royal Institution also houses the Faraday Museum, recounting the history and scientific work of Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electro-magnetic induction, electro-magnetic rotations, the magneto-optical effect, diamagnetism, field theory and more.

With such a long and distinguished history, every nook and cranny of the Royal Institution is filled with important objects and artworks that tell the stories of scientific debate, making a stroll through the Royal Institution’s halls an education in itself. But within Britain, the Royal Institution is perhaps best known for its Christmas lecture series. Broadcast from the Royal Institution’s historic Faraday Lecture Theatre, the Christmas lectures have presented complex scientific issues to children in an informative and entertaining manner since the 1820s, and have become an annual tradition in British households. Today, over 30,000 children visit the Royal Institution each year to take part in the lavishly illustrated and interactive Young Person’s Program

This commitment to both fostering science research and communicating it to a wide range of audiences - from children to Nobel prize winners to the media and public in general - requires a sophisticated approach to interpretation and education. The Royal Institution has therefore undertaken the development of a ‘Science Navigator’ multimedia tour system and information resource for the Institution’s visitors. The project is supported by the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), and will be piloted with the public for three months from summer 2004 with a view to a more permanent installation as part of the Royal Institution’s redevelopment and refurbishment in 2006.

Uniquely, the Science Navigator will customize the tour experience according to both the visitors’ locations in the collections, and their personal profiles. Using wireless PDAs, the Science Navigator will both recount the Royal Institution’s many stories in rich multimedia, and provide visitors with interactive access to further information based on their location and what they’ve already seen and done in the building. The Royal Institution project therefore represents the first time that both personalization technologies and location-based services have been used in combination in a multimedia tour.

The interactive multimedia content is designed for three distinct audiences: primary school children, and secondary school students, as well as a generalist adult audience. As a visitor uses the Science Navigator, its personalization engine combines this basic profile information with a dynamic record of what objects and information the visitor has experienced so far. It also takes into account the visitor’s proximity to other objects - both physical and conceptual. The Navigator can then intelligently and proactively suggest the visitor’s next steps in the tour, adapting the tour automatically to changes in the visitor’s route or interests as required.

True to the Royal Institution’s mission to break down the barriers between science and society and inform people about how science affects their daily lives, this cutting-edge technology itself is also an exhibit and attraction at the Royal Institution, demonstrating the future of mobile communications in a living, hands-on installation today. For the rest of the museum community, the Royal Institution project represents an exciting opportunity to explore some answers to the question: What would you tell your visitors if you knew not only where they were, but who they were, what they knew and what they’d done, in order to help them with where they’re going?

Renwick Gallery

At the Renwick Gallery in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Claire Larkin has developed a small but exceptionally fine program. This pilot program covers fourteen items in the permanent collection, covering contemporary sculpture and glassware.  It is a classic example of excellent work by an in-house team and deserves a look by anybody interested in this medium.

The tour is available on weekends and is provided on an HP iPAQ 5450. The museum had twenty players donated by HP, which are carried by the visitor in a simple, elegant blue case.

Player in a bright blue case with a long strap

Figure 1: Renwick Gallery – Player and Carrying Case

The technology has a few problems associated with earlier generation players, such as short battery life and semi-reliable roaming, but the content is excellent and illustrates several important points about PDA tours.

Location Based Services

The positioning software was provided by Newberry Networks and, after some initial problems, appears to be working well. Upon entering each room, after a short delay, a menu appears listing the names of and thumbnail images for three to four artworks in the immediate vicinity.  Both the title and the image are essential for locating the works of art. I found this version of the icon interface preferable to those which just show the image. It is worth noting, however, that all icon interfaces require the visitor to use the screen as the primary reference for locating art works which have messages. The less innovative but familiar access number interface has you looking at the artworks to find the numbers and then turning to the player just once to access the message. For some visitors this may be easier than comparing two-dimensional thumbnail images to the actual object.

Message length

A few of the stops were only 18 or 20 seconds long, and some visitors found them to be too short. By contrast, at the first Tate pilot, the visitors felt the stops were too long.  The Renwick Installation had the shortest messages I have ever encountered in a museum tour. In my own assessment I felt 20 seconds was the minimum, 45 seconds the upper limit and 30 seconds about right. This is a major deviation from our position 10 years ago when 90 seconds was assumed to be the average length for an audio tour message.  Interestingly, even though the 20-second messages seemed short, they were beautifully composed and left me motivated to learn more. This is an intriguing reaction against a backdrop of research which shows that visitors do not take permanent collection tours because they feel the tour slows them down. Visitors to the permanent collection feel they have a lot of ground to cover.  The desire to see as much as possible overrides the appeal of in-depth investigation. This is not the case in temporary exhibitions which have pre-ordained limits and in which the visitors knows they can linger without missing any of the important artworks.  What this suggests for permanent collection information architecture is a brief introductory message, with additional layers available if the visitor wants to invest more time.


For each stop there were three to four messages: a video with the artist talking about his or her work, a video showing a scholar discussing the work, a text message and an audio message. The artist videos were particularly appealing, mainly because Claire and her team asked each one the same question, “Why did you become an artist?”  It was a simple but brilliant method to gain subjective personal insight into the underlying motivation behind the work.  It strongly suggested a component to multimedia tours that would be universally appealing to museum visitors.

Te Papa

On the opposite side of the globe is Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of New Zealand located in Wellington.

View of the building across the water

Figure 2: Te Papa Tongarewa

The Museum is six years old, and features an innovative combination of new and traditional exhibits. It is an unusual institution in that all disciplines are under one roof. Exhibits range from traditional and contemporary fine art to decorative arts, New Zealand culture and history, Polynesian culture and history, and natural sciences of the South Pacific region.  Special emphasis is placed on the display and description of Maori culture, and great sensitivity to Maori issues pervades the entire Te Papa experience.  The balancing of Maori and Pakeha (European) interests is an ongoing concern throughout the country, dating back to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which gave sovereignty to the Queen but confirmed rights of possession to the Maori over their ancestral lands.

The focus of the pilot is a permanent exhibition entitled Made in New Zealand.  The exhibition features Pakeha and Maori works of art and craft selected to help visitors understand the elements leading to a particular New Zealand form of expression.  The exhibit takes you through the entire history of the land, from the earliest Maori artifacts through the arrival of Able Tasman and James Cook, the settlements, rebellions, treaties, reconciliation, later immigration and on to current issues and modern art.

The handheld pilot has been funded by the Microsoft Innovation Center, which provides grants to government and national institutions for innovative uses of information technologies.

What distinguishes the Made in New Zealand project from other pilots is that the exhibition follows a defined chronology through a series of narrow galleries.  From the outset it was clear that the exhibition would support a linear tour, something not previously tested with handhelds and in fact rarely pursued since digital players replaced walkmans. This trend has not been completely satisfactory. In some exhibits, random access has not served the educational objectives, as the break between messages and the hunt for the next access number interrupts the flow of the story. For the last eight years, linear tours have been out of fashion. Traditional linear tours require the visitor to follow directions guiding the listener on a set route through the exhibition.  Linear tours were faulted for forcing each visitor to follow the same path and same order. However handhelds introduce several characteristics that lend themselves to linear tours, not the least of which is the ability to display the destination object as you are navigating toward it via the spoken directions.

In addition, PDAs have the capability of supporting multiple learning styles by allowing both linear tours and the opportunity to switch to random access if so preferred.

To ease the navigation along the tour, it was decided to auto trigger several of the messages. Although the original plan was to radio-trigger, the program has now switched to positioning software, due to difficulties in controlling the RF signal.

This project is still in development, with an opening anticipated in the late spring. At this stage, the program consists of a tour that has 24 stops distributed through eight rooms. In essence, you have a series of automatically triggered, mini linear tours in each gallery; they can be linked up to make one continuous experience.  As the visitor approaches the exhibit and enters each room, a positioning trigger initiates the message for the first stop in that room. This message then provides a spoken direction and digital flag to play the following message, continuing on through subsequent stops until the two to five messages in each gallery have been played. This gives two to six minutes of total content per gallery. At the end of each gallery sequence, a message will play to suggest the visitor spend as much time as desired looking at these or other objects in the gallery, and then move on to the next gallery when ready. As soon as the visitor enters the next gallery, the automatic trigger initiates the mini tour for this room, and the process repeats. Under this format it is possible to cruise through the entire exhibit, seamlessly handing off from one trigger to the next, without ever having to touch the player. Even if you pause in each gallery to look at additional objects, you still never have to touch the player unless you choose to go to second levels. The tour simply restarts when you enter the next room. The idea is to combine the educational value that comes from a well produced broadcast story, which assembles interviews, images and media affects in a cadenced, progressive, sequence to maximize interest, with the anchoring and pilgrimage qualities associated with an encounter with real objects. In essence the visitor inhabits a virtual video, with the narrator scrolling user attention back and forth between object, handheld and direction. The images on the handheld simply become additional details slotted into the overall story.

If the visitor wishes to accelerate through the galleries, the auto triggers will override and synch up to the current location. If the person wishes to back up, or proceed at random, there is a navigation button on the screen that will bring up the map for the exhibit and highlight the current room. Tapping this map will bring up a track list with thumbnail images for the works in this gallery. The user can also tap any other room on the map to see a list of those messages. Moving backward through the galleries will blacklist the audio messages already played, but the positioning software will still tell the map to highlight the current room.  If the user manually accesses a message, t he tour will restart and continue as before to the end of the gallery.

Te Papa has a full time in-house evaluator who will be preparing questionnaires and conducting exit interviews. In addition, there will be automatic session monitoring via the server. All visitors will be asked to enter their e-mail addresses, allowing a link between the exit interviews and the session monitor, to see how their reported experiences compared with the actual records. Along with the questions about interface and retention, we anticipate visitors will also be asked to comment on the isolating quality of the headsets. The script is still in development, but it is anticipated that it will include content which specifically encourages interaction with other members of their party to see if it is possible to preempt this effect.


Technology Museum

At the end of November 2003, the first fully operational wireless handheld installation opened at a corporate museum.  The museum celebrates the history and accomplishments of the parent company, a major technology manufacturer located in northern California.  This particular firm has an understandable policy requiring subcontractors to keep their association anonymous. 

The program consists of three one-hour tours: Manufacturing, History and General Tour. All tours are provided in seven languages.

All information is provided wirelessly. The gallery space is fairly small, making the wireless coverage easy to achieve.

The user interface allows visitors to access the messages either via map icons or via access numbers and an on-screen keypad.  In the initial weeks, most visitors were choosing to use the on-screen keypad.

Initial Findings

The content contains a mix of narration, interactive games, and audio and video interviews.  As we have seen in other installations, audio is still the primary communications medium, with the other elements playing a subsidiary role.

Because the client intends to use the program for off-site demonstration purposes, the writer was directed to remove on-site references that refer specifically to the screen or the associated object.  This meant that the narration could not tell the visitor when and where to look.  Although it was unavoidable at this site and less of an issue for a science museum, we still feel that this double duty requirement compromises the quality of the program within the exhibition space.

Although the project was developed in less than three months, this timeframe does not reflect the extraordinary effort involved with multimedia production for this platform.  As one might assume, these programs are exponentially more complex than audio tours.  A particular issue is the unpredictable nature of discovering, auditioning and clearing visual assets. Under a tight schedule where all the components have to come together at a certain time, a delay in the visual components can throw off all deadlines.  The response is to extend the planning process to assemble all the visual elements and storyboard the production before scriptwriting begins.  As the volume of handheld programs increases, it will be essential for partner museums to supply a selection of cleared visual assets at the beginning of the production kick-off and scheduling process.

Over the next several weeks we will be conducting visitor surveys at this site and expect to be able to share the results at the MW 2004 conference.

The Getty Museum

The most ambitious handheld project is now expected to open in May 2004 at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

For the past six years the Getty has had an audio program with approximately 50 hours of permanent collection programming in English and Spanish. Over the years the programming has remained on Antenna’s CD-ROM player, the Gallery Guide™. This year the entire program will be switched to wireless handhelds, using the Toshiba e800 player.  When fully operational the installation will consist of approximately 500 players, which the museum refers to collectively as the Getty Guide.

Although fully wireless, in the initial stages the program will not have any images or video except for the various screens required to navigate through the museum.  The visitor will also have the opportunity to bookmark and access additional layers of information via workstations linked to the Getty network and central servers.

There is no overestimating the complexity of this project, which has been delayed for several months while the back end and network were completed and we sorted through several issues concerning subsequent different generations of players. Unlike earlier projects, which operated in limited spaces, the Getty Guide will traverse the entire museum, roaming between multiple access points with hundreds of players simultaneously connecting to the server.  Tests with the first 100 players are  continuing through the month of February.

More than any other museum, the Getty has put a great deal of time, effort and resources into the handheld platform and a digital network that links all information assets. Staff have extensively researched both the technology and the visitor preferences to prepare a system of information technologies and visitor service that is unparalleled.

It is an extraordinary commitment that will have a major impact on opening up this communications universe for other institutions.

Museums and Archeological sites in Greece

Loosely related originally to the Olympic Games in Athens, a potentially very significant development in multimedia interpretation is quietly taking shape in Greece, part-financed by the European Union.  The Organization for the Development of Greek Culture (OPEP) has issued a far-sighted and long-term tender for hand-held interpretation at 15 of the key museums and archeological sites in the country.  These include the Acropolis, the stadium at Olympia, the Oracle of Delphi, the National Archeological Museum in Athens, the Palace of Knossos, the newly discovered Tombs of King Philip, father of Alexander the Great at Vergina, and many others.

The contract is likely to be the largest ever awarded to an interpretation company, but it is unusual in at least one other respect:  the tender documentation has stipulated that no less than two-thirds of the players be multimedia devices, capable of playing video, text and still images as well as audio, both for internal settings like museums and challenging external sites.  The first sites will not go live until the 2004 Olympic Games are safely in the history books, but, taken as a group, they will represent the first wholesale and multi-site installation of handheld multimedia devices, both indoors and out.  As such, they promise to become an important milestone in the development and adoption of these technologies.


With at least a dozen other handheld projects scheduled to open this year, including an extensive installation at 15 Greek archeological sites, 2004 will clearly be the breakout year for wireless multimedia installations in museums.  Nevertheless, we are still at the early stage of the platform’s life and adoption.  A tremendous amount is being learned every day within a technological environment that is still rapidly evolving. We often compare it to drinking from Niagara Falls. Even while fully operational systems are now starting to open, it is critical that the pilot programs continue to test, measure and learn from alternative and innovative approaches and that there continue to be free sharing of information among all those active in this sector.


Fisher, Susie (2002). Tate Modern Multimedia Tour Evaluation, unpublished findings, 2002.

Microsoft Innovation Center, Te Papa Mobile Exhibition Guide (MEG), June 2003

Proctor, Nancy and Chris Tellis (2003). The State of the Art in Museum Handhelds in 2003, Museums and the Web, Charlotte, March 2003. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2003/papers/proctor/proctor.html

Tate (2002). Unpublished survey results. Research period 25 July to 02 Sept 2002. Statistics based on a sample size of 445 visitors out of total visitor figures of 677,307 during the research period.

Tellis, Chris (2001). Panel Presentation, Museum Computer Network Conference, Cleveland, November 2001.

Tellis, Chris and Nancy Proctor (2002). Workshop: Handhelds in Museums, Museums and the Web, Boston, April 2002.