April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Science Mobilized: Bringing Up-To-The-Minute Headlines Into The Museum and Back Out Again: "The Times Square of Science and Technology"

Dale W. MacDonald, and Scott L. Minneman, Onomy Labs, Inc.,; Wayne J. Labar, Liberty Science Center; Anne M. Balsamo, University of Southern California; and Jon Winet, University of Iowa, USA


The Times Square of Science and Technology (T2ST) is a permanent installation going into the atrium of the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey. T2ST is an evocative environmentally-scaled artwork designed to convey the notion that science and technology is exciting, dynamic and current. To that end, Onomy Labs, working with Anne Balsamo (University of Southern California Institute for Multimedia Literacy), Jon Winet (University of Iowa Experimental Writing Wing) and John Randolph (Randolph Designs) are creating a large-scale interactive mobile that includes three thematically-relevant floating shapes and other dynamic displays that visitors will interact with from the different levels of the building structure.

The T2ST design includes twenty-seven active surfaces that display information from RSS feeds from trusted science and technology sources on the Web. In this way, T2ST provides an automatic and evergreen source of science and technology news, much as Times Square does for the topics of financial news, current events, and advertising. The installation demonstrates a new way to bring Web-based content not only into the public area of the museum but also out again via SMS and MMS subscriptions of thematically relevant content. To facilitate such an operation, Onomy Labs developed a suite of tools for directing automated searches of the Web and to manage input from staff and members of the public. This paper describes the architecture and preliminary use of this suite of tools in using the Web as an evergreen information source live and in color on the museum floor and in visitors’ hands.

Keywords: RSS, multi-display, SMS, MMS, Fair use, content filtering


Interactive exhibits in museum settings tend to be fairly small-scale, typically aimed at individuals or very small groups. In science and technology centers, where interactive exhibits are common, such exhibits serve as the destination spots of thematically organized environments. Some museums have the space and the resources for grander gestures, but these often focus on inert historical artifacts or aesthetically compelling large sculptures. Some of these pieces are educational and visually evocative, such as the Hoberman Sphere at Liberty Science Center. What many museums and science/technology centers are interested in developing now are environmental scale installations that are responsive to individual user’s actions.

Hand held devices have been making inroads into museum settings over the past decade. Early efforts concentrated on the use and deployment of audio and electronic tour guides; much of the use of hand held devices in museum settings still focuses on the guided tour function. The authors of this paper have been exploring the use of coming hand held devices as interface mechanisms for large-scale interactives. This shift from the use of specialized hand held devices (mp3 players and headphones for the purposes of guided tours) to devices that visitors have access to before, during, and after their time at the museum seems a promising vector of interactivity design.  Finding ways to use the everyday technologies that people carry with them ‘on the move’ - such as cell phones, PDAs, iPods, and digital cameras - is an interesting opportunity for the museum to make connections to the technological environments and literacies that visitors bring with them.

One of the biggest challenges in all museums, and particularly science and technology centers, is keeping exhibits fresh and informed of current events and scientific developments. The need for evergreen content is widely recognized as a key factor in the rate and interval of return visits - museum visitors don’t want to return and see all the same stuff. Presenting and explaining events in the dynamically changing fields that comprise contemporary science and technology is one of the pillars of the educational mission of these cultural institutions; every conference of museum professionals includes sessions on how to explain contemporary technological developments that are showing up in the newspapers and magazine headlines (for example, human genomics, nanotechnology, biomimicry, to name a few of the most current topics of fascination). Creating new exhibits to address these topics requires considerable resources of design staff, outside expertise, and research, bringing in traveling shows for this purpose requires money – all are often in short supply for museums.

Call and Response

In the spring of 2005, Liberty Science Center put out a call for proposals for a large-scale exhibit to occupy the atrium of their expanded and remodeled facility in Jersey City, New Jersey. The call was multi-faceted; its central design provocation was an invitation to “reinvent Times Square for the circulation of science and technology news.”  The museum appreciated the way that the many screens of Times Square display the news of the day and statistics of the world (stock quotes, weather descriptions) in a seemingly unmediated form. The RFP called for proposals for the development of a piece that would convey that science wasn’t a staid and static field, but rather an exciting and dynamic topic, full of excitement and day-to-day developments.

Science Mobilized, a large-scale piece proposed by Onomy Labs, Inc., was selected as the installation for the newly renovated atrium at Liberty Science Center. In ways that will be described over the following pages, Science Mobilized took on the challenge of gathering evergreen content, leveraging visitors’ hand held devices, and allowing visitors to interact with this large-scale piece in enjoyable and meaningful ways. Science Mobilized did not take the obvious path of putting a cartoon of New York City urbanism into a museum across the Hudson, but rather mused about how Times Square might appear were it designed as a communications tool, rather than simply being an accretion of large displays in a public space. Science Mobilized is an artful, tech-savvy approach to a complex suite of problems.

The current name of Science Mobilized is now T2ST: The Times Square of Science and Technology. It will premiere in July 2007 in the Breakthroughs atrium in the Liberty Science Center. The piece takes New York’s Times Square as an inspiration and prototype, but goes steps further in various directions. The real Times Square is an accretion of display surfaces that came about by historical accident; the information display servers were never designed to form a coherent whole. In fact, as it is now, the various display surfaces compete with one another for viewer attention. T2ST takes a different approach: it is designed to employ multiple display surfaces for the presentation of different kinds of information. T2ST consists of 25 dynamic content surfaces arrayed around the 40-foot cube of the atrium. Throughout the day, each screen will be showing video, images, and/or text of current events in science and technology. The various display surfaces are orchestrated to work together to produce a visually dense but meaningful information space. T2ST speculates about how Times Square might look if it had been designed as an interactive information source for the public. Despite the jumble of information surfaces, Times Square evokes a sense of wonder and awe. This is the impact that T2ST aims to recreate.

The most dominant feature of T2ST is a mobile, like those found above a baby's crib, but scaled up to fill a large atrium. The mobile is comprised of three large translucent plastic shapes, about 10 feet on a side, inspired by the museum themes of Environment, Health and Invention. Several video projectors embedded in each shape project images and video on to the surfaces, giving the shapes an engaging and dynamic appearance for the museum visitors who view the piece from the balconies of the atrium.

The three shapes and their counterweights are connected to each other through cables and pulleys; in this way the mobile addresses all 3 floors of the atrium. The system is motorized and the shapes slowly rise and fall throughout the day. The shapes thus have the side-to-side dynamic of a traditional mobile and the up-down dynamics of the cable system. Each shape and its counterweight are statically balanced so that the mobile is completely safe in the event of a power failure. For bulb replacement and any other service, the shapes can be lowered near to the floor and an access panel removed.

The counterweights in the mobile are two LED ‘zipper’ signs, mounted back-to-back, showing textual information on current science developments. These signs, highly reminiscent of Times Square stock quote tickers, will display content germane to the theme of their corresponding shape.

On the spandrels of the atrium are two other types of display. A set of ‘text sprays’ is  projected on the periphery of the atrium, and emerges from and disappears into the corners of the concrete balconies of the space. Traversing along two spandrels are two additional zipper signs, each on a motorized cart. These signs can be thought of as ‘reading’ information that is invisibly inscribed on the spandrels themselves. As the zipper moves along a spandrel, sometimes under visitor control, it reveals hidden statistics like the falling number of acres of rain forest or the rising global human population.

The content shown in T2ST will include images, text and video from a wide variety of Internet RSS feeds about science and technology. Onomy Labs has created spider processes that gather material automatically from trusted sources, cataloguing it, storing it locally, and queuing it for display on the different information sources of the T2ST installation. The automating of the information gathering, cataloguing and display  removes the necessity of having a full-time staff member devoted to content retrieval and management. A digital ‘master scheduler’ application coordinates the daily programming of the installation; the day’s program can be manually over-ridden in the case of breaking news, or for the presentation of specially designed content that might be produced for a special museum event. The foundation of the information display system is a set of services for acquiring Web-based content. But the information sources still need to be routinely monitored by a museum staff member, not only for the purposes of the verification of reliability, but also for the purposes of accountability and citation. For this reason, the ‘master scheduler’ application also includes notification and approval mechanisms for staff. It will also produce a history of what’s been displayed on various surfaces during any time period. This will enable the museum to adequately document the sources of the displayed information, so as to comply with Fair Use standards and information audits.

Museum staff, visitors, artists and students are invited to add new RSS subscriptions and pointers to interesting breaking news sources. The museum staff direct the overall functioning of the mobile, both when it is in its ‘evergreen mode,’ and when it is deployed for the display of specialized content. Some provision has been made for considerable public input. For example, the Liberty Science Center will collaborate with different Universities that have curriculum in new media authoring. Select classes of students will be invited to create specialized content for T2ST. The opportunity to author for this interactive, environmentally-scaled installation will serve several educational objectives.

  1. It will allow students to explore different how different modalities of presentation within the atrium map onto different kinds of information. For example: students will be asked to think about the relationship between the information presented on a vertical zipper sign and the information presented on a video feed that is displayed on various surfaces of the mobile shapes. Understanding the relationship between information and the form of display is often difficult for students when they design for desktop displays: these display environments have been thoroughly naturalized, with the result that students fail to see the connection between form and content and the way in which this connection too must be designed in a meaningful way.
  2. Kiosks where visitors are presented with opportunities to influence the T2ST presentation in the atrium will permit a second mode of interaction between members of the public and the T2ST installation. These inputs will offer visitors the opportunity to contribute suggestions for future T2ST topics, or will present an opinion or interest poll about current debates in science and technology where the results of the poll are displayed on one of the surfaces. This type of input is part of the museum's Science Now Science Everywhere (SNSE) system that enables visitors to link to exhibits using their personal cell phones. In addition, the SNSE system enables visitors to take away custom RSS feeds and news reports on their cell phones and PDAs. This extends visitors’ engagement with the installation and sets the stage for the development of more elaborate participation in ‘citizen science projects.’


With respect to the planning and design of the T2ST, Liberty Science Center had to make several key decisions in preparation for opening its operation - both in terms of the physical structure and in terms of enabling connections to visitors’ cell phones. These decisions focused on content management and issues involved in ensuring equal access to information via cell phone. The science center acknowledges that the determinations described here will, in fact, be tested when the T2ST becomes operational. Certainly, some adjustment will be required as real world situations take shape.

Embodying Policies

The initial content for T2ST is drawn from seed sites found by Onomy Labs from a set of topics provided by the museum. Those sites were approved by the museum, both to make certain that the content was a good match and to determine that the site was trustworthy. Initially no automated filtering of incoming content is in place, though provision has been made to use the filters being applied to Internet-connected kiosks on the museum floor. Approval for all feeds rests with museum staff, and this will continue to be the case as the more challenging issue of approving visitor-submitted feeds becomes part of the game.

The T2ST piece is critical to another science center initiative. Liberty Science Center has launched a project called The Exhibit Commons, which aims to allow visitors to submit content and even programs to the science center’s exhibits. In our case, this will take the form of allowing T2ST to accept links to content supplied by the public, and also allowing  the public to program the piece for critiques on science and society in the news. These submissions, via cell phone, kiosk entries and Web visitors, are first checked against a database of previously proffered sites, and then passed on in a daily digest to museum staff.

Rights Management

From the very beginning, the science center saw this art piece as a commentary on the pervasiveness of news and data - one focused on the areas of science and technology. Creating this social commentary within an art piece falls within the Fair Use application of content. To aid this effort, the science center created a document outlining the purpose and intent of the piece. As a result, the first step taken has been to obtain rights from creators or to use content that is issued under the Creative Commons system. The science center and the programmers have worked to select sources and presentation styles that  follow Fair Use rights and guidelines. This includes such considerations as limiting the amount of information presented, controlling the amount of ‘air time’ any individual piece will be assigned, and providing adequate attribution to the material’s source. As the piece evolves through additional visitor contributions via the Exhibit Commons, the issues of rights and fair use management will require the science center to maintain a watchful eye.

Several approaches were taken to support this watchful eye. First, a set of opportunities for viewers to check the provenance of displayed items was provided. These include inclusion of source logos on all image and video displays: a presentation of recent items at the research station is available where users can peruse the items in their syndicated form as supplied, and subscribers to the T2ST aggregations can bring up items on their phones or computers in a similar way, and see the source materials in their initial context (i.e., T2ST actually drives additional eyes to the source sites). Second, at the time of accepting a new feed or other site to the scavenger, staff are required to point the database at a URL of the feed or Web site's published usage document as well as staff's interpretation of Liberty Science Center's rights. Third, T2ST will track the use of each segment of collected content, so an audit trail could be provided to any concerned source.

Content Management

Currently, the content management area that has required the most consideration and foresight for the science center is operations. The greatest concern has been the large amount of information that will pass through the T2ST installation. A first issue that needed to be addressed was how to ensure that science center staff would not be required to constantly manage content sources. Therefore, as part of this project, a content management scheduling system was created. This will be used for determining sources of daily content scheduling, hopefully minimizing the danger of presenting content that does not meet the aim of the experience. With this system in place, Liberty Science Center will experiment with the amount of staff eyeball review that will be required for the piece. This will also allow the science center to refine its collection of trusted sources and its  process for approving visitor submissions.

Presentation in the atrium is the bedrock of this whole project. The default repeating query for all displays is “show the latest 10 items for my theme weighted by the current suggested categories.” To modify this (for instance, to show cross-themed items about space simultaneously), museum staff are presented with a Tivo-like interface which allows them to specify queries which get played out for a given period of time for given displays.

Accepted RSS feeds are cached in a relational database to allow for a variety of queries to be made on the aggregate content. All feeds are tagged with both a theme (the themes of the museum as of deployment time are environment, health and invention) and a category such as “space,” “global,” or “virus.” Fed items are time-stamped so that queries of the form “items about space in theme invention received in the last 12 hours” can be made. In addition, full text search is available both to the display devices and also to museum staff to determine whether new categories should be added.

A major challenge in running T2ST largely unattended is the loose standardization available to RSS syndicators. Heuristics are built into the system to deal with most of the variations, and a facility for adding new rules to the heuristics is available to refine the system's capabilities. A related issue is finding imagery related to feeds of sufficient resolution to be displayed on the floating shapes. This required developing a number of heuristic-driven methods of exploring articles looking for appropriate imagery. For both of these subsystems, e-mail is used to alert museum staff of anomalous results.

Video content presented several challenges. The first is that the design of the system is really built around a notion of ‘silent radio,’ so video content either needs to stand alone on its visual qualities or needs to come with closed captioning that can be either  displayed directly on the video screens or allowed to play out on physically proximal LED sign. The second is that moving-image content is not yet widely distributed via RSS, so for initial deployment, video aggregation and selection remain fairly manual. We believe that videos coming via RSS will become more common as time progresses.

In addition to the screens installed in the atrium at the museum, we are allowing visitors to subscribe to various themes/categories as a way of continuing to receive T2ST-aggregated content via their cell phones. Given the current tariff situation with cell phone service providers (per- message charges are typical), users are given various throttling options for these feeds. Over time we expect to gather statistics and other insights which will allow us to try things like ‘most exciting item of the day.’

Cell Phone Usage

T2ST is an essential part of the Science Now, Science Everywhere (SNSE) project underway at Liberty Science Center. This experience will provide opportunities for visitors to interact with and receive content both inside and outside of the science center’s physical structure by using their cell phones. The science center took on this project as a way of extending the museum’s visitor experience by creatively leveraging the increasing use of cell phones among the general public. 

Cell phone users have three types of interactions with T2ST. Visitors can add keywords to influence topic selection for presentation on the displays. Visitors can also answer various polls, particularly the Question of the Day posed by museum staff. Finally, visitors can opt to receive aggregated feeds from the museum for a period of time after they depart the facility.

An essential aspect of presenting content through devices such as cell phones is the public’s accessibility to content. How can the museum ensure equal access to the content of an interactive when all visitors may not have a cell phone? As part of the preparation for the project, the science center looked at the current state of cell phone use, and, more importantly,  cell phone availability to and usage by the members of the public who attend the science center. Through this research the staff learned that:

  1. 84% of our audience aged 13 -17 owned a cell phone, and 100% those aged 18 to 24.
  2. 20% of cell phone users have access to SMS, and 16% use it.

Although cell phone penetration was quite high, the SMS familiarity and comfort was considerably less. Based on these results, the museum staff desired an approach to broaden access to the content and interactives accessible through cell phones. To address this, the T2ST installation includes three physical kiosks that allow visitor to participate as though they had a cell phone. Moreover, elements of these interactives will also be found on the Web, allowing users even further away from the science center to interact with T2ST.

In addition, Liberty Science Center is partnering with Verizon Wireless to provide loaner phones for those who wish to use a cell phone during their visit. These will be ‘locked’ phones that only allow interaction with the SNSE application at the science center.


The T2ST interactive is part of the Liberty Science Center’s overall plan to develop innovative modes of interactivity using common communication devices. The approached developed by Onomy Labs provides evergreen exhibit content in a way that doesn’t rely on the participation of a specific staff member or exhibit management team. The objective was to leverage the vast amount of interesting science and technology information that is already available on the Web, but in a way that doesn’t require a great deal of editorial supervision on the part of the museum staff.  This provides an innovative use of the Web that doesn’t rely on home- or school-based Web-providers and doesn’t relegate the rich Web resources to the Museum’s Web portal.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation.

Cite as:

MacDonald, D., et al., Science Mobilized: Bringing Up-To-The-Minute Headlines Into The Museum and Back Out Again: "The Times Square of Science and Technology", in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

NOTE: Acknowledgements updated at the request of the authors.

Editorial Note