One of the principles of tour production and distribution in the 2.0 world is that content should be made available on as many platforms as possible because there is no such thing as one size that will fit all visitors. Of necessity, therefore, there will be many possible interfaces to the content types described above, both singly and in combination.
N.B. As the discussion of platforms develops, it may be necessary to create a page for each platform; feel free to do this. Until then, I list a few of the major ones below.
ArtBabble probably provides the best model for the tour content as conceived in the Soundtrack – Soundbite – Link architecture. The soundtrack overviews can be presented as videos in which the soundbites and links are embedded as notes. Visitors can choose whether to follow the linear narrative of the tour (either on-site or online), and at whatever point, object or display their interest is piqued, they can drill down to a stop or links to related third party content.
The Mobile Browser
As the ubiquity of the web spreads to mobile devices, a web-based version of the tour, designed for the small screens of smartphones etc., is essential to opening up access to a broader audience. There is then also opportunity for the tour to incorporate or reference other functionality available on the mobile device, such as leaving voice or text comments, taking pictures, or sending content from the visit or tour to friends. Koven Smith has written an insightful paper about expanding our thinking about the mobile museum experience beyond the ‘tour’ paradigm to incorporate the major mobile web functions that people use daily already.
The iPhone App
For ease of use and beauty of its interface, the iPhone App can hardly be surpassed. Nousguide has done a nice job of using the App environment, including coverflow, which is a great way to quickly thumb through images of the artworks or exhibits on the tour.
But the iPhone App is limited to those who own iPhones, and probably to those who have prepared for their museum visit by downloading the App first. It is certainly possible to have Wifi hotspots in the museum to allow downloads and even Apps that require connectivity on-site, but this will not be possible for all museums. Nor should it be assumed that visitors will have enough free space on their iPhones to be able to download an App, especially if it’s heavy with content, without deleting other content from their phones first.
Podcasting should be a standard additional means of distributing tour content, and not just audio and video but also related PDFs. Both soundtracks and soundbites can be easily provided either freely or for a fee through the iTunes store. MoMA reports that their podcast audio tours get more downloads through iTunes U than through iTunes Store, even. The interface is simple but that is preferable for some consumers. Podcasting is a no-brainer and easy to do.
Podcast feeds are like members-only clubs, and once subscribers are signed up, it’s easy to offer information of all types to them: tours, special events info, lectures, etc. Though it’s difficult to measure what subscribers have listened to, it’s a very personal channel through which to develop a relationship with them. As Jonathan Finkelstein from Learning Times has said, there are few more intimate things you can do than whisper in someone’s ear, and podcasts have all this power and potential. Podcasts can also be used in combination with other services, like Learning Times’ ‘podmaps’, to provide geographical context and maps for the audio content.
I have never been entirely convinced by the cellphone as an audio delivery device; being a bit of an audio snob (and a little hard-of-hearing), I don’t find that the audio quality is good enough and holding a phone to my ear for a traditional 45 minute museum audio tour is just tiring. This is better with earbuds, of course. And there are business model limitations to the cellphone tour: it will really only ever reach a domestic audience, and with current per-minute fee structures, the museum can actually be a victim of its own success if more people call in to the tour than budgeted for.
But what I do love about cellphones is that they are two-way communication devices (as discussed with Nina Simon in the MuseumMobile.info podcast). I can listen to a stop, take a quiz, vote and leave and audio or text message comment through my phone. Plus the phone is mine, so I know how to do all that stuff with it; the museum doesn’t have to train me on this interface. By thinking of the tour experience as more participatory – even game-like – I think great mobile experiences can be designed for domestic audiences’ cellphones that will take advantage of the best of both the traditional audio tour and the two-way communication device. Needless to say, the cellphone is converging with the smartphone, so developing for it should be considered in the context of the mobile brower-based design as well – as discussed in the MuseumMobile.info podcast with Lotte Meijer, developer of MoMA Wifi.
The Museum’s own Device
I don’t think it’s just a hang-over from my audio tour company days that makes me believe there will be a demand for museums to provide tour devices for some decades to come. They may not be the traditional audio tour devices we now know: the Whitney’s research has shown that for their installation, it is cheaper to buy iPods to hand out to visitors, knowing that they’ll have to buy new ones almost annually, than to rent museum-specific players from an audio tour company.
But there will always be visitors who come to the museum without their own mobile device, or with a flat or short-lived battery, and therefore will need to pick up something at the museum in order to enjoy the tour and mobile services available there. This number, and hence staff and hardware overhead, can be minimized by publishing to as many of the other platforms named above as possible, and by marketing downloads etc. through pre-visit channels: for example, the visit information on the museum website should loudly encourage visitors to download the podcast tour or iPhone App prior to visiting the museum. As discussed in the MuseumMobile.info podcast interview with SmartHistory.org, visitors prepare for other trips: plane journeys, the daily commute, going for a run – we simply need to teach them to think of the museum in the same way.