User Environments (Museums and Cultural Heritage)
The provision of digital information into the spaces set aside for museum, gallery and other cultural spaces encompasses some of the methods already described above (e.g. presentation/visualization) but also relates to the effective transmission of that data via a number of tools and techniques. A major report produced as part of the DigiCult series, Thematic Issue 7 – The Future Digital Heritage Space (2004), referred to a vision of ‘ambient intelligence’ and the ways that such a concept might have relevance to the heritage sector and its use of ICT methods. It quoted the Information, Society and Technologies Advisory Group (IST) definition of the term to introduce the concept.
[quote]The future generation of technologies in which computers and networks will be integrated into the everyday environment, rendering accessible a multitude of services and applications through easy-to-use human interfaces.[/quote]
The whole report is intended to provide a speculative roadmap of how and when this vision is likely to be implemented across the heritage sector and enumerates a number of different areas where ongoing research and technological development is required, all of which might usefully frame a discussion of the tools that are either being used or are in development.
• Intelligent and context-aware services incorporating technological and semantic interoperability to provide ‘anytime, anywhere’ information
• Personalised and multi-modal interaction with resources and environments
• An increased number of digital objects and environments to interact with including 3D, virtual and augmented reality examples
• New generations of large-scale, distributed libraries and archives of heterogeneous, complex and dynamic objects and resources
• Novel ways of sustaining resources and environments and providing persistent access
The DigiCult report references a number developments that the authors anticipated could make an impact on the MCH sector, an example of which is a technology in development that is being referred to as an ‘intelligent carpet’. These floor coverings are embedded with sensors and can also be combined with light emitting diodes, enabling software to determine the progress of visitors in a museum or gallery space and provide pro-active indications to guide them to specific exhibits or to steer them away from congested areas. Studies have also been carried out to determine what sort of visitor information can be harvested from data associated with how the visitor comes into contact with the floor surface and some studies suggest that combining information about weight, patterns of pressure, gait and frequency can give indications about the gender of a person (75% accuracy) and can make surprisingly good assumptions about their age.
Another technological innovation the report cites as part of the vision of ‘ambient intelligence’ is the Smart-Its Project, a collaborative initiative of a consortium of organisations including Lancaster University. The aim is to investigate the use of cheap, small and generic electronic devices that are embedded or attached to mundane objects. Through sensory functionality these devices are made aware of the environmental context in which they are placed and are also able to communicate with other devices in the vicinity and are customisable in what they perceive and how they transmit and receive data. This research and development group have designed and built a number of microcontrollers that communicate using Bluetooth and Radio Frequency and have investigated using context proximity as a paradigm for connecting artefacts, a field that clearly has implications for exhibition and event organisers seeking ways of intelligently providing information to visitors about adjacent or nearby objects.
Underpinning the intelligent and ‘invisible’ provision of data in an ambient information environment are wireless communication systems. Though not specific to the MCH sector, aspects of the way they function are interesting in the context of managing the visitor experience and have provoked research and user trials to assess their usefulness. Location Based Service (LBS) software can be used in conjunction with wireless network access points to plot where exactly a visitor is in relation to the exhibition space. The visitor is issued with a WiFi enabled device that picks up signals emanating from three or more wireless access points and this connection strength information is then analyzed by the LBS which uses triangulation methods to determine the whereabouts of the device and its relative location on a virtual exhibition map. LBS software takes up to 60 readings a second and averages out fluctuations in the readings. It also discards results that appear to be way outside of the average range of readings which helps with minimizing the effect of a number of issues that will alter the accuracy of these systems. Fluctuations in the radio signal strength; the number of simultaneous users on the system; atmospheric conditions such as humidity; and the number of bodies in the space, may all introduce errors to the system - although in general, systems are fairly accurate.
In addition to determining where visitors are in relation to objects and environments, a further step is to deliver relevant information that will enhance their experience of the exhibition or event. Obviously the easiest way of provisioning this data is to allow the user to manually navigate through menus on a handheld device, but to take full advantage of location and/or context aware functionality, data could be streamed onto that device from a central server following appropriate proximity triggers. Alternatives to the use of LBS software include Bluetooth and infra-red tags or triggers, RFID tags (radio frequency identification), and GPS (global positioning systems) assisted devices where the environment is outdoors. The choice of method will need to correspond to the type of data being delivered and the limitations of certain types of communication protocols have to be borne in mind. For instance, whilst WiFi is capable of connecting a potentially unlimited number of users (depending on the configuration of the TCP-IP network supporting it), and has a fairly effective theoretical data transfer rate (up to 54 Mbps for WiFi standard 802.11g) but it demands a significant power supply and therefore requires any object that takes advantage of this communications method to be relatively substantial. Bluetooth meanwhile was developed as a low power, low bandwidth, short range application for connecting a variety of devices together, but is unable to deliver large amounts of information efficiently and is thus not suited to disseminate rich multi-media content at the kind of transfer rates that would be acceptable to the average gallery-goer.
An ICHIM 2005 paper by Nancy Proctor refers to many of the above issues and also includes references to systems that take the idea of using networked communication between exhibitor and visitor one step further. Visitors are encouraged to bookmark items that catch their interest during the phase when they are actively engaging with the exhibits and are then able to review these items on a dedicated kiosk when they come out of the exhibtion area (e.g. Tate Modern Multimedia Tour Pilots and the Visit+ system, in use at the La Cite des Sciences et de L’industrie in Paris). Such systems are designed to encourage the continuation of the cultural experience outside of the exhibition space and the use of printouts, emails or personal web pages to transfer and store information dynamically and intelligently gathered during visits is clearly an area where those responsible for the provision of cultural information should be looking to exploit.