March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: The PDA Tour: Tour: We Did It; So Can You

Sonja Hyde-Moyer, United States

In 2005, the Museum of Science in Boston launched its first PDA Tour to accompany its traveling exhibit Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination. This paper discusses the choices that were made: from project selection to technology options, from partnerships to content development. What steps did the Museum take to make it happen? How did we identify the risks and opportunities that helped the Museum move forward with its technology strategy while future-proofing ourselves in the face of a shifting technology landscape? What lessons can be drawn from our experience?

Keywords: PDA, handhelds, tours, new technologies, enhanced visit, extended visit, pocketPC, multimedia

The Enhanced and Extended Visit

Technology Literacy Begins At Home

As one of the leading Science and Technology Centers in the United States, the Museum of Science knows that it has to lead the way in researching and implementing new technology in its museum.

Two ideas that have been a focus as the Museum moves forward with its Technology Vision are what we can term the Enhanced Visit and the Extended Visit. The goal is to implement technology solutions, on the floor and on-line, that broaden visitors’ experience beyond the traditional ‘four walls’. This is done either by finding new ways to ‘enhance the experience’, in this case, using a mobile handheld computer, or PDA, to deliver content; or by ‘extending the experience’, as was done on this project, by using the Web to delivery personalized Web pages that relate directly to topics viewed during a Museum visit.

What does this mean in practical terms? The Museum of Science is a leader in developing interactive learning experiences on the Museum floor. The Museum has also done a great job of developing Universally Designed exhibits that allow us to meet the needs and expectations of visitors who have a broad range of learning styles, abilities, and limitations.

The PDA Tour was so very compelling to us on this project because the power available in handheld PCs opened up a new range of opportunities. It allowed us to enhance the visit by delivering additional content on demand in a variety of formats, including video, audio, and text. It allowed us to extend the visit by allowing visitors to bookmark content - that is to say, select topics that they could access later from home, via an automatic e-mail trigger. Lastly, it allowed us to continue our commitment of providing the experiences that meet the needs and abilities of a broad range of visitors by offering, as well as an audio-tour, an ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation and captioning for those to whom a standard PDA tour would have been inaccessible.

The Elements Of A PDA Tour

So how does one go about implementing a PDA tour in a Museum? There are several components that are not that different from a traditional audio tour: selecting a project, defining the goals and scope, operations, and so on. However, the features, options, and of course, the cost, are different because we are using a more powerful, more versatile, more expensive device that has not been purpose-built for the task.

In the case of the large providers of audio tours in the country, the devices to deliver the audio tour have been custom created and optimized over time to serve in that capacity. While such adaptation of PDAs is imminent at the time of writing, it was not a reality at the time of this project.

Regardless of the fact that there weren’t many PDA tours to model our project, we did try to use established project management best practices to help structure the process and minimize risk and cost, while maximizing the possibility of success. This paper lists each step or component of the project and what peculiarities or challenges we faced.

The Steps

  1. Choosing the Project
    • The exhibit
    • The Tour
    • The team
  2. Goals & Scope
    • Identifying research goals
    • Identifying Museum goals
    • Delineating the scope based on goals
    • Selecting a delivery platform
    • Partnering: You can’t do it all
  3. Tour Production
    • Content Production
    • Technical Production
    • Operational Set-Up
  4. Documenting Lessons Learned
    • Evaluation
    • Project’s own lessons learned

Choosing a Project

The Museum of Science in Boston had considered the creation of a PDA Tour since the late nineties; however, many factors delayed the implementation of any such tour. The technology resources had to be available - that is to say, the Museum had to be in a position to lead and coordinate the implementation of such a tour; and the financial resources had to be available, as PDA Tours require a significant financial outlay, not always the case with traditional audio tours. Lastly, there had to be a project suited to a PDA Tour that leveraged the video, audio, and computing capabilities of the devices in order to justify the investment. Further, the Museum was seeking a project for which a multimedia PDA Tour would be received as an enhancement, not a complex tool, or a hindrance for the visitor.

The Right Medium For The Right Purpose

The exhibition that we chose to focus on for our first PDA Tour, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, developed by the Museum of Science in collaboration with Lucasfilm, Ltd., explores the fantasy technologies in the Star Wars™ films, the science behind them, and current research that may lead to real-life versions of these technologies. Museum-goers learn how technologies work in the Star Wars™ universe through film clips and over 80 props, models and costumes. Through hands-on exhibits and immersive experiences visitors discover how ideas become technologies in real life,. The exhibit also includes two multi-station Engineering Design Labs where visitors design, build and test solutions to challenges.

When the Museum decided to move forward with the creation of this special traveling exhibit, it became clear that this was the right initiative for a PDA Tour. First, exploring communication technologies such as a mobile, multi-media content blended very well with the topic of the exhibit. The Star Wars™ saga, while set “long ago, in a galaxy far far away” has introduced generations of fans to interesting gadgets and capabilities, such as holographic communications. For this reason, the Museum estimated the audience would be more receptive to a cutting-edge PDA tour.

The Timing

Beyond generating excitement about the PDA project at the Museum and with our exhibit partner, we still needed to get the formal go ahead from Museum leadership to start production and get rolling. This final approval was granted seven months prior to exhibit opening. This is important to articulate, because it was a very tight schedule within which to deliver a PDA tour, due mainly to the complexity of the project as compared to an audio tour, and also because in the last seven months before the exhibit opened, much of the Museum staff would have commitments to meet to deliver the exhibit itself.

The Team

A subgroup of the exhibit team joined to form the PDA project team. This team consisted of fourteen Museum staff members, but only a small core was involved throughout the length of the project.

  • A Project Manager for the tour: author of this paper, and, at the time, Director of Advanced Technologies at the Museum of Science. Also the Creative and Production contact for Antenna Audio.
  • Two Content Developers, including the Exhibit’s Lead Content Developer
  • the Exhibit’s Designer
  • the Exhibit’s Graphic Designer
  • the Exhibit’s Technical Designer
  • the Exhibit’s Educational Program Manager
  • two researchers, including the Museum’s Manager of Research
  • the Exhibit’s Project Manager’s assistant
  • the Exhibit’s Web Designer
  • the Exhibit’s Web Programmer
  • the Exhibit’s Accessibility Advisors
  • the Exhibit’s Operations Manager, Associate Vice-President of Visitor Services, and Operations contact for Antenna Audio.

This group was created prior to getting the formal go ahead from the Museum, so that we could begin to put some edges around what this project would be. At the beginning, a considerable amount of brainstorming and discussion took place. However, as the project progressed, most participants’ involvement was limited in two ways. First, commitments to the overall exhibit meant the time they could make available to the PDA project was limited. Second, an accommodation of the first, was to make the most efficient use of people’s time by working with them only in areas that were relevant to their expertise. The group was kept informed of all matters, and could contribute on any topic, but the project did not rest on group-wide consensus as the project got rolling. Having received the go-ahead for the PDA tour so late in the game, it was really the only way to meet our deadline.

Goals & Scope


Our research goals for the initiative were to confirm whether people in hands-on Museums were receptive to a handheld tour, and whether such a device could enhance the learning experience. Beyond our research interest, we also had broader Museum goals.

We wanted to leverage the technology to deliver a unique experience, one that would give the visitor a real sense of experiencing a new form of personalized content delivery, and one that made the most of the opportunity of providing a mobile device.

We wanted to make the most of the opportunity of placing a powerful portable computer in the hands of our visitors to do what the Museum does, but in a new way, such as leveraging the video capabilities and computing capabilities to enhance our accessibility, and to extend the experience by connecting exhibit content, PDA content, and Web content into a virtuous circle of resources for our visitors.

We used our goals for this project to narrow our scope. We had constraints, and we had to limit our scope to meet our budget and our schedule. We wanted to start with something compelling, solid, and manageable, so that a success could foster future projects.

Scope: Selecting The Features

In order to scope our project effectively, we considered our goals and identified our core audience for the tour. We opted to keep the audience broad: specifically, fans of the Star Wars™ saga ranging from high-school age to adult, so that the tour could appeal to as large a community as possible.

Once our audience was selected, the tour features we settled upon were:

  • Choosing an interface design for the PDA tour that was reminiscent of the exhibit and the Star Wars™ universe, and acceptable to our exhibit partner.
  • Presenting content in multiple formats. Capitalizing on the VGA capabilities of the newest PDAs and delivering high quality video, audio, still images, as well as text. Providing content in many formats helps us meet the needs of people with varied learning styles.
  • Extending the learning beyond the Museum floor, or bookmarking. With the PDA, the opportunity existed to allow visitors to select topics of interest and access related material from home. Visitors selected stops, entered their e-mail address and received an e-mail with a link. The link was dynamically generated based on the stops that had been selected, and a personalized Web page was launched when the user clicked on that link.
  • Being accessible. We sought to meet the needs of as broad a population as possible. The PDA offers a ‘standard’ audio/video tour and an American Sign Language tour option. A second device is available to deliver the tour in audio-only for those who are visually impaired.

    We knew that our constraints would prevent us from making a Tour that was truly universally designed this time around. We focused on creating an accessible tour that could serve as a building block for the next initiative.

  • Providing captioning: the entire tour, whether in its standard or ASL form, was to provide full-captioning of audio and video. Since we expected the exhibit to be well attended, we wanted to be sure that noise in the gallery would not prevent the visitors from benefiting from the content in the tour.
  • Designing a tour that could be adopted by the venues that would be hosting the exhibit after the Museum of Science.
Choosing a Delivery Platform

It was not desirable for this project for the Museum to purchase hundreds of PDAs and set-up an operation to rent-out, maintain, collect, and keep up the PDAs during the length of the exhibit run, only to have them go obsolete in a year or two’s time. This project was considered by the Museum as a first step, an early proof-of-concept. The goal at this time was to focus our energies on making the experience appealing to our visitors and developing our expertise in those areas.

We also knew that the use of PDAs and iPods was not widespread enough to make a downloadable tour a viable option for our visitors, nor did we like the possibilities offered to us at this time by cell phones. And with the mobile device landscape still very fluid, we did not want to lock ourselves in to a platform for the future.


Very early on, we decided that if we wanted to do a tour, we wanted a partner that is in the business of running a tour rental operation, and who could take the operational responsibility, and that risk, off our hands. This is one of the key reasons we partnered with Antenna Audio. It meant that the Museum could focus on the experience, not on the hardware and operation of the tour. Of course, Antenna provided more than just the operational component of the project. They produced the application, the Tour itself. We had worked with Antenna Audio for audio tours at the Museum, so it was a natural fit for us to partner with them again.

On large, resource-intensive projects such as a PDA tour, partnerships are a good idea, if only because no one can be good at everything. We evaluated our internal strengths and chose partners that complemented our skill-set. Besides Antenna Audio, we also partnered with Crawford Media, who provided video production for the Tour. With the partners now assembled, we set about the task of creating a cutting edge Multimedia Tour.

Contracts and Unknowns

Contracts protect the different parties that enter a partnership, and ensure that all sides understand exactly what they are committing. They are crucial tools of risk management on any project, but especially on new or experimental ones.

It is the nature of an innovative and exploratory project that there will be unknowns that cannot be planned for. Therefore, good risk management requires thorough contracts. At the very least, parties can be protected from the known risks, and can lessen the impact of problems later on.

Contracts help protect parties by articulating the known quantities: e.g. the script must be written, approved, and the tour produced and approved.

Contracts cannot generally protect against unknowns, but can help put some boundaries around hazy areas that are known but unquantifiable. For example, the Museum knew it would need in the exhibit space a wireless network that our partner could install for us. However, the cost could not be calculated until a feasibility analysis was done. Nevertheless, we were able to put a ceiling price in our contract, as well as a clause saying that the Museum could choose to implement its own wireless network in the space if the price after the feasibility study did not suit us. This way we managed the risk for both parties.

Lastly, the unknowns that cannot be planned for since they are unknown become more manageable when all the other risks have been quantified and planned for. Expect unknowns to crop up on projects that are experimental, or even just new to your institution, or to you, and plan a contingency of either time or money to help deal with them when they arise.

Tour Production

While this part is one of the shortest in the paper, it’s also one of the longest on the project. Production consisted of 3 aspects:

  • Creative Production
  • Technical Production
  • Operational Set-Up
Creative Production

The creative production was managed at the Museum’s end by myself, and at the Antenna End by their Creative Manager. Deliverables included the stop list, script, video clips, ASL tour production, and selection of photographic assets.

Task Responsibility Nature of the Task
Provide Stop List MOS The stop list identified which exhibit components would have a stop, and what the basic idea we wanted to get across in the Tour was. It was created by our content developer.
Identify Assets MOS What videos, images, and other assets would be available in the tour?
Design the Interface for the Tour Antenna This was a very interesting part of the project. We wanted to stay true to the subject material and the exhibit, and we wanted to be as accessible as possible. The Museum of Science has rigorous standards for access and readability of all materials, whether print or electronic. It became clear to me during the project that the Museum staff knew that a great design and good readability did not need to be at odds, and I think we were able to pass on some of our expertise in this area to our partners.
Identify Interviewees, narrators, ASL interpreters. MOS Who were the individuals we wanted to be audio-interviewed for the Tour? Who should be the narrator? The ASL interpreters?
Write the Script Antenna Based on the stop list, and the assets available, and the interview list, create a script for the exhibit.
Video Asset Production Crawford Produce the video-clips that would be included in the Tour.
Audio Interviews Antenna Produce the Audio Interviews to be included in the Tour.
Produce the Tour Antenna Produce the content that would be delivered on the PDA: conduct audio interviews, record the narrator, video-tape the ASL interpreted video, etc.
Approve the Tour MOS Review the Tour itself on the PDA device.
Create Bookmark Content MOS Identify, write and gather the content (copy, images, video clips) to be featured in the ‘bookmarks’ that visitors would access from home.
Create the Bookmark pages MOS Create the Web pages and ensure consistency and compatibility with PDA Tour.
Technical Production

Technical production encompassed modifications to the multimedia application by Antenna: adding a T-9 keypad that allows visitors to enter their own e-mail addresses, customizing bookmarking features to meet the Museum of Science’s requirements. It also encompassed the wireless configuration and set-up that allowed the bookmarks to be downloaded to the server and the e-mail to get sent-out.

Task Responsibility Nature of the Task
Application (Tour) Antenna This was not the first PDA tour for Antenna, so they had an application that served as a template, within which our tour would fit. They did provide a small number of modifications to the tour, specifically the interface design.
T9 Keypad Antenna Another feature that was changed in the application was the T-9 keypad that Antenna introduced. Their previous projects had Antenna staff, not visitors, entering visitors’ e-mail addresses. We wanted to make this a self-service feature, so Antenna created a keypad, like a cell phone keypad that visitors used to enter their email address.
Bookmarking Functionality on PDA Antenna Bookmarking was another feature that Antenna had already provided for the Tate Modern in the UK. However, they introduced some changes to accommodate our needs. We wanted an e-mail to go out with a single link, regardless of how many stops had been bookmarked by a visitor. This required the dynamic creation of a link for each e-mail that would go out. At the Museum end, we could then decode the link and provide a personalized page with just the right content. While this was an added feature that was not included in the contract, Antenna recognized that this was a slick addition that they may want to use in the future, and helped us implement it. These kinds of win-win improvements are always rewarding.
Bookmarking capability on the MOS website MOS MOS created the program that decoded the link generated by Antenna and served up a personalized page with the appropriate sub-links to visitors.
Server and wireless Set up AntennaMOS Antenna Audio set-up the wireless network for the PDA tour system. We needed an easy way for Antenna staff to download the bookmarks and e-mail addresses to a local server so that the bookmark e-mail could get generated and sent out. We wanted Antenna to be responsible for this so that there was no fingerpointing, and prevent the “it’s not my system, it’s yours” scenario. Note: to prevent any liability with regard to COPA (Children’s Online Protection Act), MOS and Antenna worked to make the e-mail addresses single use: the visitors enter their own e-mail addresses to send themselves their bookmarks. The e-mail addresses are then deleted to ensure that visitors’ privacy is protected.
Operational Set-Up

While operations are not generally seen as part of production, prior to launching the tour, the Museum sought to mitigate some risks of tour operations. For this reason, it is mentioned here. Some of the areas we looked at were for PDA protection. Specifically, were there ways of preventing or reducing device breakage, minimizing theft risk, etc.?

Task Responsibility Nature of the Task
Breakage Protection MOS The Museum considered whether it was possible to make the device less fragile. As a hands-on Museum that caters to a family audience, we look for durability in any component handled by visitors. Whatever the reliability of the PDAs we are using, they are not built to the same hard-wearing standard as components in our exhibit halls. In the end, there was no cost-effective way to encase the PDAs that would not slow down the operation, so we decided to accept the risk, knowing that we may need to find a work-around if it proved a serious problem for us. While wear and tear requires Antenna to provide routine maintenance, the devices have proved very hard-wearing, as Antenna had predicted, and breakage has been minimal.
Theft Mitigation MOS The Museum worked with Antenna to devise a method to track devices to reduce shrinkage. The Museum also invested in a security system for the gallery to reduce loss caused by visitors unwittingly (or knowingly) walking out of the gallery with the devices. The result is that, to date, theft and loss have been kept at a very low level.

Successes and Lessons Learned

At the time of writing, the exhibit is still running and formal evaluation is not complete, so there are no significant results to discuss. However, preliminary results indicate that the users of the tour have responded positively. Indeed, early reports show this tour was rated by visitors as an 8/10, where 10 is excellent (Chin, 2006). Formal evaluation data and analysis should be available by the time this paper is presented at the conference in March 2006. For an update see

While not a formal part of the research process, documenting lessons learned from a Project Management aspect has begun. The production of the tour now complete, we have identified some key lessons.

Lessons From The Production Process
What Worked

Successful Tour: It would seem logical that had the Museum had more time to get the tour in place, the production process would have been smoother and the results better. In fact, looking back, it’s not clear it would have made a dramatic difference. Since the exhibit was in process and components were in flux until the final hour, the same constraints on our PDA project would have existed - both in terms of access to exhibit resources and in terms of content shifts that might impact the tour. In effect, we did make the best use of the time we had, and were successful in delivering a popular tour that visitors are very pleased with. It is clear, however, that creating a PDA tour for an existing exhibit would remove many of the challenges that we faced on this particular project: more on this below.

American Sign Language Tour: While we were not able to deliver a universally designed tour, our decision to include ASL in the tour, maximizing the accessibility of the tour, is something that the Museum is very pleased with, and expects to learn a great deal from.

Single Project Manager/Point of Contact: The Museum’s having a single point of contact who could manage both the content and the technical aspect and as well remain fully aware of the operational issues was a great asset for the project. While there was a Museum contact specifically addressing operational issues, he and I kept in active communication about progress and issues. This gave the Museum a more effective overview of the project at any given time: someone who could ensure compliance with contractual commitments on both sides, thus preventing elements of the project from falling through the cracks.

What Didn’t Work

Production of the Tour would have been a lot easier if we hadn’t been trying to create the exhibit at the same time. The elements that needed to be identified early on for the tour, such as stops and assets, were not finalized for the exhibit itself. Indeed, the Museum did not have a final layout for the exhibit, or a final list of exhibit components and assets, nor was there label copy for reference when we were finalizing the script for the tour. In spite of this, we had to generate a script that would neither duplicate nor contradict label copy when it was created. We also had to cross our fingers that none of the components we wanted to include in the tour would be cut from the exhibit (none were).

Universal Design was a goal that was out of reach for this particular project; however, we found ways to meet the needs of diverse audiences by offering several tours: standard Multimedia Tour, ASL Multimedia Tour, and an audio-only Tour. Having crossed that hurdle, our challenge for the next project is to develop a single tour that can meet those needs in a single program, for a Universally Designed experience.

Summing Up

For the Museum of Science, the fact that we were able to put in place a PDA tour to accompany our blockbuster exhibit was an exciting accomplishment. Early indications show that it has been well received and is viewed as a great success. That the project was accomplished in little more than six months, with few glitches, is also an achievement the Museum of Science is proud of.

Further, the project has helped the Museum acquire the experience and knowledge it needs to continue to shape the optimum ‘enhanced experiences’ and ‘extended experiences’ for its visitors.

Creative partnering has given the Museum the flexibility it needs to explore the new landscape of PDA tours and mobile content delivery without overextending itself or locking itself into hardware, software, and operational choices for the future.

This is an exciting time for museums, thanks to the work that is being done to leverage new technologies and enhance the types of interactions visitors can have as part of their museum visits. As the landscape of mobile devices and digital content delivery continues to shift, Museums have an opportunity to master these technologies and bring their expertise in Experience Architecture to shape the way these technologies are used to allow us to reach our visitors.

To be sure, these can be expensive projects, but the proliferation of iPods and the increasing capabilities of the ubiquitous cell phones mean that using mobile devices will increasingly bring these types of projects within reach of many museums.


Data from unpublished preliminary results on the PDA Tour, conducted by Elissa Chin at the Museum of Science, 2006

Cite as:

Hyde-Moyer S., The PDA Tour: We Did It; So Can You, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at