It's been a long standing strategy for museums and galleries to compliment a visitor's experience with physical and digital content; curators notes, interpretation plaques, audio guides and physical tours. With the advent of smartphones, organisations have pursued new ways to deliver this content in a location sensitive way.
The challenge has always been the 'location' bit. GPS - the answer to all location problems - currently lacks the resolution. The notorious QR code, which allows smartphone owners to download an app to scan a barcode to launch contextual content, is as over engineered as it is ugly. Meanwhile the NFC tags that made big waves in retail, have gained little traction outside of this sector.
The problem is, in a wireless world, scanning or tapping something just feels mighty awkward.
Then iOS7 was released.
Under the furore of super light fonts and new icons was iBeacons, a new technology which is set to revolutionise the way people interact with public spaces.
What is an iBeacon?
iBeacons are Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitters which allow a developer to determine when a user enters their presence. It does this by measuring the strength of signal being received, which is then translated into an approximate distance, and sending a notification when a certain threshold is met.
It’s a reassuringly simple idea, utilising a familiar technology. Essentially any device with a modern Bluetooth implementation can receive iBeacon transmissions, meaning most smartphones and tablets qualify. They are can be cheap to buy or even make. Best of all, the technology is incredibly easy to setup and can be powered by a small battery for years.
What are the possibilities?
The technology presents lots of exciting gameplay possibilities alongside augmenting and contextualising the traditional visitor experience.
Here are just some of the ideas we're exploring in the studio:
1. Digital Treasure hunts in physical spaces
Digital treasure hunts have always used QR codes or manual input to confirm the discovery of items. Set over large spaces this is (just) functional, but when set within smaller spaces, the game becomes more QR code spotting than genuine exploration.
iBeacons allow us to detect when the player has discovered the thing they were looking for. It's intuitive, unobtrusive and invisible. It's a major game changer.
2. UGC (Content annotation)
Did an exhibit ever move you to the point where you wanted to tell someone about it, or know what others thought too?
iBeacons (in combination with a wireless / cellular network) can allow visitors to leave comments attached to items, browseable by other visitors in the vicinity.
3. A digital 'Like' of a physical thing.
Did you ever want to 'Like' a painting in a gallery, or tweet about a specific item in a museum?
As the iBeacons can determine you are next to a specific item, ‘Liking’ and tweeting functionality is simply contextual.
4. Bookmarking content for later
Ever found yourself noting down beautiful paintings at Tate to google later at home?
With iBeacons you can simply 'bookmark' the item for browsing later. For schools, art students or just the art curious, being able to take home a part of your visit will vastly improve the post-visit experience.
5. Interactive guides
Perhaps the most obvious application of the technology is as a contextual interactive guide. Knowing the visitor’s location, allows the guide to, for example, highlight the floor you're on, show where the closest to toilet is, and recommend - with basic personalisation - attractions which are nearby and relevant for them.
6. Contextual interpretation
Perhaps the simplest application of the iBeacon technology is presenting information to a visitor based on their location. Brilliant for guides and orientation, but most impactful when tailoring content to specific audiences.
From here on in, interpretation panels will only present high level information, with the visitor’s smartphone delivering information that is tuned to the age group, their interests and in their native language.
7. Physical analytics.
As the various applications of this technology become more pervasive, so will the data sets that allow the collection of meaningful data about how visitors move and interact in the space.
There is also huge scope for beautiful real-time visualisations of visitor movement and building interactions.
8. Unlocking content based on a visit.
With a single iBeacon and detection code in a mobile game, we can reward the player in-game for visiting the gallery. It could be as simple as a 'visit' achievement or new DLC. Whatever it is, we can now directly reward a a visit, not just inspire one.
For museums, galleries and public spaces, this is the most important development since the smartphone. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle which will change the way mobile devices are used in public spaces, and legitimise their presence in the space, rather than be perceived as a distraction from it.
For museums the problem will be commitment to existing infrastructure, but this isn't an all or nothing situation. Start small, test with visitors and learn what will work for you and your space.
Preloaded are looking for museums and galleries to create a series of real world prototypes, so if you're in charge of a museum's gallery, technology, learning or interpretation please get in touch.
For everyone else, watch this space as we begin to release tech demos and libraries for the above applications.