Museums using interior location are helping to map the future of digital technology. They should continue, however, to tread cautiously.
Museum maps can currently be found on the printed materials and the plaques affixed to the wall next to museum entrances. For the most part, they are functional and useful tools. They provide a footprint of the museum, highlight areas of the building where the exhibits are displayed, and inform visitors regarding important services like the bathrooms and museum cafe.
They cannot, however, provide location information to those unable to read a visual map. They also cannot expand the visitor’s knowledge of a particular area at a glance based on their preferences, their current location, or their interests. They cannot transform or evolve unless they are redesigned. But technologies have recently emerged that will likely forever change how we navigate through museum space, if they are adopted in the right way.
Interior location technology has been a hot topic this year with the emergence of the 3D scanning and micro-locating software development platform Tango and subsequent apps like Pokemon Go and Measure. Currently, there are several different hardware options for the interior location experience, including the installation of beacons, magnetic sensors, and scannable codes. Each of these options help its corresponding software determine the precise location of the user using wifi and a previously built digital interior map. Many of them also boast a relatively low cost and relatively little staff upkeep once they are installed, although regular maintenance should be factored into the cost no matter how high the hardware’s supposed quality.
The possibilities for the uses of this technology in museums extend in several directions. For visitors with special needs, a digital mapping tool could assist them in exploring the museum without human assistance for the first time in their lives. It can also provide audio tours with varying foci and themes from which audiences may make their own selection. The data collected from the use of interior location technology can also assist with evaluation studies that improve wayfinding and future exhibition design.
Indoor location technology also has intangible benefits that have already attracted some of the world’s most forward-thinking institutions. The experience-collection culture of today’s young adult population is particular well-suited to immersive experiences. SFMoMA’s new location-based tours have been designed as organic, visceral explorations through the galleries for a range of visitor tastes and interests and are likely to draw the surrounding tech-focused population. Tech experts and museum bloggers alike have already expressed their positive feedback on the museum app’s quality and transformative potential (comments on the tour content aside).
In addition to engaging new and differently abled audiences, the adoption of interior location technology launches museums into the future of interior mapping, a focus of major tech giants like Google and Apple, who are on a mission to map the interior spaces of our world just as GPS has done for the exterior. It may, in fact, be difficult to find a reason not to incorporate such a promising feature into a museum’s future. The temptation for institutions to dive in head first may be great based on the multitude of interior location’s perceived benefits and functions. But research, staff training, prototyping, and evaluation must be incorporated into future technological forays in order for them to be beneficial additions.
Critics have pointed out that in order for interior location technology to truly enhance the museum experience for all visitors, pathways to enjoyment must be opened and maintained. That is, if smartphones and wifi will be a requirement for enjoyment of the museum visit, smartphones and wifi must be made available to all visitors, regardless of the compatibility of the technology they bring with them.
Interior location technology holds massive potential for putting museums on the map as digitally innovating cultural preservers, educators, and positive reflections of the local community. But these goals can only be reached if every visitor who enters is given the same opportunity to learn its features and explore its wonders on an even plane.
Featured image courtesy of Piepser, Inc.