Category Archives: Technology

A Closer Look at the Technology Behind an Exhibition


"A Closer Look" iPads installed in the gallery.

“A Closer Look” iPads installed in the gallery

The museum recently opened Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque, a comprehensive exhibition that traces the development of prints across the centuries, explores the evolution of printmaking techniques, and unlocks the images’ hidden meanings. The works in the show are dynamic, striking, elaborately detailed, and quite beautiful. If you haven’t yet seen the exhibition, it runs throughout the summer and I highly recommend it.

On the surface, the prints included in the exhibition may seem devoid of technology, however it’s important to remember that these artifacts were state-of-the-art examples of the technology at the time. Woodcut, etching, and engraving were the photography and software development of centuries past. As a technologist, this notion creates an extra layer of intrigue for me.

To that end, I’d like to shine a light on some of the technology we employed to help tell the stories of these works and unlock deeper meaning for the exhibition visitor.

SURFACING KEY THEMES

During the exhibition development phase of the project, it quickly became clear that our curators and educators wanted to convey key themes that either impacted the artist’s inspiration or process. Through several months of workshopping and whiteboarding, a cross-departmental group of CMOA staffers explored various tactics that would best engage gallery visitors around the three focus themes: symbolism, reality and imagination, and altered states.

We didn’t start with technology solutions; we never do that. As an institution, we try to introduce technology-based solutions only when analog solutions do not achieve the desired goals. In this case, though, it was clear that technology was going to be the approach through which visitors could dive deeper into the ancillary components of the prints themselves.

The information architecture document developed for the interactive.

The information architecture document developed for the interactive

Our interpretive strategies team began investigating how visitors might explore this information. We started with content and intent before even thinking about design or devices we’d employ. What were the stories we wanted to tell? What objects best told them? We storyboarded the narrative in a hierarchical format. Designers and developers know this as information architecture.

Wireframe for one element of the iPad interactive

Wireframe for one element of the iPad interactive

Once the information architecture was solidified, we started thinking about how the stories would best be conveyed. We explored the possibilities and considered options for weeks. Ultimately, we landed on an overarching concept, A Closer Look, and the concept of a touch interface that would allow for the highlighting of certain aspects of artworks, the ability to comparatively juxtapose images and a way to see the immense detail possessed by the prints.

A way to explore these features without getting too bogged down in the detail of design is to iterate on low-fidelity wireframes. Evolving the information architecture into a loosely crafted user interface made it possible for the team to ask questions like “What would the user do?” and “Does this layout make sense in relation to our desired outcomes?”.

It was at this stage that we identified hardware—we would use iPads—and began working with the installation team so the interactive components could be seamlessly integrated into the gallery experience.

Screenshot of the iPad development environment

Screenshot of the iPad development environment

After the wireframes were solidified, we began building the interactives. We currently have no developers experienced with Objective-C (an object-oriented language for iOS touch devices) on staff here at the museum, so it made sense to utilize internal skill sets and develop in the HTML/CSS/JavaScript stack. Instead of a native iPad app, we built a web application that could be shown through our browser of choice, in this case the Kiosk Pro app that allows us to customize user permissions and lock the devices down into a public or kiosk mode. It was pretty straightforward from a development perspective.

REUSABILITY FTW!

The digital media department at CMOA is also producing quite a bit of original video content, much of which we desire to share with visitors in the gallery. In addition to the A Closer Look interactive described above, we developed a reusable HTML5 video player also optimized for iPad display. The idea here is that we can now start with this established code base for future exhibitions, make some small CSS changes, and quickly have a shiny new exhibition-branded media player. Keep your eyes peeled for this in Faked, Forgotten, Found, opening later this month.

OPENING UP OUR WORK

Realizing that other institutions might have similar needs and not have the resources required to develop custom solutions like these, we’ve open sourced the code that drives both A Closer Look and the video player over on our GitHub page. This code is free to use and modify, and it has been made available as an open resource. CMOA has utilized many open source resources over the years and it’s nice to be able to contribute back into the community when we can.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about how we’re doing. Did you visit the exhibition and explore some of the technology offered? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.

CMOA for iOS v2.0 (or Go Ahead, Fork Us)


coach-marks-ss
Coach marks in version 2.0 help orient the user to app functionality.

Last October, we released the first version of the CMOA mobile app in conjunction with the opening of the 2013 Carnegie International. During the past few months, many people have been using the app both inside the museum and elsewhere, and we’ve been studying how these users have been interacting with it. We asked users what they liked, what they didn’t like, what was confusing, and how we could make the experience better. After compiling this user feedback, we began work on a fairly substantial update to the app. Earlier this week we released version 2.0 of CMOA for iOS and we’re really proud of it.

If you haven’t already installed the update, you can get it on the App Store.

What’s New?

Updates to version 2.0 include an element we’re calling coach marks. One of the most popular pieces of feedback we received from users was that they didn’t know how to dive right in with the app. Many users indicated there was a small learning curve. In order to mitigate this, we added a series of coach marks that orient new users with a quick overview when they launch the app for the first time. The coach marks also appear infrequently throughout the user session to highlight commonly overlooked features like artwork bookmarking or social sharing.

We also introduced the ability for users to enlarge the body font. This control is gesture-based: pinch out to enlarge, pinch closed to reduce. In addition to font size control, we added some other usability improvements and squashed some bugs.

The most substantial updates, however, have been incorporated on the back end and are (hopefully) invisible to users. Version 2.0 brings support for the museum’s permanent collection and also gives us the ability to add or remove temporary exhibitions as they open and close. Currently, the permanent collection content in the app is made up of artworks that fall into three subsets: Director’s Choice with audio commentary from Lynn Zelevansky, Impressionism at CMOA with commentary from associate curator of fine arts Amanda Zehnder, and a Staff Favorites section that highlights meaningful artworks from various employees across all four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. We will continue to develop and grow the available content in the coming weeks.

Go Ahead, Fork Us

Another back-end update invisible to most users is perhaps the biggest of all. As of today, we’ve made all the underlying code (for both the web-based CMS and the native iOS app) open source via GitHub. This means other institutions can freely use, adapt, extend, and repurpose (otherwise known in developer circles as forking) our source code for use in their own applications.

These are the first pieces of code the museum has contributed back to the open source community, and we’re excited about the possibility of contributing more in the future. For now though, we’d love to hear about how this code is being forked in other applications. If your institution is interested or has questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch via GitHub or more conventional methods.

Big thanks are again in order for Dimitry Bentsionov, who is the brains behind the code and has been instrumental in making this project a reality.

CMOA: Now Available in the App Store


CMOA Companion App

It’s no secret the proliferation of mobile devices and persistent connectivity are changing the way we live our lives—it even impacts the way visitors experience a museum. Today I’m happy to announce that Carnegie Museum of Art’s first mobile application is available for download from the Apple App Store. Beginning this Saturday, October 5th, in association with the opening of the 2013 Carnegie International, the museum will also make iDevices available to visitors for use in our galleries (first come, first served). It is our hope that this digital offering will deepen relationships with users via the objects on view at the museum.

A Companion App for Your Museum

Launching with the 2013 Carnegie International, this first version of the CMOA companion app will allow you to learn more about the 35 artists in the exhibition, see an image of every work that will be on view, experience related video and audio, explore thematic tours of artworks, and more. The app is a universal iOS application, meaning it is available for iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad. As this has been the museum’s first foray into mobile application development, we chose the iOS platform because we simply needed a solid and stable place to start. The application works on devices running iOS 6.1 or newer, and it is optimized for the recently released iOS 7. We encourage you to download and install the app on your device (it’s free) or borrow one of ours to use while you’re visiting.

Usefulness and Usability

As we were building the app, we designed it to be useful for visitors in the gallery as well as users experiencing the app from outside the museum. An example of this functionality is the “My Bookmarked Artwork” feature.* Think of it as a “Read Later” service for your museum visit. If you’re in the gallery enjoying an artwork and want to learn more about it, but don’t want to experience the content during your visit, you can bookmark that object for revisiting later whenever you’d like. Conversely, you can use the “My Bookmarked Artworks” area to create a checklist of must-see pieces in advance of your next visit to the museum.

Personality

We want this app to be a delight to use. From the friendly and accessible user interface to the engaging audio and videos, our hope is that users will thoroughly enjoy the app experience and come to love its underlying personality. While substantive and informative, content relating to the 2013 Carnegie International is informal by design and occasionally introduces elements of humor, wit, and the people behind the exhibition. Videos in the “CMOA TV” section shine a light on the museum’s behind-the-scenes process, again highlighting the amazing people here that make the exhibitions happen.

Interoperability and Accessibility

We understand not everyone has an iDevice and we’ve gone to great lengths to build this app so it plays nice with external platforms and the open web. Each object represented in the app also has a corresponding presence on the open web. The open web permalinks include the same images, text, videos, and audio that are in the app. When you share an artwork from inside the app with your contacts or social networks, you are effectively sharing the open web versions so they can be viewed by everyone—even users who don’t have the CMOA app.

We’ve also leveraged the potential of mobile through integrations with popular messaging (Email, Messages, Facebook, Twitter), navigation (Apple Maps, Google Maps) and web browsing (Safari, Chrome) apps.

Future Growth & Development

This is version 1.0 of the CMOA companion app, and as I mentioned before, it’s just the beginning. We’re approaching this project as an organic, fluid and agile process. The app will remain in active development as we work to include the museum’s permanent collection and future exhibitions. We also plan to make it available to Android users in short order and rapidly introduce new and interesting functionality as opportunities arise.

Delivering this project was a true team effort. Without the hard work of the following people, this project would never have seen the light of day: Dimitry Bentsionov of Two Tap Labs; Katie Reilly, Ian Finch and the museum’s publications department; Marilyn Russell, Lucy Stewart and the CMOA education department; John Surloff and John Ericksen in IT; and our wonderful beta testers who helped uncover bugs and provide feedback during the development process.

What would you love to see in a museum mobile application? Please use the comment thread below to let us know your thoughts. Maybe you’ll see your concept in an upcoming version update!

*Hat tip to Jeff Lovett, CMOA’s construction and facilities coordinator. The bookmarking feature was all his idea.