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Review: “How It Is” from Tate Modern

Posted by Jonathan Alger on | February 28, 2010 | 1 Comment

By Jonathan Alger

This is an informal review of the “How It Is” iPhone app by Tate Modern. At the bottom, you will find a quick reference list of features and pros and cons, and also a series of useful links to relevant online sites, other reviews, etc. As it is an informal review, you may find facts or references that need improvement. Please don’t hesitate to contact the author if so.

As a designer fascinated with the potential of integrating web, mobile and exhibit experiences, I have been testing a lot of apps lately. I downloaded Tate Modern‘s first iPHone/iPod app, “How It Is,” as soon as I heard about it. I was standing in my kitchen at the time (this becomes important later, trust me). I started it up, tried it out for a minute … and deleted it.

And that’s when it got interesting.

Creepy and Irresistible
“How It Is” is a huge, ominous, dark, immersive installation by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka, a “giant grey steel structure with a vast dark chamber,” currently on view in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. Museum visitors can “walk underneath it, listening to the echoing sound of footsteps on steel, or enter via a ramp into a pitch black interior, creating a sense of unease.” Online exhibit reviews use words like “creepy” and “irresistible,” sometimes in the same sentence.

The project has several web and mobile components: a web page for the exhibit, a second website that is an online “exploration” of the project, and an iPhone/iPod app, Tate Modern’s first. Both the “exploration” website and the app are done as full-screen, first-person immersion activities. Both were designed by Champagne Valentine. (The web version uses Papervision technology, a interesting tool for animating 3D Flash experiences.)

(I should, by the way, admit that I have only experienced the online parts. This unfortunately means I can’t actually review the whole app. Part of it, a game, is triggered only upon approaching the museum. Feel free to add to this if you’ve actually visited in person and unlocked the hidden feature.)

What’s an App?
Back to my kitchen. I didn’t know any of that background yet when I hit that INSTALL button in the mobile App Store. I had seen someone mention the app briefly, and went and got it. I was expecting an “app” to test: you know, a colorful, user-friendly, zero-learning-curve bit of software that’s useful and/or entertaining for a little while. A nice augmented audio tour with good voiceover talent, perhaps, like many other mobile museum apps. But what I got, I thought, seemed deliberately unfriendly, impossible to use, had no apparent purpose and made me feel vaguely jumpy. Where was the white background, stacked list navigation, and predictable wipe transitions that go “shhhick”?

The problem wasn’t the app. It was me. After I deleted it, I had second thoughts, a guilty feeling I had missed something standing there in my kitchen. Online, I looked around on the “How It Is” iTunes preview page. A past user had left a comment that this is an “experience” unlike other apps, that it’s much better in darkness. Oh, and that you need headphones. That’s demanding, I thought, but also intriguing. I reloaded it, started it up, plugged in a pair of sound-reducing earbuds, and headed for the basement, where it’s darker and quieter to begin with.

In the Basement
Once I made it to the basement, kept the lights low, and put in my headphones, things got much better. The on-screen graphics became much easier to see, though they still stayed very dark (“black and white” would be a flattering description, this app is just “black”, but in a good way). The sound is also very important, and the special feature in the sound won’t work with the little speakers in the iPhone, no matter how you turn them up (more on that below). In the basement, I realized that this is one of the more interesting apps out there.

This app is a widescreen, first-person immersive program, like the popular Brothers In Arms action games for iPhone, or Call of Duty, or the classic Doom. These are all fighting games, with peril around every corner; I can understand why Tate chose this genre for this app.

It doesn’t deviate from the widescreen orientation, and all action happens in the screen. Your view is a view inside the exhibit space, and you move through the space in the first person to trigger sounds, short video clips, and encounter mysterious floating text and strange objects. The app version is less media-rich than the “exploration” website, but the two are very much cut from the same cloth. The app is the mini version of the web piece, more or less, which I think is a very interesting way to approach a museum mobile project.

It’s very dark, and bleak, and not what you expect. It’s not clear what you’re supposed to do, for one thing, and if you are looking for immediate clarity, you’ll not only be confused, you might even delete it. (Though I can’t imagine who would who do such a thing.) But these aren’t bad characteristics in this case. These characteristics are simply the same as the immersive art work itself, sitting there in the Tate’s Turbine Hall. And in that sense, this app is great.

This Tour is the Art
Frankly, the first time around, I expected a tour, something akin to Yours, Vincent, Love Art, iAfrica, or the Dinosaurs app from AMNH, all of which are sitting on my iPhone right now after a binge of testing (see reviews by others on this wiki). These are all basically either audio tours with visuals added in (first two) or slide shows with a few extras (last two). The “How It Is” app is something completely different. This app, I believe, isn’t an interpretation of the experience. It is the experience. The feeling you get doing this app is akin to the feeling you get from actually being in a piece of modern installation art. And for an exhibit designer like me, that’s exciting. I’m looking for ways that web, mobile and other experiences can be integrated with exhibit experiences, not be companion reference pieces, and you can’t get much more integrated than this. (Well, actually, you can, but I’ll save that for another time.)

At this point you may be asking “But if this is the experience, and it’s so interesting, won’t people just do this and never visit my museum?” I don’t think you should worry. It’s not the same as being in the installation, of course, and not the same as visiting Tate Modern. It’s a miniature version of those things, on a little glowing screen, after all. I think that for people who would be interested in the art piece itself, this app will make them even more interested. Take me, for example. I want to go see the piece in person even more, and I’ve mentioned it enthusiastically to a number of my friends.

The Role of Sound
Don’t forget those headphones. The sound is special in this app: it is 3D sound, which means that the sound coming from a virtual source on screen (some interesting floating thing that makes soft screechy noises, let’s say) appears to come from that direction no matter where you move. If a screechy thing is in front of you, the sound seems to be in front of you. If you move to the right of it, it seems to be coming from your left, and the screeching seems further away. Without headphones, or I suppose good speakers separated widely in a room sound system, you wouldn’t get this at all. This is a big part of what makes this app effective and memorable, because sound augments all the visual experiences.

Screen Orientation
As I mentioned above, the orientation is locked in widescreen. You hold your iPhone sideways all the time, not vertically, and not in a combination of orientations. Some of the “tour” type apps I mentioned above require you to constantly spin your iPhone as they switch from vertical to horizontal, and I didn’t realize how crazy this made me until I experienced How It Is. I believe a locked orientation, particularly in the less-common widescreen direction, is key to making a deeper, more immersive experience that you will remember. Of course, this wouldn’t work well on other mobile platforms that can’t switch orientation as fluidly, like Blackberrys or straight-up mobile phones browsing the mobile web, but I don’t think you could run this kind of immersion on the mobile web anyway.

The way you get around in the app is with an on-screen joystick. For anyone who has done any gaming, a little touchscreen joystick is a somewhat laughable concept at first. And for those who are not used to video games, it might even be so unnatural that it thwarts your attempt to enjoy the app at all at first. Either way, you get used to it after a while and forget that it’s there, but I would say it is the one thing about this app that didn’t convince me. The rest of it is quite elegant and clever, the joystick isn’t. But since I can’t think of another way it could have been done, and since touchscreen joysticks are quite common in iPhone games, I don’t want to overstate it as a problem.

“How It Is” is an inspiring mobile museum experience, even verging on revolutionary. It is an excellent example of software genre matched to museum genre (first-person immersive game vs. installation art piece) and it goes well beyond the typical handheld tour to the point where the mobile experience has to be considered part of the art experience itself. It also holds a promise for new kind of museum mobile project, where well-integrated exhibit, website and mobile applications work together as parallel channels of experience, augmenting the visitor experience inside and outside the museum. I hope I will see many more apps like “How It Is.” My kitchen and my basement are waiting.

Quick Reference
Platform: iPhone app
Other platforms?: Yes, web version is similar
Genre: first-person immersive
Orientation: widescreen, fixed
Closed Captioning: none
Sound: rich 3D sound
Pros: very immersive, excellent use of sound, makes you feel like you are literally in the art
Cons: joystick nav is a bit clunky but necessary, app version has fewer goodies than web version
Recommended: yes


Tate Modern:

“How It Is” Web Site:

“How It Is” Web Experience:

“How It Is” App:

Champagne Valentine:

iTunes Preview Site: Coverage of How It Is App (and piles more incredibly interesting apps):

Creativity Review:


About the Author:
Jonathan Alger follows new developments in exhibit design, museum planning and interactive public space at He is a founding partner of the multidisciplinary design firm C&G Partners.


One Response to “Review: “How It Is” from Tate Modern”

  1. Robin White Owen
    March 4th, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

    In a way I’d like to second your comments. Often my first experience of a new app is on the subway where it’s hard to hear and to make sense of non-musical sound, especially if you’re not expecting it. I played with the app for three trips without ever hearing anything, but it was the creepy, spook house experience that didn’t have an end or a climax that kept me coming, hoping to discover something I hadn’t noticed before.

    Finally, I dove into it at home one evening, where it was quiet enough to hear the strange, eerie sounds wash over me and illuminate the darkness, if sound can be said to do that. It was thrilling.

    “How It Is” is an immersive experience unlike any other museum app I’ve downloaded. It’s art for the iPhone, rather than a tour and demonstrates how this platform can also be used to provide an experience that parallels the art exhibition but is unique at the same time.

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