But John I thought you hated BYOD?

Yes, if you know me at all – you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). As an end user I want a device all installed, ready to go in an instant.  I don’t want to have to think about getting on the WiFi, figuring out where to get the app from, waiting for it to install, figuring out if it’s compatible with my phone, creating an account etc.  And even when I’m all set up, am I willing to use up one of the most precious substances known to man – my battery life!

At the same time my phone has reminders of all the other things going on in my life and takes me away from the immersion and magic of the experience I’m trying to focus on.

Interestingly – it appears that visitors from different countries have different preferences about whether they prefer to use their own device or not.  So perhaps I’m alone on this?

Anyway, in this model all the negative sides of owning the devices lie with the cultural institute.  Do we have enough devices, are they updated, are they charged, is someone going to steal them, who is going to look after them and so on.

How has COVID19 changed things?

There’s a great article here (from the lovely Kelly Molson, the Chief Cheese of Rubber Cheese!) that talks about the wider reaching issues affecting the cultural sector and definitely worth a read.

In the same way that ‘handshakes & hugs’ will probably be avoided (at least in the early days until fashion dictates it’s what the cool kids are doing) – so will the preference for not borrowing and sharing devices.

So, it seems like I might need to adjust my views on BYOD 🙁 Let’s be clear I’m not wrong – I’ve just tweaked my views based on new evidence 😉

The question of how we properly santise these shared devices has been been slightly overlooked. I’m not saying that we didn’t in the past – but there will be a whole new level of scrutiny expected. Wiping down a touch screen each morning will no longer cut it – we will probably expect wipes and santisers to be available liberally throughout.

There’s a great article here from the KioskIndustry – which discusses at great length touchscreens and their antibacterial coatings.

So you have changed your mind then?

Well given that entire industries are possibly disappearing and others are having to make very drastic changes I think it’s reasonable to expect a rethink.  In the live event and immersive worlds there are plenty of opportunities as well.  For example, the movement of Escape Rooms into the world of play at home Escape Games is a real opportunity – I can now play Escape Rooms from all over America from the comfort of my own home.  Some of these changes are temporary but some will be things that stay.

So, is there some happy-ish medium where we can have some compromises from each?

Let’s hope so otherwise this tutorial is a waste of time.

The most basic problem in museums is how to label our objects.  How much content should we write, what level should they be for, how should they be tweaked etc?  And I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about writing for our catch all target audience – our bright 12 year old.  How do we deal with those that want more? What about audio, video, images etc.

While we often put digital devices in the space, touch screens, speakers, digital labels, films on screens – these are great for communal viewing but less targeted to an individual’s needs. The classic solution then is to provide the visitor with a personal device or let the visitor use their own phone.  While the phone is relatively recent the idea of having personal printed material or an audio guide is age old.

The main problem we have is once a visitor is standing in front of an object how do we deliver the corresponding content.  In our printed guide example – this means that the visitor needs to turn to the correct page and find where to begin reading from.

I’ve often used more high-tech locative technology such as beacons & GPS but this is far from foolproof even in the hands of experts. Near-field communication (NFC) is a personal favourite although not supported on all devices. QR (quick response) codes are excellent at what they do although somewhat out of fashion. There’s a bunch of AR type technologies which learn the visual appearance of the museum object itself as the trigger. And also a bunch which try to replace QR codes with something prettier or more advanced. Personally, I’ve had nothing but trouble with these and would rather places stuck with QR codes (it’s built into my camera app!) and at least I don’t look like an idiot trying to figure exactly how to scan them!

Which leaves us with the user manually typing in the museum (or choosing it from a list). Which isn’t quite as bad as you might expect.  This could be typing in the entire web address, a shortened web address or some kind of code – e.g. a three-digit number. In theory this could be letters or symbols – but we all know where we are with digits.

So, which one is it?

Well I’m proposing that we go with a bunch of them:

  • A QR code (for people to scan)
  • A short link (for people to type in)
  • An NFC card linked to either the short-link or the full address
  • And a 3 digit number to type into the webapp

Initially you print whatever subset of this info you like onto an NFC card and stick it near your object. In the most basic sense, a post-it note with a 3 digit number will also do the trick.

Visitors can choose whatever is fastest and most comfortable for them

Hmmm, this sounds pretty basic:

Well it is really – but it works.  The museum guide / audio guide is a staple of the museum world and it’s something that visitors have a lot of expectations around.  In short they’re not going away.

Here’s the trailer from the British Museum’s for their Audio Guide:

And there’s a fascinating talk here from Shelley Manion called Rethinking the British Museum’s Audio Guide – from 2016.  Even though this is from 5 years ago – the audio tour guide hasn’t changed a great deal.

Or if you prefer here’s a write-up from Museums and the Web 2015:

An audio state of mind: Understanding behaviour around audio guides and visitor media

Is there an app?

Not yet – there’s potential for an app to exist which works in basically the same way except that it has all the content downloaded up front. Good for venues with poor Wifi / phone signal.

What about multiple languages?

Just like the NFC guides – it’s certainly possible to submit the content in multiple languages. That’s not available yet – but if there is demand I can look into that.

Can you add feature X for us?

Sure, let me know what you want and if it’s not already on my horizon I’ll be sure to add it to the list. Currently my focus is on keeping it simple enough so that smaller museums with little in-house technical skills can create their own audio guides quickly.

Obviously if you want to guarantee it gets done the easiest way to to turn up and cross my palm with silver.  As with the other tutorials on here – these are the free ones and you’re absolutely fine to use them in anyway you wish. There are commercial custom versions of these out in the world that I’ve developed for clients. The general idea is that these new features that have been paid for by clients will where possible make their way into the free versions.  This hasn’t always been possible where things have deviated significantly from the free version.  The advantage for clients is that they’re building on something that is already running and has had real-world testing as well as paying it forward for the smaller venues to benefit from.

So what about the content?

I’m going to host it for you. There will be fairly generous limits to this – but the content you upload will automatically be compressed to save on my bandwidth & hosting costs. Obviously if someone ‘games the system’ then I’ll need to reconsider this approach.  The British Museum’s app is 20GB worth of content – if that’s what you’re thinking then this probably isn’t the app for you!

As you can probably tell – this is that bit I haven’t given enormous thought to and will no doubt come back to bite me.  I’m really thinking that this is for smaller venues who can’t afford an app / web developer to create their own.

Can’t we just build our own DIY version?

Absolutely, you don’t need this at all. You can stick all your content up on google drive / dropbox and give out links to the files directly.  It might not be as slick as this version – but you’ll certainly be in control of everything.  I’ll add some notes about this later.  At the end of the day all we’re doing is sending our visitor to a webpage and we’re trying to make it easier than have them type in the web address manually.

There’s a bunch of other options to explore such as WordPress plugins, content management systems or connections to your existing digital archives.

So why even bother?

Well I’m hoping this is so easy that any one at a museum can knock up their own tour / trail in double quick time – and don’t need to worry about all the hosting issues.  This should leave you to spend more time on generating your content.  Check out my tutorial on Audacity for creating audio content.

Hopefully in the longer term I’ll be able to create extra plugins that allow for some fancy machine-learning processing of the content. Watch this space!

And I wanted a good excuse to have a good play with a new Microsoft web technology called Blazor. I won’t bore you with the details but it means you can create websites without (much) javascript. Something that I consider to be good news 😉

Can I just get on and build something!

Sure, well done for reading all the way to the end.  Head over here to prepare your content for your tour.