Pushing boundaries

Using multimedia as part of an exhibition may seem a dynamic and attractive option, but Jeremy Myerson warns of the pitfalls

The museum and leisure industries today have more pushbutton technology at their disposal than ever before to create memorable visitor attractions and experiences. But this armoury of high-tech exhibition tools also brings many risks for those making the investment. This was the point of many deliberations at the recent LeisureAsia 96 conference held in Singapore.

Here we produce extracts from four keynote papers which demonstrate that the technology alone cannot provide all the answers. The machines may be more clever than ever – but human intelligence and design skill remain paramount.

Alan Wilkinson, manager, Leisure Division, Electrosonic, on how to stop audio-visual attractions going badly wrong.

” Why do we use audio-visual techniques in museums and visitor attractions? To attract more visitors, to excite and create interest, to inform and educate and to provide fun. Complex information can, if produced carefully, be explained in easy-to-understand ways with the aid of audio-visual. But a major question is: what can go wrong?

There are many examples of technology failing to provide the answer or, indeed, failing to work at all. Here are five key points to remember when deciding on which technologies to use.

Always put the message or story first. Technology is only there to enhance and help communicate the message. If the message is not good, it is unlikely that any amount of gimmicks or technology will make it work.

Learn from experience. Use people who have worked in this field and know the pitfalls. Many of these techniques are borrowed from other industries such as theme parks or aerospace training systems, which can afford a higher level of technical support than the average museum.

Always buy the best you can afford. Domestic or poor quality equipment should be avoided at all costs; it is not suitable for permanent exhibitions. Is your television, computer or compact disk used by a different child every two minutes, 12 hours a day, every day of the year and expected to last between five and ten years? Probably not, but this is the expectation of equipment in a popular museum. Domestic equipment usually has a much shorter design life than professional equivalents and spares and repairs can be difficult to obtain. Finding a replacement model can often prove impossible, and the whole exhibit has to be redesigned.

Use what you need to do the job. Don’t be tempted by the latest technology for its own sake – it will not be the latest technology in six months’ time and will only be as good as its performance.

Always budget for the true cost of ownership of your technology. There is little worse than a poorly maintained exhibit or an “out of order” sign hanging on a monitor. You may need trained staff, a maintenance contract with the supplier, consumables such as projector lamps and so on. Many of these can be far more expensive than expected. “

Alex McCuaig, managing director, Met Studio, argues that technological wizardry should not be promoted at the expense of design ideas.

” It might sound like heresy to say so at a conference on the application of new technology in leisure, but the real issue in delivering a spectacular and successful multimedia experience for visitors is not understanding the technology. It is understanding your visitor.

“Multimedia has given the leisure and museum industries fantastic new tools, but in the wrong hands these tools are as good as useless. Unless there is the design vision to challenge the technology and interpret it creatively, the experience can well turn out to be sterile rather than spectacular.

“At Met Studio, we appreciate the range of new technological tools at our disposal, but we are careful not to promote them at the expense of strong design concepts. We know, for example, that the CD-ROM is a marvellous tool because it enables visitors to select and explore the directions they want to go in. But the quality of that exploration depends on the quality of the concept.

“In this context, we believe that the job of selecting the right designer should be given a higher priority than selecting the right hardware. It is short-sighted to purchase large format-theatres (IMAX and so on) just because they are available. It is essential to develop the creative concepts that will maximise their use. The right design ideas will ensure that you get a proper return on your investment in the hardware and the right designer has the expertise to make this happen.

“A visit to an exhibition should be a pleasurable experience and the design team must know when and how to use the technology. This only comes from experience:

experience in understanding how visitors use an exhibition

knowing what level of information they can cope with on short visits

knowing when to insert the emotional highs and lows

knowing where it is appropriate to inject humour

experience in creating an educational “spine” running through your exhibition, without preaching to the audience

experience in designing for flexibility, so that huge technology installations can alter their form and adapt to changing needs

“The communication of complex information in exhibitions and museums, whether historic or scientific, is not easy. It requires in-depth research to determine content and it demands considerable skill in execution.

“Interactive exhibits – using such technologies as touch-screens, smartcard terminals and Virtual Reality displays – are increasingly being promoted as appropriate solutions. Undoubtedly they have an important role to play, but a word of caution here. They shouldn’t be looked upon as the panacea for all exhibition problems: there needs to be a balance. Such tools must be used with care and discretion, especially as multimedia, VR and computer technology become more prevalent and commonplace in the world outside the leisure/museum experience.

“Similarly, multimedia audio-visual displays have the capacity to truly stun audiences in their seats and stimulate their senses. As a consequence, audio-visual is now essential in most modern museum environments.

But there can be drawbacks to creating an essentially passive experience, and it is in the best interests of the attraction that museum visitors are presented with a range of experiences which are expressed in active and interactive ways. “

Gertrude Layton, group manager, Telecom World, Hongkong Telecom, Hong Kong, discusses the use of smartcards to personalise the visitor experience.

” The venue for Telecom World is highly personalised with the use of magnetic cards, or, as we call them, Telecom World cards. This allows visitors to choose their language of preference and personalise their visit. The card allows the visitor to be addressed by name at several exhibits, and can also tailor the visit to the level of interest and age. Children under 12, for example, get a simpler version of information at information points.

“The biggest lessons in operating the exhibition have been learned from the use of Telecom World cards. We are proud to be one of the first in the world to be using such a system, but, as with any pioneering system, we have had our share of teething problems.

“Our first stumbling block emerged when we were looking at how visitors could input their names both in English and Chinese. We looked at various solutions but in the end we decided it was simpler to input the names ourselves. While this was the most practical solution, it does mean that there is a heavier demand both in terms of workload and general administration.

“It also means that we have quite a complex booking system where visitors are asked to make an appointment before arrival. There are benefits to this, of course. It allows us to input names before the visit, regulate flow and also ensure that the venue can be used exclusively for corporate use of VIP customer-function when there is such a need. On the downside, a lot of time is spent inputting names for people who don’t show up – a problem we have yet to resolve. “

James Lim, managing director, Eshcol Interactive (Singapore) on how to make a Virtual Reality attraction work for you.

” Virtual Reality is hot! Theme parks and family entertainment centres need new reasons for people to get out of their homes. The keyword is interactivity and VR is one of the answers. VR allows multiple players and creates a shared, socially engineered experience that means repeat customers. But if not properly implemented, VR will become a loss leader.

The first rule of operating VR is never place a VR machine near a traditional arcade machine as these use loud audio effects to attract players. VR provides surround-sound to a player, but in a noisy environment it loses its effect and is overshadowed.

The social element is critical, with VR working best in a serviced environment. VR is a top-of-the-range machine that requires properly trained staff. Average game play is three minutes and costs 2. New players especially need to be guided, and trained staff make a difference.

Location is important. Never put VR machines in isolated corners. Give VR the central hotspot and it can be very effective in drawing a crowd. “

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