Blog Posts

Create. Consume. Repurpose.

Part of what I do with Toura is work with clients on what content goes into their mobile applications. In some cases they create the content themselves, in other cases they outsource the creation to content producers. But, sometimes they choose to repurpose existing content that they already have on hand. The following is from a presentation that I gave at the Museum and Mobile online conference on March 22, 2011.

Image from Storm Crypt on Flickr

Image from Storm Crypt on Flickr

When planning a mobile app for your museum you have two options for content. On one side you can create content internally, hiring someone to do it for you or do a combination of the two. On the other side, you can repurpose existing content that you already have at your museum. If you choose to repurpose existing content you may need to make adjustments to it or you may have to fill in the gaps that might cause your app to be incongruous.

Museums may not realize it, but they have a lot of content that they create as a natural part of their day-to-day operation. These include:

  • Labels
  • Wall Text
  • Catalogues
  • Brochures
  • Websites
  • Interviews
  • Photographs
  • Audio Tours
  • Videos

All of these items can POTENTIALLY be used for your mobile applications, but you need to be cautious when piecing them together into a mobile experience. Look for consistency with the content – does it work together, are the writing styles similar, is the content for children improperly mixed with complex adult content? It’s instances like this where it might be necessary to do some re-writing or re-editing of the content to fill in the gaps or create fluidity. This also requires you to have a specific audience in mind and tailor the content to that audience.

The other thing to keep in mind when repurposing content is where the content came from. It could be from a number of different departments in your institution including Marketing, Education, Curatorial, etc. Remember that all these departments have different voices because they are creating content for a specific purpose. Marketing will be selling the museum or collection to the general public, education will be focused on the everyday visitor helping them to understand the collection and exhibitions, and curatorial will be shedding light on different viewpoints and newly discovered facts about objects and their creators.

When building your mobile application you should be mindful of whether you intend the app to be used internally at the museum or whether you are trying to reach a global audience who may not be able to visit the physical space. If you do intend it to be internally used you may include directions which take into account the location of the work of art. You may ask in your audio for the visitor to move closer to the work to examine a particular section. If it is intended for external usage, you may include detailed photos to allow the user to focus on particular areas in lieu of being able to move closer to the work. Alternatively, you may wish to construct your app to reach the broadest group possible by making your content work for both groups of people.

Image by mpclemens on Flickr.

Image by mpclemens on Flickr.

Text

Perhaps the most abundant source of material to repurpose will be text based content. Older institutions have years and years of content that were created for audiences at particular periods of time. Not only will these text save time when building an app, they may also offer a different perspective based on social norms at the time the time they were written.

The main thing to keep in mind however is that these texts will also be the most influenced content at your museum. What I mean by this is that specific departments will have written this text for specific purposes other than for use in a mobile tour. It’s important to know when the text will work in a mobile app context and when it won’t.

There are some things to remember when considering text in your museums mobile application. If you are focusing on tablet applications your users are going to expect more text. Users are more inclined to use these devices for longer stretches of time while in the comfort of their home or in coffee shops. Users of phone devices are going to expect smaller selections of text since the use of their devices are typically for shorter amount of time, like standing in line at a store or commuting on public transportation.

Re-purposing text can result in disparity in app focus so it’s important to look at the content from a mobile perspective when piecing it together. Will they work on a Phone? Will they work for an iPad. Will they work for both? Are there any holes that are going to be needed to be filled or are there re-writes that will need to occur?

Some systems may require you to paste the text into a plain text editor to clean off any hidden formatting embedded with it. This is especially important with text taken from Word documents which hides a lot of formatting information that Word uses to render the text. If this hidden formatting is included when pasting text into a mobile platform solution it could wreak havoc with the formatting capabilities of that particular system.

Images

Image from DavyRocket on Flickr.

Image from DavyRocket on Flickr.

Second to Text for most abundant content for re-use are images. Before you start assembling a mobile app or tour, it will be important to track down as many images for potential inclusion. There are many likely sources for these images including: photographs, slides, transparencies and digital images.

As you can see from the list there are several of these that might need to be converted to digital format before they could be used with mobile. Additionally you may need to photograph artwork specifically for your app and to fill in any holes.

While organizing these image assets it might be beneficial to devise a naming structure to help during the app creating process. The structure can be created for internal usage and it will aid in the assembly of all the various components in your application.

There are some things that you should keep in mind when creating images from older source material or pulling from current digital sources. To ensure that your images give the most bang for your buck find ones that will work well for current tablet devices. The size of the iPad screen is 1024 x 768 so you want to shoot for something with a minimum of these dimensions. Even if you do not plan to build out a tablet application, phone screens are becoming more and more higher in resolution. The current iPhone 4 has a screen resolution of 960 x 640 which is not to far off of the current model of iPad previously mentioned. Larger resolutions will allow for better zooming functionality.

With screen resolutions constantly being upgraded on newer devices it’s always a good idea to be forward thinking when it comes to your digital image assets. If you can create large resolution images these can be sized according to current device specifications. But remember, the larger your images are in your app, the larger the app becomes in size. It’s a delicate balance between supporting resolutions of current devices and keeping the download burden of the user to a minimum.

Audio

Image by Matt Blaze on Flickr.

Image by Matt Blaze on Flickr.

It is now easier than ever to create your own audio for mobile applications and other uses in your museum. All you need is a laptop and a decent microphone which can plug into it. Most laptops now come with some type of audio editing software that you can utilize to mix down the audio.

However, some museums may have pre-exisitng audio that they can utilize as well. These can take the form of previous audio tracks created by a content vendor, interviews of artists at public events, interviews with curators and scripted segments created in-house.

With all of these sources it’s important to ensure that you have the rights to use them in your application. The artist or curator may take issue with you using their interviews in a mobile app. Or, if you hired an outside content creator to produce audio segments they may still own the rights to them. In this case, you may actually own the rights to the script that was used and not the actual recordings and you can re-record the audio for use. In any case, do your research and make sure they are OK to use.

Also, is it in a format that is compatible with current mobile standards. Most devices allow the use of either .mp3 files or .wav. If they are not in either one of these formats there are a lot of tools available that will allow you to compress your audio into these formats, such as iTunes or Audacity. However, keep in mind the quality too. If you compress an audio file too many times it will start sounding garbled and incoherent. It’s great if you have access to the original files to do the compression. It also allows you the ability to go in and re-edit the tracks if needed as well.

Another aspect to consider is whether the audio is an appropriate length for mobile consumption. Following the same user rules as with text – users on tablet devices are more inclined to listen to longer segments of audios than those on their phone device. You may consider offer longer tracks for tablets and breaking them down to smaller “consumable” tracks for phone devices.

Some other items to keep in mind:

  • Are there images that you would like to present in association with the audio? Does the system you are using to build your tour allow for this functionality? Or, do you need to create an “enhanced” audio track that displays images as the audio is playing?
  • Does the audio need to be heard in front of the object in the museum or does it work fine for outside users?
  • Does the audio mesh well with the other content that you are re-purposing in your app.

Video

Image by Carbon Arc on Flickr.

Image by Carbon Arc on Flickr.

A lot of the same thoughts around audio also apply to video. Make sure you know the source of existing video and whether or not you have the rights to utilize it or not. Also, make sure it is in a format that is usable on mobile devices. Android and iOS both support .mp4 formats and is currently the easiest way to approach both. If you do not have your videos in this format, like audio there are a lot of tools out there that can help your compress to this particular format. Again, it helps if you have access to the original files to compress them from the source rather than using a source that has been compressed multiple times.

Understanding how old the video is is important. If you are using video that was used on a website 10 years ago chances are this video is highly compressed to ensure that was able to be playable on 56k modems. This video is very likely to appear pixelated on current mobile devices and will compromise the users expectations. In cases like this where you do not have access to the originals it’s probably best not to use them.

Remember to keep your videos under 3 minutes for phone devices. Videos over 3 minutes tend to be abandoned before the viewer reaches the end. Like with audio, it may be necessary to divide longer videos into shorter digestible segments. As with other asset types, tablet users have different expectations when it comes to videos and can tolerate longer files. Remember though that they are probably not going to sit through an hour long video on their tablet device, although with new features like AirPlay available on iOS where the user can shoot the video to watch on their Apple TV this might change.

Another consideration when thinking about video is whether you are going to want it to be streamed over a network connection or whether you want to try and offer it natively on the device. Video tends to be large in size reaching upwards of 50 mb for a good quality 3 minute sample. Having 10 of these stored locally on the device can balloon your app size to 500 mb which is a significant size for the user to download…and this does not even include any images and audio that you have also included! There are ways to circumvent this large file download by offering you video to stream over an available network, but obviously you run into issues if you plan the app to be used onsite and network coverage is limited.

Technical Limitations

As mentioned previously with video assets, deciding on whether your content will be stored natively or streamed over a network is crucial. While text is a negligible hit to the size of your application high resolution image, audio , and video increase in size exponentially. If your museum is fortunate enough to live within a good 3G reception area most of these assets will stream perfectly fine. Some buffeting may be required when streaming the videos, but they will launch after a few seconds of buffering. If your museum has an available WIfi connection you will need to run some tests to see how big of a broadband pipe you will need to accommodate the expected number of devices accessing content.

You may have heard about the war going on between Apple and Adobe regarding the use of Flash on iOS devices. Flash has serious implications with battery life on all mobile devices causing the excessive battery drainage. A lot of museums have their videos tied to the Flash video codec which causes them to unusable with iOS devices. In most cases, these videos can be reformatted to a usable format.

With the proliferation of mobile usage it’s time to start thinking about an Internet solution that works for your museum. This may take the form of an open public network or it maybe a network which requires the user to log into the network for access. It may require you to consider a new broadband line into your museum so that your are not leaving your office network open to attackers.

There is a lot that goes into the creation of a mobile application, and while repurposing content may require some extra work for it to work in the mobile space, in the end it will save you some time and some money. Content is just aspect. There are technical needs to consider as well as a well thought out marketing plan to ensure that your app, and work that went into it, will be appreciated and utilized . Being prepared is the key to it’s success.

My Slides:


Ch, ch, changes…

Alright – if you haven’t already heard  – I recently ended my 9 1/2 year tenure at the San Jose Museum of Art as the Manager of Interactive Technology. It was a bittersweet event because at one point I felt that it was the greatest job I ever had. It was very fulfilling, creative, art related – it was perfect! I had struggled all my life trying to find a so-called “career” and felt that I had finally found it. Unfortunately, my hours were cut December of 2008 to half-time. This pretty much took the wind out of my sails. 20 hours a week was not enough to do the technology related projects that I wanted to do.

Over the course of the last year, however, a great opportunity presented itself which I couldn’t pass up. During this period of working part-time I started consulting for a mobile start-up called Toura that is changing the way museums create mobile tours (more info forthcoming). After 5 months of fulfilling and exciting work with Toura they offered me a full-time position as Program Director.  The company’s ideas and philosophies align very well with my thoughts on mobile technology and museums so it was a perfect fit.

Since my website is so centered on the work that I did at the San Jose Museum of Art I thought it would be nice to go through and sum up what I feel are some highlights of my time there.

Road Trip Heels Screenshot

First off, I’m extremely proud of winning two MUSE awards. One was for our Artist of the Week podcast that we did in 2006. We were so green at that point it came as a great surprise, but my colleague Lucy and I felt that we were producing a quality product and winning the award validated our efforts. The second MUSE Award, Gold in the category of PR/Development, came recently in 2009 for our Road Trip/Giant Artichoke video that we produced for the exhibition Road Trip at SJMA.  It was the most fun we had on a project. It was a big departure for us from the artist centric audio and video content we had been creating.  The narrative nature of the video required us to storyboard, film on location and really tighten up on our editing.  The results were very rewarding.

Over the years I’ve worked with a variety of mobile delivery methods for audio and video content. Cell phones, Video iPods in Notes-Only Mode, and lastly iPod Touch/iPhone.  The iPod Touch tour we launched in 2008 was one of the first of its kind. While I realized at the time it was an important accomplishment, I didn’t realize how many doors and exciting opportunities it would open.

In London for the Tate Conference

In London for the Tate Conference

Because of the launch or this iPod Touch tour, in September of 2008 I found myself at the Tate Modern in London presenting about SJMA’s mobile experiences to an audience of international museums.  It was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I think that I have had to date.  At the conference I met and befriended the most incredible and creative group of people.  All have helped to shape my knowledge on the subject.

Finally, I think my videography and editing skills hit a high point on one of my last big project for SJMA. For our Ansel Adams exhibition we solicited the general public to submit Ansel Adams inspired photographs to a special Flickr group.  The images collected in that group were displayed in the Adams exhibition on an interactive kiosk.  The main vehicle for this exhibition was a video that I shot in Yosemite. Shot in black and white the video features footage of classic Adams imagery cut with footage of visitors taking photos.  At the end the question, “Are you the next great photographer?” is posed with instructions for submittal.  The video has a sombre feeling and to me is reminiscent of the black and white footage in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (wishful thinking maybe).

Toura Logo

So now I enter the world of museum vendors. I have had nothing but a positive experience with Toura.  It’s rewarding and exciting working with multiple museums to help them get their message and content out to their visitors. Toura is about enabling museums so that they can efficiently create mobile tours in a cost effective way – something that is important these days.  While some vendors have a bad rap, there are some that are conscious of the financial burdens and internal struggles that museums face on a daily basis.  My part at Toura has been and will continue to be the voice of the museum.

Two Recent Recordings

Nancy Proctor at the Tate Conference

Nancy Proctor at the Tate Conference

I owe a lot to Nancy Proctor, the Head of New Media Initiatives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She can safely be labeled a guru of mobile museum tours because her knowledge of the subject matter is extensive. She has also been a great advocate for the work that I have been doing at the San Jose Museum of Art by inviting me to speak at conferences like the Tate Handheld Conference in September 2008.

Recently, I was honored to be involved with two side projects of Nancy’s.

Learning Times Handheld Conference

Learning Times Handheld Conference

On June 3rd, 2009 I was part of an online conference through Learning Times (sponsored by the American Association of Museums) and organized by Nancy. The conference was focused on handheld tours and built on the collective knowledge of the previous Tate conference. For my part I was involved again with the getting it done section. My presentation titled, “The Little Engine That Could: Mobile Tours on a Shoestring Budget” was paired with that of Silvia Fillipini Fantoni from the British Museum which provided a good contrast of what goes into developing a large mobile tour versus a smaller scale one.

The outstanding list of presenters that day also included – Nancy Proctor herself, Koven Smith from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Titus Bicknell from Experius/Gateway Auto Museum and Bruce Wyman from the Denver Museum of Art. Nancy and Koven’s part talked about the future of mobile and Titus and Bruce spoke about the rapid development of a mobile tour.

Here are the slides from my presentation:


This was my first online experience and I have to admit I had some concerns going in, but overall I thought that it was very effective. The one bit of strangeness that was prevalent, and expressed by Bruce during his presentation, was that you are speaking into the phone with no gauge on how people are reacting on the other end. A large part of speaking at a conference is gauging the expression on peoples faces as you are talking and making adjustments as necessary to make it more entertaining or more informational. There is obviously no way to do this via an online conference.

My part of the conference is available in it’s entirety and you are more than welcome to listen to all the other sections of too.

Museum Mobile

Museum Mobile

The other side project that I was a part of is on her wiki called Museum Mobile where she features regular podcasts around the subject of mobile tours. She had asked me at the 2009 Museums and the Web conference if I would like to be interviewed and I was quick to say yes.

For the interview, which also took place in June, she paired me for a discussion with Ted Forbes from the Dallas Museum of Art who has recently been developing a tour for his museum. In the podcast Nancy asks us a variety of questions about the development of our tours, web app vs. SDK, implementation in the galleries and a host of other juicy tidbits. The conversation was over an hour long and very enjoyable.

You can listen to it on Museum Mobile – Chris & Ted’s Excellent iPod Tours or listen to it here.

Musings

Road Trip Heels Screenshot

It’s very exciting to announce that the video we created for our Road Trip Exhibition won the Gold award in the category of Public Relations and Development at this years MUSE awards. The MUSE awards are given out by the Media and Technology committee, part of the American Association of Museums, for excellence in the area of museums and technology. The jury that voted in our category, led by Dana Allen-Greil, Project Manager for New Media, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, said this about our video:

This quirky video was produced in-house by San Jose Museum of Art staff armed with only a sense of humor, a video camera, and some crazy Japanese high-heels. The short clip depicts a journey to the fabulous Giant Artichoke restaurant, where a postcard is purchased and sent to the museum for inclusion in the “Road Trip” exhibition. Viewers are then prompted to send their own iconic, unusual, and hilarious postcards to supplement the museum’s “Road Trip” exhibition.” The judges were impressed with the innovative, low-cost, and appropriate use of technology to reach a large audience and engage people with the exhibition beyond the walls of the museum. Both the idea and the execution are fun, creative, and playful and show that the museum is both scrappy and savvy about engaging with visitors and successfully integrating experiences between online and offline presences.

When we created the video we knew that we were making something that was fun and special. It was definitely a new direction for us and it felt good to be pushed and challenged by our Director of Marketing.

As with most projects this was not a solo effort. I want to thank my partner in crime at SJMA Lucy Larson, Manager of Interpretation, for being a great and fun person to work with and an outstanding springboard for ideas (we can volley ideas back and forth with great ease). Additional thanks go out to Nicole Mcbeth, Director of Marketing, for her advice and up front criticisms which helped to fine tune the video in the editing process and also to Kristen Evangelista, Associate Curator, for creating an inspiring exhibition to work from.

Also, I want to thank AAM’s Media and Technology Committee and the jury that selected our piece.  It’s great to be recognized for our efforts and to be in the company of so many great organizations!

SJMA Wins Gold @ MUSE Awards from Chris Alexander on Vimeo.

Museums and Twitter: A PC Idea

Every once in a while a great idea comes out of merging unique items – peanut butter and jelly, chocolate and peanut butter, salt water and taffy all come to mind. I recently had a revelation when I crossed Nina Simon’s and Koven Smith’s write ups about institutions using Twitter with a few sites I recently came across.

twitter_logo

A few weeks ago I found myself on a site called F*** You 2008. The site aggregates Twitter messages with the term “f***you2008” by searching for the phrase in recent tweets using what appears to be some fancy Ruby scripting. For the most part these messages include expressive comments about money lost, jobs lost, or any other unfortunate event associated with 2008. While I don’t totally agree with the language used on the site, though it is pretty funny, I was intrigued by how it was able to display comments directed at a specific subject.

Another site I came across recently almost does the same thing! www.dearie6.com asks it’s visitors to follow on Twitter the user profile of DearIE6. Once you are following that profile you can send direct messages to it which in turn will be displayed on the site www.dearie6.com. This site is a place where people can comment on their frustrations with the bug-ridden V.6 Internet Explorer browser.

I came across both sites after I had read the recent Twitter related posts on the Museum 2.0 blog and at www.kovenjsmith.com. Both articles address the institutional voice and how it should be leveraged in an online social space such as Twitter. Nina talks about creating a unique experience in your institution around Twitter by posting funny things overheard, behind the scenes info, or interesting facts about the building. This got me thinking…

Since I have a budget of nill-to-none at the museum I’m always trying to think of ways to use the internet to benefit our programs and collection at a low price point. I’ve recently been thinking about ways of commenting on works of art in the permanent collection and how this could be achieved in an engaging and interactive way.

Enter F***you2008 and DearIE6.

Hung Liu - Chinese Profile (Collection of SJMA)

Hung Liu - Chinese Profile (Collection of SJMA)

Let’s say that I wanted to have a page devoted to Hung Liu’s Chinese Profile in our permanent collection. The museum would sign up for a Twitter account with the username @ChineseProfile or @SJMA_ChineseProfile. Visitors, both onsite and online, could then send comments or thoughts via the direct message feature on Twitter which would show up on the @ChineseProfile user page. This would have to happen after the visitor signed up for the service and then started to follow @ChineseProfile. A museum could create a Twitter page specific to an artwork in the collection where people could actively engage with others around the artwork. The work could even engage them back through a curator, registrar, preparator, or all three!

Example Wireframe

Example Wireframe

I like the idea of taking things a step further by utilizing the APIs or widgets offered by many of these web services to bring the experience to our your own website as well. You could create a page on your institutions site and pull the dialogue to it through some scripting with the Twitter APIs. Additionally on the page you could have a large image of the work, maybe a Wikipedia entry describing the work, etc. To illustrate, I have drawn up a wireframe example which you can view in-full by clicking on the thumbnail.

Obviously one of the biggest challenges with utilizing Twitter is the generational gap and trying to gain the art perspective of the older technology-challenged museum visitor. While they might have heard about Twitter by watching CNN or reading about it in this thing called a newspaper, they might never have signed up for any services on the Internet. Then to try and explain the concept of an “@” message sounds even more difficult.

I’m not sure if this is a truly unique idea. Are any museums doing it or something similar? I’d really like to know. I share this information with the larger museum community with the hopes that someone might attempt it and report back. Unfortunately, in my new limited capacity (half-time due to budget issues) I don’t think I will have the opportunity to attempt it! Let me/us know if it works out!

You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cmalexander