The Internet of Things

Has the internet of things had its moment already? It seemed to be the thing everyone talked about a couple of years ago, but lately the enthusiasm seems to have died down. Personally I think its more of an infrastructure thing than a ‘killer app.’ It seems to me though that when there are winners in the IoT standards war, and the technology is cheap, and can be affixed without conservation issues IoT will be big for museums. But leaving that aside, today’s paper has lots of quotable quotes, so its the subject of this post. “Today’s paper” is PETRELLI, D. , DULAKE, N., MARSHALL, M., ROBERTS, A., MCINTOSH, F. & SAVAGE, J.. 2018. Exploring the potential of the internet of things at a heritage site through co-design practice. San Francisco: IEEE.

The authors of this paper hope that “By embedding digital technology into objects and spaces we can bring the attention of the visitors back to the heritage, as opposed to the digital devices, and create experiences that go beyond the delivery of information and engage visitors at an emotional level.” This is of course a very commendable intention because recently “museums have been keen to use digital technology to deliver large amount[s] of information (all the information that did not fit on the panels) despite the fact that only a minority of visitors consume just a fraction of what is available.”

What excites the authors is the idea of tangible interpretation, that responds to what the visitor does with it “this new technology holds much potential for heritage as it allows embedding sensing and computation into smart objects and spaces and seamlessly create experiences that cross the boundaries between the material and the digital.” They give some early project examples, some of which (their own) we have read about in previous papers, but there are some new ones too: “The Magic Cauldron (part of a touring exhibition on magic) engaged children in casting spells while throwing objects into the interactive cauldron that reacted with different sounds (e.g. burps) and lights depending on the object thrown in.”

The project in the paper however was for and English Heritage property, Chesters Roman Fort and The Clayton Museum “created in 1896 to host John Clayton’s collection of Roman objects, mostly from Hadrian’s Wall and its surroundings.” Like many 19th century museums that retain their Victorian display philosophy, the collection can look daunting to modern visitors, “most of them enter, spend only a few minutes looking around and leave missing the opportunity to appreciate the richness and relevance of the pieces on display.” The nineteenth century museum posed a number of other challenges to the project team – the opportunities fro physical interventions was limited; there was not enough power for suggested pico-projectors; there was no wifi and a poor mobile phone signal.

In the end, they came up with an idea that I really like. Indeed, the best of all the tangible interfaces I have read about so far: “in the vestibule the visitor would collect the votive lamp from the shrine; they would have a small number of offerings to take to the altars (marked by stands in the museum); visitors would then have to choose, among the many, which ones they wanted to give their offering to; on returning to the shrine, on their way out, with the now empty offering vessel the visitors would receive their personal “oracle”, a personalised reading of one’s character and needs based upon the choices of gods.” There were 13 gods from which the visitors could choose three to bring their votive lanterns to, so 289 possible combinations.

There were issues of coursewith the project, many caused by the remoteness of the location. Its hard to have a internet of things when the internet does to reach the museum. There were issues recognisable to everyone working in heritage, where the designers felt approvals took too long and heritage professionals wanted to dedicate more time to the early development of the project. But the authors concluded that if the internet can be enabled even in remote locations “pervasive computing then becomes an addition to the exhibition designers toolbox: it offers new ways of engaging visitors with digital content through tangible means.”

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