Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Issues Exhibitions: Questions as a Basis for Design

It's good to have some time to write amidst hectic traveling. You know you've spent too much time in airports when you stick your hands under your bathroom faucet at home and expect it to magically turn on.

I've been thinking recently about ways to represent issues (social, political, scientific) in museum settings. Museums often pursue the dual goals of presenting accurate, objective information while encouraging visitors to think for themselves, take a stand, engage with the issue at hand. These goals are often contradictory, if not opposing, in nature. How does the visitor perceive there is an issue with which to engage if the content is presented in a dry, authoritative style? Even when the content itself is incendiary, the tone of the presentation style can wash it out. I was required to read Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States in high school. Zinn once said in an interview that his goal with the book was "quiet revolution." Did I find it revolutionary? No. The simple act of placing it on a curriculum as a required text made me categorize its content in the world of the textbook--dry, factual, straight. Why question? Why care?

So there's a second path, one that museums like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum follow. In this alternative, the museum takes a stand on an issue (in USHMM's case, genocide), and breathes life into that side of the issue, helping visitors engage with and experience that side of the story. With something like genocide, the "side taking" is fairly soft--but museums like the soon-to-open Creation Museum may be a different story.

These kinds of museums, which put aside neutrality in favor of espousing an opinion, do a better job on the "Why care?" side of things, because instead of presenting an objective tableau, they present a narrative, which, while potentially complex, is not weighed down by the "this side says this, and that side says that" objective balancing act. Stories are compelling. They help you connect. They help you care.

But is stand-taking always right for museums? Of course not. While I think the Museum of Freedom in Chicago is too objective/vanilla, I wouldn't prefer a hall of exhibits (sponsored by the appropriate PACs and corporations) on the freedom to drill for oil, the freedom to redistrict, etc.

There's a third path I'd prefer to see museums head down: pursuing design that attacks "Why question?" problem. This is the path in which the exhibition is designed not to make the visitor react with statements (I agree; I care) but with questions (Is that really true?). Many objective exhibitions are overpresumptuous that the fair and balanced outline of facts will lead people to draw their own conclusions and question their preconceptions. Instead, I'd argue that such presentations just add more data to the pot--more facts to be ignored. On the other side of the fence, stand-taking exhibitions presuppose the conclusion and present a story--to endorse or reject. On both of these paths, the museum is providing answers--either varied or singular. I want questions.

I'm framing this with regard to question-asking largely because of an excellent book I'm reading right now about the Rwandan genocide in 1994 by Philip Gourevitch. In the book, Gourevitch tells many stories about genocide, but he's mostly interested in the story behind questions: Why does genocide happen? How do people understand it? How do people deal with it? Focusing on these questions humanizes Gourevitch, transforming him from an all-knowing (or, alternatively, biased) journalist into a person dealing wtih a perplexing situation. Rather than adding more information to my database on Rwanda and genocide, I find myself asking alongside the author, asking myself instead of the authority. Gourevitch isn't a great journalist because he tells great stories; it's because he asks us to question those stories and provides a model for doing so.

This doesn't just apply to issues exhibitions. From the little I know about evaluation, it seems that most museum folks focus on what visitors come out saying--not what they come out asking. If we want people to come back to the museum, to "extend the visit" on the web and elsewhere, we can't do it by allowing them to close the door on museum content when they leave. Questions keep the door open.

So how would this kind of design look? Some simple thoughts:
  • Present stories and situations where the characters change their minds. I frequently see exhibitions in which "both sides" tell their story. I'd rather see individuals tell their stories of how they grapple with issues, and how different things have impacted their thinking.
  • Make visitors start with their opinions rather than conclude with them. Many exhibits give you the opportunity to see both sides and then weigh in with your opinion. Well, fabulous exhibit designer, you have yet to sway me from my preconceived notions with a thirty-second walk on the other side. Assume that I have a starting point. I've never seen an exhibit that forces me to pick first, and then examine the consequences of the side/story I've chosen. "What do you believe?" is too simplistic; let's try to push people for the "Why?"
  • Instead of providing opportunities for visitors to leave comments or register their opinions, give them opportunities to articulate the questions the exhibition brings up.
  • Wherever possible, directly and without artiface answer the implied visitor question, "Why should I care?" Let the curator stick his/her neck out and do a quick video clip, not on an object/story's cultural significance, but on its personal relevance. Push visitors to ask, "Do I value this thing?" instead of letting them just pass judgement and move on.
There's an improv game in which the actors are required to speak solely in questions. It often descends quickly into suspicious, "Why did you do that?" "Why do you care?" exchanges. We aren't well-versed in conversational questioning. I think I'm going to do an experiment later this week and try to visit a museum and write down my questions instead of my thoughts. And so I conclude with a question--but not "what do you think?"

Instead, let's end with this: What do you ask?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Game Friday: Real Games For Nik

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to share this hilarious spoof of Second Life with you. Folks like Nik, in particular, will appreciate its helpful advice about where to find amenities, meet friends, and have rewarding experiences "in-world."

But enough of that silliness. Today, in keeping with the above, real-life games that motivate social collaboration. I'm sharing one; please, share your favorites.

The name of this game, as I learned it, is "the best game in the world." Others have protested that "telephone pictionary" or similar is more accurate, but I disagree. This game rocks. It's best with groups of six or more, and I've used it successfully with classroomfulls. Each person starts with a full-size piece of paper and a pen/pencil.

First, you fold your paper, accordion-style, into seven equal segments. Then, you write a single sentence, of any content, in the top-most segment and pass your paper to the next person. When you receive a page from someone, you draw a picture in the second segment that conveys the sentence above as well as possible. Then, you fold over the sheet so that only your picture is visible (the initial sentence is hidden). You pass it on, and the next person has to write a sentence that perfectly conveys your picture. And so on until the last sentence is written and all the sheets are filled. At that point, unfold, read, and allow hilarity to ensue. See example.
I've used this game with many poetry classes. People may feel that they are not creative enough to generate a poem, but they always feel able to "describe" things, and many poetry (and science and observation and...) skills derive from imaginative and precise description. And it's great to have not just the fun process (which almost all games have) but also to have an output you can hang up or keep or etc.

What social games do you love?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Home Analogies: the Potluck Model for Participation

Tim O’Reilly has an interesting post up about the ascension of short-format content—the YouTube clip over the 2 hour movie, the blog post over the journal article. While current trends in film length make me dubious of this trend’s overall power, O’Reilly observes that short-format content is more accessible, more searchable, and most importantly, well-suited to collaborative work. Whether those collaborations take the form of the set of Amazon book reviews that affect your purchasing or the development of wikipedia entries, short-format contributions can be quickly assembled into a reasonable composite.

One of the comments listed other, non-web-based collaborative uses of short-format content, including potluck dinners. As a consummate potlucker, this comment immediately resonated with me. Potlucks are a great model for “good sharing.” Everyone (or almost everyone) understands the “rules” of potlucks: bring enough, bring something that fits the time of day. And the implied: bring something good.

Think about potlucks from the 2.0 standpoint:

  1. you create and share an item that reflects you
  2. you enjoy the items shared by others
  3. all items are subconsciously evaluated by all users (and those evaluations thus reflect on all users)

These three steps could easily define a web 2.0 application like MySpace or Wikipedia. The difference is that the collective item in question (the meal) is very clearly defined at a potluck. What is the collective item to which all are contributing on MySpace? Social connectiveness? On Wikipedia? General knowledge? “Dinner” is about as clear as it gets.

Imagine a museum event or exhibition in which visitors can make a toy or creative object that will then go on display at the museum for the day. This is the MySpace model. Some people may participate, but the goal is unclear (why can’t I take it home?), and results will be inconsistent at best. The sharing is weak. Now imagine an event at which people make and connect pieces of a giant Rube Goldberg machine. This is the potluck model. Creators get more out of the whole experience by linking pieces up, and there’s also a great experience to be had by an audience. Give people a playing field for sharing they already understand and value, and the collective product can be truly delicious.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Users at Home

One of the core elements of moving to 2.0 is transforming folks from visitors (content receivers) to users (content participants). With this in mind, I’m starting to think about design techniques that encourage use, as opposed to visits, of museums.

As a first step, let’s try to parse out what exactly defines a user experience. Think of how you engage with your home. With the possible exception of the bathroom, different people have varying relationships with rooms. I, for example, use the kitchen and the living room, but I visit the garden. I use my closet, but I visit the bedroom. And so on. Take a moment to mentally separate the rooms in your own home between use and visitation. If you live in a studio, think about its areas and your patterns of use.

I find this exercise surprisingly easy. What differentiates a room you visit from one you use? Fundamentally, it’s not about what activities you engage in or frequency/duration of stay in any room. It’s about attitude. For me, the kitchen is a personalized space in which I can create and control varied content production. The bedroom is a place I go to lie down; only convenience and propriety keep me sleeping in the same place consistently. But when I was a kid, the situation was switched; I was a content receiver in the kitchen, but created all kinds of unlimited worlds in my bedroom.

This house analogy may lead you to say: okay, different strokes for different folks. That’s why museums offer varied content and exhibitions—so you can have your bedroom and I can have my kitchen.

But let’s take the metaphor one step further. Your own home is, after all, your own—and your level of personalization with the whole space enables you to dictate based on preference which rooms are “used” and which “visited.” But now let’s go to someone else’s house.

When you are in someone else’s house, which rooms do you use and which do you visit? Unless you know the person very well, you rarely go beyond visiting—especially the first time you’re there. (One notable exception to this rule is kids, who will occasionally co-opt a new house for play with no reservations.) It’s their stuff, their rules, and the best you can hope for is to feel comfortable. When someone says, “Make yourself at home” to me, I understand that I can’t take off my clothes or do pull-ups on the molding. I’m not at home. I’m visiting.

Now the museum outlook seems grim. How do we bridge the gap between our homes (users) and other people’s homes (visitors)? A couple of models that might inform:

1. The clubhouse.
Remember the kid with the “cool” mom who stocked up on soda and cookies and left you alone in the basement to stay up as late as you wanted? When someone sets up a personal space for you in their house, it inspires use. Of course, that mom relinquished control of cleanliness and content, but in exchange, she got your participation in her (safe) space and the opportunity to build relationships with you. She thought the sacrifice was worthwhile. (If you can identify this woman as you read this, thank her. Now.)

2. The barn-raising. Have you ever helped a friend with a major home improvement (painting, deck-building, wild party cleanup)? Being invited in to help, to create and fix, gives you a sense of ownership that leads to usership. Yeah, of course I’ll put my feet up—heck, I BUILT that coffeetable.

3. The significant other. Whenever intimacy builds between two (or more) people, you get more comfortable using the other’s space—even on your first visit. Your relationship sets up a dynamic of trust and shared values that implies that the ways you want to use the other’s space are (probably) okay.

Sacrifice, exposure of imperfection, intimate relationships. Can these techniques help museums open up to more use by visitors? I don’t know if I want to make cookies, make mistakes, or make love to my visitors. But it’s not about me. How can we open the museum "home" to visitors so they become users? What other models or analogies can help us get there?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Game Friday: DJ Your Collection

Earlier this week, I found myself wondering if these Game Fridays are worthwhile. Then I went to a museum exhibition yesterday featuring a computer interactive component with a lousy interface, and thought, Yes. There is still plenty for us to learn about content delivery and engagement from the gaming world.

This week, an audio mixing game called Break in the Road. Like many DJ games, you have access to many audio pieces which you can lay on multiple tracks, mash up, etc., until you have your personal musical masterpiece. But Break in the Road has a twist. Instead of those audio bits being immediately at your disposal, you have to go get them. You wander the streets with a microphone, an audio voyeur on the loose to pick up whatever you can find. A woman humming in the window. Pinball machines from an arcade. Laundry rolling over itself.
Conceptually, I like this notion that the game makes you work to "find" the pieces you will use to create music. From one perspective, this could be seen as annoying--why not give the user immediate access to the pieces? Because A Break in the Road privileges the process of acquiring sound elements (and appreciating urban sounds) as part of music-making. And, as I've been pondering with respect to intimacy, there's something to be said for getting engaged in the process, establishing your relationship with content so you can use it more meaningfully.

There are minor things that are less loveable about this game, namely its metric for success and its gendered representation of music-makers. But on the plus side, you can also email your musical creations to friends when you're done. Send me something good!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Construction Site Porn

under construction
Originally uploaded by backward square leg.
I remember reading a news article a few years ago about a major construction project in downtown Chicago. Someone (the construction company? the city?) erected bleachers near the site. While the motivation for this move is unclear, the reaction was astounding--all kinds of downtown people spent their lunch hours, cigarette breaks, etc. in the stands, watching the work go on. Sure, some were comparing cute butts, but I'd guess that most of them were eyeing the cranes, dirt movers, the displacement and creation of space.

What makes you drool at construction sites? Is it the improbable lifting and placing of giant objects? The speed of some stages and apparent snail pace of others? Part of it--for me at least--is the time I get to spend with the guts of something that eventually will be sheathed, its secrets hidden away. It's an opportunity to see how something is made, to un-take-for-granted the way it works. It involves me, even as an onlooker, in the process. I like it the same way sports fans like watching the pre-season draft. We were there before the record wins. We were there when it was built.

I was reminded of this pleasure last night, when I came home to a group of Second Life builders working in our living room. They were working on a build collaboratively, with one person's computer hooked up to a digital projector, so Second Life was about 4x6 ft on our wall. It was captivating. They were creating blocks, texturing and slicing them, moving them around, changing things on the fly. From their perspective as 3D artists, it's annoying that Second Life only allows you to build in-world; that is, you can't create something in another 3d application like Maya and import it (yet). They can't wait for that change to happen, but as a bystander, I hope it takes a little while--or, at least, that some people keep building real-time in Second Life. I'm not a 3D artist, but watching them work opens up my access to understanding how things are put together, and increases my interest in the final product. There's an energy and liveliness to the process that goes to sleep when it's all done. There's a reason that people love this video of Robbie Dingo building a guitar in SL. As you watch, you grasp some things, glimpse others. You see the possibilities. You start to dream.

So give me a painting in an art museum with a video of the artist creating that painting right next to it. Give me animations of poems being written. Give me animals in various stages of taxidermy. Give me a window into the often locked box of genius so I can play, too.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Competition in the Gallery

Here’s what I see when I look out my window at work: the National Portrait Gallery. Reopened to the public in July 2006, the NPG features a stunning building and a solid collection. But the thing that intrigued me most over a summer of occasional window-gazing was a banner featuring two words: Portrait Competition.

I don’t know about you, but when I think “portrait competition,” I imagine refrigerator drawings and cell-phone snapshots. I’ve been conditioned by the inconsistent quality of web 2.0 to look askance at contests. Sure, Oreo had success with their jingle competition, but the National Portrait Gallery? How good could it be?

Very good. The exhibition is varied, lively, and the art is of high quality. Friends name it as a highlight of their visits to D.C. It doesn’t feel like an experiment in 2.0. It feels like a vibrant art show.

I spoke last week with Brandon Fortune, curator of the exhibition. She detailed the deliberate steps NPG took to try to ensure that this competition would be a success. They modeled the competition after the British NPG’s well-established competition. They limited the entries for 2006 to paintings and sculptures to focus the submissions. They advertised the competition on the web, and only accepted online entries. They received over 4,000 submissions from all 50 states, which were judged by a panel of seven—including museum staff and outside artists. The top 100 selections were sent to Washington for final judging. One year after the competition was announced, the exhibition opened.

Perhaps the most well-thought-out piece of this project is its web component. Not only were the entries received via online submission, the judges used web-based systems to communicate. The museum also invited a number of artists to participate in “Portrait of an Artist,” in which competitors were given blog space by NPG to write about their artistic processes and the development of their submission piece. Some of these artists, regardless of the status of their submission, continued contributing to the site for a year. Finally, in addition to the top prize pieces selected by the judges, visitors to the website and to the exhibition were able to vote for their own favorite piece, which received the People’s Choice award. 14,000 people voted. (Brandon noted that there were noticeable differences in voting trends between in-museum and web visitors, though the winning piece won in both venues.) The curators later contacted some of the people who had voted for that piece and asked them to comment on their selection. Interesting that on the exhibition website you can see how regular visitors chose their favorite but not how the judges did.

There have been some criticisms that the competition, and this kind of approach, could move art exhibitions from challenging to appeasing populist preferences. But I think that misses the point of what's successful about the competition. While some components of the project are less impressive (an online “create your own portrait” feels weak), I appreciate the extent to which the NPG team thought about and focused on creating and showcasing relationships—between artists and their work, and between visitors and art. When I walk through the exhibition, I feel connected to the artists and their subjects in a way I rarely do in more traditional shows. And at the most basic level, the thing that appeals to me about the competition is the banner, which engages me in childhood delusions that even I could send in a submission. I could be a part of this.

I asked Brandon how this project differed from other shows with which she has been involved. As she put it, “it’s such a rush not knowing what’s coming. We couldn’t control the input, there was a large panel of jurors—it was the complete opposite of a show put together in a single curator’s voice.” The competition, endowed by a Gallery docent, will be a triennial event. The museum team is just starting to reevaluate changes for the next one, and Brandon encourages anyone with comments to email the team at portraitcompetition (at) npg (dot) si (dot) edu

And if you’re in town, see the exhibition! It closes on 17 February, 2007.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Game Friday: Getting (More) Intimate

"Façade is one of the most important games ever created, possibly the most important game of the last ten years." --Ernest Adams, Gamasutra

I don't know if I'd use quite the same level of hyperbole, but Facade certainly is a fascinating study in the possibilities for humans to interact with--and care about--virtual characters. It's a game in which you portray an old friend of Grace and Trip, a couple in their early 30s whose marriage is falling apart. Your goal? Well, it's up to you, but unless you’re the kind of masochist who likes watching couples fight, you’ll try your damndest to keep them together. To do so, you type short statements to interject into their conversation. The characters are simply rendered, but the voice acting is good and the artificial intelligence (AI) engine that coordinates the conversational flow is impressive. Not that there aren’t frustrating miscommunications, but in general, while playing, I feel like I’m interacting with humans, not machines. There may be kinks in the conversation, but the emotional reactions the game elicits are real.

How real? Real enough that I turned off the game after just a few minutes the first time I played because I couldn’t bear watching these people fight. Real enough I had to remind myself they aren’t REAL people. Real enough that I started thinking more about how to help these people and less about how to win the game.

I listened to this podcast recently, put out by the Smithsonian Lemelson Center. It’s a talk by Stan Winston (part 1), the makeup artist turned special effects king who created the Terminator, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Predator, among others. I was impressed by the way he talked about his job being not creating robots but creating characters. He spoke about these 40 ton machines as actors, and he emphasized that his goal is to make them the most expressive characters possible. Similarly, the creators of Façade focused on creating human characters rather than the best AI.

What are we focusing on? How do we design the best experiences instead of the best exhibits?

Façade is free to download, but it requires a fast machine. You can find all the specs here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Project Development Blogs: Could You? Should You?

Recently, I’ve been grappling with the question of whether or not it is useful to create project-specific blogs for big museum initiatives during the development phase. For two years, I’ve been working on the same project at the Spy Museum. Now, on Monday, after all the creative build-up, we’re actually taking sledgehammer to sheet rock and getting things rolling.

The blog idea started with something simpler: taking a photo each day during fabrication to be able to string together a time-lapse “making of” animation in the future. But why stop there? Why not create a blog with weekly (or so) informal posts about the growth of the project?

The immediate positive is practical: project documentation is often something that takes place before and after implementation, but not during. Any document I create at the end of this installation, no matter how attractively cross-referenced, will not reflect the reality of the challenges and surprises along the way. It will tell the story of a finished thing rather than the story of the process. If I (and the lead fabricator, and and and) put up quick posts every few days about progress, at the end we would have a document that more accurately captures the organic nature of the process, and, I think, would be more useful as a reference for future projects. It could also serve as a touchpoint for staff across the museum to be able to easily connect with what’s going on at any point in the project.

What I’ve described above could easily be implemented as an internal blog (or just good progress reports). So why make it public? Let’s start with the reservations against doing so: it doesn’t reflect the high quality of the museum brand. It lets other people in on our trade secrets. It will take all the magic out of the final product. It invites random folks to influence the creation of the product in an “American Idol” fashion (think Snakes on a Plane). And who would want to read this thing, anyway?

To me, these reservations reflect 1.0 thinking. If museums remain black-box content deliverers—showing only the final product—then of course there’s no reason to open up the process. But if we want to go 2.0, there are plenty of potential benefits. A blog like this could energize the visitor base who already love your museum and are hungry for behind-the-scenes opportunities. It helps them establish deeper relationships with the content as they understand what went into the exhibit design. And maybe they’ll care more about the museum as a whole if they think their comments are being considered by the curators.

A blog like this would also be a great professional development tool across the museum field. I’m looking forward to seeing what the folks at ASTC do with the soon-launching exhibitfiles project, but I think it will be a mistake if “files” are only available, or createable, for finished exhibits (and ironic, considering that they are blogging the progress of exhibitfiles itself!). Imagine the difference between learning about exhibit development by following a project’s progress and by reading a final report. You don’t learn how to bake by eating cakes. Also, when it comes to critiques, I would feel more comfortable critiquing, and being critiqued by, other professionals along the way rather than after the money’s spent and the ribbon is cut. Then, those critiquers become useful contributors rather than threatening reviewers.

Of course, there are real questions here about control of content and consistent museum messaging. In the end, I doubt that the Spy Museum will let me blog the fabrication of this project. What about at your institution? Could you create progress blogs for new exhibits, programs, marketing initiatives? Would you?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Getting Intimate (in Public)

Pop quiz: Which of these two fights are you most likely to remember?

a. The one you had sitting on the couch at home. She called you an emotional basketcase; you said she had the empathy of a robot. You cried, the cat ran out of the room, etc.
b. The blowout in the grocery store. Around you, people sampled grapefruit wedges, stacked cabbage, selected pears. You wheeled through the store, one can-of-soup from tears, arguing heatedly under your breath.

I have no idea when the first one happened, if it ever did. But the second one? Costco, January 2003. I could still give you the blow-by-blow.

Ahh, the private moment in a public space. I’ve always been a fan and often seek out these experiences—finishing a great book in a diner, reuniting with a lover in a crowded airport. The contrast between your immediate situation and that of the people around you highlights your immersion, makes the experience more visceral. Public spaces invite distraction… and focus becomes a precious thing.

One of the most obvious places to seek out this kind of experience—in a good way—is the museum. I’d love to find myself rapt, ogling some exhibit or artifact with no regard for the school groups and sound effects swarming around me. But it almost never happens.

Why isn’t Al Green coming over the mental stereo in the museum?

Visitors rarely have pre-existing relationships with exhibits/artifacts prior to the museum experience. This is the visitors’ fault, not the designers’—but it’s something that needs to be taken into consideration. I care a lot about seeing Bob Dylan’s first guitar, but what about the next guy? One of the best art museum experiences I’ve ever had was one in which the museum commissioned local poets to write poems to accompany the exhibit opening. We had access to the catalog beforehand and started writing. When I finally saw the exhibition live, I was overwhelmed by the art. I’m STILL overcome by emotion when I see those same pieces (now in the Smithsonian). But it's a nearly impossible feeling for me to replicate with other pieces. You could argue that I was one of the lucky few to have that opportunity. But museums could invite the public to participate before exhibitions open in all kinds of ways that could set the groundwork for relationships between visitor and exhibition. Prime me to have a crush on an artifact so I’ll fall in love when I get there.

Museum exhibition design often strives for “fairness” with regard to spacing and display of exhibits/artifacts. Who’s to say which artifact deserves a room all to itself? But when the alternative is the lull of consistency, is it worth taking some risks? Lack of differentiation or distinction makes me just stroll on by; give me some nooks to squirrel into.

Attempts to promote intimacy through individual experiences are often disconnecting rather than connecting. Ever been through an exhibition in which everyone was given a headset? It’s creepy. I think this common error is based on the idea that people come to museums for information, and it’s easier to focus with a few senses knocked out. But that focus is forced, so you don’t get the nice “private moment public place” feeling. If the headset was instructing you to move in a certain way or speak to someone—in other words, to cultivate a relationship—it would be a different story. (Janet Cardiff does this wonderfully.)

Visitors are encouraged to “see everything” rather than finding just a couple things to focus on. Again, this is partially visitor-motivated (and rising ticket prices are a factor), but the emphasis on accessible way-finding and open spaces makes me often feel like I’m in a mall. Sure, it’s great to see where everything is, but this encourages me to act like a visitor and not a user. This is the crux of the 2.0 connection here—the fact that without the opportunity for an intimate moment, you’re just a tourist. To become a user, the museum has to offer different experiences to match your varying priorities. Think of a library. Sometimes you use the Sci Fi section, sometimes Biographies. But you never feel like you are wasting your time if you get wrapped up in one special book. That’s the experience I want in a museum, to curl up with just one exhibit, always knowing there are lots more where that came from.

There’s a song in which rapper Sage Francis speaks disdainfully of emcees/poets who “don’t know how to speak to a crowd in an intimate environment.” How can we make exhibits and museum spaces intimate environments for powerful connections and experiences?

Friday, January 05, 2007

(Not a) Game Friday: Virtual Worlds 101

Today, an interview with Sibley Verbeck (Hathor's his virtual name), founder/CEO of the Electric Sheep Company, which does experience design for real-world companies in virtual worlds including Second Life. It’s a little disjointed, but the key points are: 1. Virtual worlds provide an opportunity for social engagement with content, and 2. Virtual worlds allow designers (and evaluators, and educators) to explore new modes of content delivery that are physically impossible in the real world, but may provide rich and new ways for visitors to learn.

Let’s start with the basics. How would you define virtual worlds?

Virtual worlds are a communication medium in which people use avatars (animated characters) to interact and have shared experiences in a 3D environment. Second Life is the virtual world to take off as an open platform where anyone can create content and own intellectual property for what they create. It’s not a game—there’s no goal or restrictions on how you use it—instead, it’s a technology platform for immersion and interaction, like the web.

Most museums already have websites. Why would they want a Second Life presence?

Well, they already have telephones as well. The point is that this is a very different kind of communication medium, and it’s good for different things. Virtual worlds are the first communication medium where people can remotely have shared experiences—not just communicating in real time, but interacting with each other and with content. That is its primary strength, whereas the web’s is efficiently communicating information.

I’m not an expert on museums who can comment on why museums have websites and what they use that platform for. It seems that the primary reasons museums have websites are to convey basic information about the museum and as a marketing mechanism for content. And while a website can increase interest in the museum, it’s not a way for people to have a museum experience. It’s not a way to do it socially. Websites are more like picture books about the museum—in virtual worlds, you can have a social, real-time, interactive experience. The browsability is much greater—you can walk into a room, turn your head—there’s no clicking through content. Content that’s inherently 3D can be shared more naturally in this way.

It seems like the real world museums that are starting to work in Second Life are pursuing the social interaction element of the platform through events. The Exploratorium did the solar eclipse, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is doing all kinds of programs around Darfur.

I think that’s partly because they are dipping their toe in the water—individual events are a less expensive way to try it out than having a sustained presence. But if a museum really committed to developing a space in a virtual world, there are so many other physical things to explore. Exhibits that can’t be built in real life because of any number of prohibitions could exist in the virtual world. You could also pursue iterations of objects and experiences from the real museum—in the museum, you only have one version. But on this platform, you could go in lots of different directions. You can also create a highly themed, immersive, living museum experience quite inexpensively and safely—no one’s going to break things. It’s not like being there in real life, but it has other strengths with regard to the extent of interactivity and immersion possible.

If a museum were to go beyond dipping a toe in the water to create something bigger…

Doing a really great project in Second Life is more substantial—and expensive—than just putting some pictures up on a virtual wall. Even if you rely on volunteers and users to help create and assemble the content, you have to manage that process. It seems similar to me to what would be involved in developing a temporary exhibit or set of programs.

How do you measure success of a project like this in Second Life?

There are some obvious metrics—how much time to people spend coming there, can you convert those people to visitors to the real museum—but I assume you’d look larger than that. What’s the mission of the museum? You would measure it in the same way you measure the success of an exhibit or a museum. What do people learn? How do they feel when they leave?

There are some philosophical barriers to extending the museum mission. For example, Richard commented that most people in the museum (and funding) world think of games as for kids.

The median age for time spent in SL is early 30s, so you have an adult audience. Those people are not confused about whether this is a game—so you can start by reaching out to them.

Is now the time for museums to get into Second Life? There are still a lot of problems and it’s not exactly user-friendly yet…

Some other people on your blog raised some issues also about the experience and features—like the communication features—which are going to significantly change this year. Linden Labs has expressed they are well along with audio integration into Second Life, and I think there will be many other features around communication and social networking and ease of use that will come along soon. I think we’re right on the cusp of a lot of that happening. And the usage of SL is continuing to increase exponentially.

So given the time it takes to plan and test something, I think now is the time for museums to go in and figure things out and those institutions that do so will become a leader in this area as this technology is exploding and those features emerge. I know this is a tough sell for grant-funded institutions, but there can be opportunities if the funding is to figure out what is this medium and how can it be used for our mission? Go and do some studies and publish them.

There are probably a lot of museum folks out there with expertise in exhibit design, experience design, and evaluation of museum experiences who could translate their skills directly to those kinds of questions.

I think that’s absolutely true. Whenever a new technology comes along, people talk about the evolution of use: people port their expertise in other platforms into the new one until they figure out how to use the new medium. But another reality is that a lot of people working in virtual worlds don’t have the experience design background, and they think of this as “totally new”—but there are lots of translatable experiences out there, and the museum platform is a huge example of that. Museum people could be the leaders in creating superlative learning experiences of all kinds in the virtual platform.

To me, one of the most exciting possibilities in virtual worlds is to be able to throw off all the barriers of real world physics, etc. and design something fantastical. The Sheep built something for Nature that I love—a bubble gum machine that spits out models of chemical compounds. Then again, there are some fun things you can do in the virtual world—step into a 3D rendering of a painting, ride a dinosaur—that some museum people would hate because they seem disrespectful to objects or antithetical to an educational mission.

This technology is only relevant for those who are comfortable with and want to pursue some of those more playful and creative opportunities. But there are “safe” ways to deepen people’s engagement with content, too. If you go on an audio tour in a museum—well, you could really do it in 3D and bring it to life—show the sculpture taking form, how it was built. And a lot of this you could do on the web in 2D—but how can you present in 3D in a way that’s better than 2D? That question is wide open, and I don’t think anyone’s addressing that really well yet in Second Life.

And exhibit designers, who are used to building in physical spaces, could do that—forget the restrictions and create something really hot.

Exactly. You could deconstruct objects. You could reorganize the museum, move things around, create new structures for content flow, in a way you can’t do in physical space.

I think this goes back to the strong reasons for museums to go into virtual worlds. There are basic rules of exhibition design that are mostly a good thing, but can also be limiting in terms of creativity. In the virtual world, there are opportunities to explore building things in whole different ways, which may, in turn, affect how we think about what we can design in real museums.

And it’s worth pointing out that while Second Life can be used in an escapist way as a fantasy land, it’s also a communication tool. Are we escaping reality when we use the web? Use the phone? And it’s a more advanced tool because it accommodates a more social, human experience.

This is already a much more human environment than the web, even though it’s clunky. For example, when we put on the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby in Second Life (in which people could cheer, wave foam hands, and chat in the stadium as avatars reenacted the actual hits), we had huge buy-in. People who watched the Derby on the web stayed for 23 minutes on average. In Second Life, they stayed for the whole thing. They were doing it socially. Here’s another example—the average unique person who logs in to SL in a given day uses it for four hours.

Couldn’t they be dormant for some of that time?

Well, you automatically get logged out if you do that for too long. The point is, if you pop to a website and browse around, maybe you stay 7-8 minutes and then you move on. If you pop into Second Life, you see something, you touch it, you build something, you talk to someone, and it’s been an hour and a half. So for museums who use Second Life instead of or in addition to the web, people will interact with the content more, talk about it more, engage more deeply in Second Life than they will on a website.

There are many more conversations and debates to have and things to think about museums in virtual worlds. Personally, I am not someone with strong interest in designing or engaging in virtual experiences, but I appreciate that this is a technology that is growing, and while I--and many museums--may not be an early adopter, I think it's useful to be aware of what's going on. And I think there are other uses--networking, prototyping, distance learning--worth exploring that we didn't get to touch on here.

If you want to pursue more, here are some good links:
--There is a Museums in Second Life group led by Richard Urban that hosts meet-ups, tours, and discussions in Second Life.
--“We the Sheeple,” the Electric Sheep blog, which covers everything from the thousand-foot level to the nuts and bolts of virtual world projects.
--Metaverse Messenger, the premier newspaper of Second Life, is of mixed quality but can give you some sense of what's going on in-world.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Quickie: Dumb Crowds, Smart Crowds

There's a brilliant post today by Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users on user-generated and shared content. "Collective Intelligence" versus "Dumbness of Crowds." Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Your Questions about Second Life?

For game Friday this week, I plan to interview the esteemed Sibley Verbeck, founder/CEO of the Electric Sheep Company, the largest "metaverse applications" professional services company out there. He's also my fiance. When Sibley decided to start a Second Life-focused business last year, I thought he was nuts. I argued strenuously with him about the value and importance of something that looked to me like a diversion for nerds with big graphics cards. Well, a year, 40 employees, awesome projects, and a whole lot of hype later, I've been converted. I now believe in Second Life, not as a game environment, but as a new platform for social interactions with people, objects, and ideas. I used to ask, "how would I ever use this?" But now it seems evident that this is a great platform for long-distance, contemporaneous experiences--at concerts, ball games, museums, workplaces, reunions--of all kinds.

There have been lots of posts all over the place about Second Life and museums. Sibley and I plan to discuss the potential--and barriers--for museums in Second Life. We'll talk about exhibits, collections, educational programs, and audience. We'll talk about good and bad reasons for museums to get into Second Life.

But don't let him preach to the (mostly) adoring choir. What would YOU like to know about Second Life? There are plenty of places to learn the basics. Check out Sheep Giff Constable's excellent commentary on SL good, bad, and overhyped. What would you like to add to the conversation?

Monday, January 01, 2007

Museum Cocktail Chatter

It's the new year, and while I spent the holiday drinking rum punch from a bucket and playing an absurdly fun game called testicle toss, perhaps others of you were at more sophisticated soirees involving clinking glasses and the American cocktail question of choice, "What do you do?"

I've met many people who struggle with this obsessive "what do you do?" business. I have friends who refuse to ask, others who come up with clever alternatives ("What keeps you busy?"), and then the rare people who have some other attribute that trumps that question ("How old is your baby?" "Is that piercing uncomfortable?"). But the fact is that when meeting new acquaintances, most Americans ask the same few establishing questions to determine whether further interaction with the acquaintance is desirable.

Which got me thinking about museums, and the metaphor Elisa Giaccardi and I discussed about museums providing "encounters" between exhibits and visitors. Just as there are basic patterns to the cocktail chatter we have at parties, there are patterns to the conversations we have with exhibits. So, in the celebratory spirit, I offer up some party animals from the exhibit world, and their language of acquaintanceship.

The enthusiastic know-it-all: "Did you know this? See this? Bet you didn't know this!"

The aloof, mysterious one: "I have something incredibly interesting that I have no intention of sharing with you."

The bully: "Try this!"

The foreigner: "I would love to engage with you. Sadly, given our communication barrier, all we can do is wave our hands at each other."

The self-centered one: "You can wonder about anything, as long as it's about me."

I'm sure you could come up with others (and if you do, please add them here as comments!). But the common factor of these museum exhibit party-goers is their self-absorption. In fact, I'd argue that most exhibits are lousy conversationalists. At least humans can pretend to be interested in what the other person has to say and how they want to engage. How many times have you been in a museum and felt like a kid at a cocktail party, patted on the head, talked past or down to or not at all? I like this analogy of the party conversation as a fresh way to evaluate exhibits. How do you meet exhibits? Which ones do you want to talk to, and which ones turn you off?