67276 Apps Expand Museum Horizons
 Michael Mascioni iPhone Life 1528-5456 2011-01-17 March-April 2011 3 2 52 Apps AMNH Explorer Cosmic Discoveries Dinosaurs Education Street Museums Tate Trumps iPad iPhone iPod Touch

A museum visit doesn't always connote an exciting experience. But that's about to change with the introduction of a series of new apps that transform your visits into more meaningful and engaging experiences. 

imageAaron Radin is the CEO of Toura, a company that developed The Toura Mobile App Producer. This platform lets museums create customized, virtual tours that can be downloaded onto visitors' iPhones. As Radin sees it, museum apps are primarily designed to complement the museum experience by "providing visitors additional contextually relevant content that enhances their appreciation of the works."


Toura creates apps for museums that enhance the visitor experience.


Visitors and museums benefit

One key benefit of museum apps is their ability to involve visitors in the communication process. For example, users of Brooklyn Museum Mobile (free, app2.me/3396) can use the app's "Like" feature to recommend exhibits at the museum to other visitors. For the museum, the apps can be very useful tools for securing museum sponsorships and funds. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, is creating an app to attract more donors.


Creating a mobile exhibition

imageAccording to Radin, art museums are the biggest users of virtual tour apps, but other museums are starting to get onboard. For example, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has released three free apps so far: imageAMNH Explorer (app2.me/3394), Dinosaurs (app2.me/2671); iPad version, app2.me/3403) and Cosmic Discoveries (app2.me/3395). Linda Perry-Lube, Chief Digital Officer at the AMNH, explains that the main goal of the apps is to "create a virtual mobile exhibition" for a "global audience," and allow "our audience to connect more deeply with objects and content in our museum."


imageAMNH Explorer allows visitors to virtually explore the entire museum, choose tours, or create their own tour from a list of popular exhibits. They can also share their museum experiences with family and friends by linking with their Twitter profiles.


The Dinosaurs app currently provides 800 photos of dinosaurs and stories of individual dinosaurs. The Cosmic Discoveries app currently provides 1,000 photos of astronomical phenomena, such as planets and comets, and 9 stories covering a range of topics. Perry-Lube notes that the museum is continually updating and adding content to the apps, and, in fact, they will be introducing iPad versions of its Dinosaurs and Cosmic Discoveries apps soon.

The American Museum of Natural History has a series of apps that let visitors virtually explore the museum, its exhibits, and related material.


Museum game apps

imageSome apps transcend conventional museum guide models to engage visitors on a deeper level through play experiences. One example is the game, Tate Trumps (free, app2.me/3393). This app was introduced in August 2010 and jointly developed by Hide and Seek, a developer of "social games and playful experiences," and Tate Media. The game is simple to play and geared to a wide audience, including those unfamiliar with iPhone apps and video games. The purpose, according to Margaret Robertson, Development Director at Hide and Seek, is to focus visitors on the museum's physical art without causing disruption to other gallery goers.

Tate Trumps gives museum visitors a fun way to interact and play games with each other.


imageTate Trumps enables users to experience the Tate Gallery in Battle Mode, Mood Mode, or Collector Mode. Battle Mode challenges users to an imaginary combat with physical artwork. Collector Mode gives players the opportunity to create their own art gallery. In Mood Mode, players are invited to select artworks they consider particularly menacing, exhilarating or absurd. Once players have chosen artwork to help them win, they meet together and play a fast-paced card game to determine which person has selected the best examples from the collection

According to Robertson, the game has elicited a very positive response, with visitors spending on average somewhere between 1 and 1.5 hours playing the game per visit. Hide and Seek is in discussions with other galleries to produce similar game-oriented apps for their museums.


Museum apps are challenging to implement

Implementing apps in museums is often challenging. A key concern is informing visitors about the existence of apps in museums and educating them about the value of those apps. Another potential drawback is the lack of Wi-Fi in some museums, particularly smaller ones. In addition to these shortcomings, certain museum apps seem to suffer from low quality.


Augmented Reality apps the future?

Augmented Reality (AR) museum apps offer even more engaging and immersive experiences. Streetmuseum (Free, app2.me/3402), an app offered by the Museum of London, allows visitors to superimpose historical photos of London over modern ones in real time, affording them a unique and vivid perspective on the evolution of the city. The American Museum of Natural History also has plans to release Augmented Reality apps, building on the experience it developed last year for its "Extreme Mammals" exhibit. However, Radin remains uncertain of augmented reality's usefulness in museums today, calling AR, "an interesting technology in search of a problem." In his view, one of the key barriers to accepting augmented reality in museums is the lack of resources to train users with this kind of technology.