I’m not necessarily in favour of putting screens in museums—not when they replace the art. But when they help you better understand, engage with and appreciate the art, then it’s wonderful.
If you’ve ever visited the city of Montreal, chances are you’ve noticed the eye-catching golden glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, located on the city’s main drag of Sherbrooke Street.
It’s located right outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who first hired us to give their visitors a new-and-improved, more technically advanced way to navigate their exhibits - and then asked us to build on the work we’d done to create a way to help local teenagers brush up on their art knowledge as part of class visits to the museum.
Read on for the scoop on how it all went down.
The MMFA chose Osedea to bring their vision to life after an intensive RFP process. They selected us not only because they knew from our track record that we have the necessary tech and design prowess, but also because it was going to be an extensive project (it turned out to involve five months of working closely together), and they wanted to partner with a team they enjoyed interacting with. (Not to toot our own horn, but we hear this from a lot of our clients.) :)
The museum’s goal was to improve on the cumbersome handheld units that previously provided the audio programming MMFA visitors would listen to as they perused the works of art during their time at the museum. A mobile app seemed like the obvious solution, but we felt it had the potential to be much more than just a simple digital replacement for the older technology.
What we ended up developing for them was an intricately connected system consisting of a robust mobile app and a network of over 100 mini “beacons” positioned throughout the museum. This pair of technologies allows for extremely precise navigation tracking, with specific audio content playing automatically on visitors’ phones depending on what piece of art they happen to be standing in front of.
The app also exposes listeners to a beautiful original musical score (expertly paired with the pieces of art) that you can choose to listen to as you wind your way through the exhibits, if you prefer not to hear the informational audio commentary.
There were a few major hurdles involved in this project. The first was that we were developing an app that would rely heavily on flawless integration with technology that was completely new to us (the beacons that are positioned throughout the museum).
We sourced these beacons from a third party company, and dove deep into the documentation to figure out how to code an app that would seamlessly communicate with them. In order to make all the audio accompaniment magic happen, the beacons emit a BlueTooth signal that communicates with your phone, telling the app exactly where you’re standing at any one moment. We assigned one member of our team to become the “beacon expert”, which allowed us to stay on-task and on schedule in terms of delivering the app to the museum in a timely manner.
The second challenge was that the MMFA has a less-than-straightforward physical layout, consisting of buildings on two sides of the street, multiple floors, and underground passageways. In the past, visitors to the museum have tended to get lost, causing them to need to ask for directions frustratingly frequently.
To counteract this problem, the mobile app that we created had to interact with the beacons to help people to find what they were looking for quickly and easily, and give them information on the quickest route to get someplace (as there is more than one way to reach most destinations inside the museum). The navigation feature that we developed has proven to be especially useful to visitors with reduced mobility, giving them a more pleasant experience at the museum because they can clearly see the fastest way to get places in a way that’s wheelchair-accessible, for example.
The other sticking point had to do with the fact that the beacons that form the backbone of the content delivery system for the app are powered by a battery. It was crucial that we optimize the app’s performance so that it didn’t drain the batteries too fast. This saves the museum staff from having to replace them too often (a daunting task, given that there are over 100 beacons scattered throughout the museum).
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts wouldn’t exist without its collections! Making them available on a range of different platforms—like the tablet for students—is key. Now, with the Museum’s educational app, the Quebec and Canadian art collection is only a click away. Students can explore stories as they visit the Museum and learn more about Quebec and Canadian art.
Once the beacons were in place and the audio guide/musical accompaniment app was up and running and in use by many of the museum’s daily visitors, the team at MMFA came to us with an idea for a second project. This one was aimed specifically at teenagers who spend time at the museum as part of class trips.
The museum had a goal of welcoming more high school students to their exhibits on a regular basis, but they didn’t want to have to rely on human guides to show them around, as there are only so many accredited guides who are qualified to lead tours. And while the new mobile app that we created for them was great for adults, they felt teenagers needed something a bit different to get the most mind-expanding enjoyment out of their experience. So, we masterminded a dynamic, iPad-powered experience that makes learning about the museum’s art collections feel a bit like a real-life video game.
This educational app works with the same set of beacons we installed for the museum guide app. When students arrive for their “tour”, they’re put into pairs, given an iPad with the educational app on it, and instructed to take a picture of themselves to start the experience. Then they’re off to the races, consulting their iPads to learn about each piece across the museum’s various exhibits.
The app asks the teenagers questions about the works of art, challenging them to compare and contrast between different paintings. As they answer the questions, they’re awarded points, and ranked in real-time against their fellow competitors (AKA their classmates).
Once they’ve finished the game, the high school students receive a link to a “web diary” of their time at MMFA, which they can consult once they’re back and school, and which their teachers use as a basis for further art instruction.
Creating this real-life gamification experience with an educational slant was lots of fun for us. We had to fine-tune the indoor geolocation functionality of the app to a precise degree to ensure the game instantly reacted to what the students were doing, generating a sense of urgency and excitement as they progress through the museum, and of course, it was important that the app had a slick visual interface. Today’s tech-savvy teenagers would expect nothing less!
In closing, the two MMFA projects we’ve just shared with you are perfect examples of how our versatility and passion for what we do inspire us to go above and beyond in service to our clients’ unique needs - even if we have to wade through entirely uncharted territory to do it.
At Osedea, we live for this kind of stuff, and truth be told, we wouldn’t have it any other way.