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published: April, 2002

Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License


The Museum Wearable
Flavia Sparacino, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA

Session: Touching the Virtual

The museum wearable is a real time storytelling device: it is a museum guide which in real time evaluates the visitor's preferences by observing his/her path and length of stops along the museum's exhibit space, and selects content from a large database of available movie clips, audio, and animations. Through the use of this device a museum visit is augmented with video commentary: the video story overlaps with and comments upon the user's real-world viewing, and gradually unfolds as wearers wander around the space. The wearable is made by a lightweight and small computer that people carry inside a shoulder pack. It offers an audiovisual augmentation of the surrounding environment using a small eye-piece display (often called private eye) attached to conventional headphones. The private eye display is placed in front of one eye while the other eye is free to see the user's surroundings. When wearing the display, after a few seconds of adaptation, the user's brain assembles the world's image seen by one eye with the display's image seen by the other eye, into a fused augmented reality viewing.

The museum wearable identifies three visitor types: busy, greedy, and selective, which have been selected as the essential museum visitor types from the museum literature. It uses a custom-made long range and wide coverage infrared location sensor to gather tracking information about the visitor's path in the museum's gallery.

The museum wearable provides more than a simple associative coupling between inputs and outputs. The sensor inputs, coming from the long range indoors infrared positioning system, are coupled to digital media outputs via a user model, and estimated probabilistically by a Bayesian network. The ability to coordinate and present the visual material as a function of the visitor's estimated type (i.e. busy, greedy, or selective types, or other appropriate types), seamlessly, timely, and in conjunction with the path of the wearer inside the exhibit, is an important innovative aspect of this device. Bayesian networks also have the additional advantage that they allow to encapsulate our human knowledge about the context of use of the museum wearable (a particular exhibit, a trade show) as nodes of the network.

The museum wearable fuses together the audiovisual documentary which illustrates and extends an exhibit, with the visitor's path inside that exhibit, using a wearable computer. By having the public use this device, museums can accomplish multiple goals simultaneously: they can have objects narrate their own story; they do not needs special rooms to show audiovisual explanations about the exhibit as with the wearable the narrative is unfolded by the visitor's path in the museum; they can show more artwork that what is physically on display, by showing video, images, audio, and text about other important objects for the exhibit; they do not need to disseminate panels with textual explanation or video monitors along the ailes of the exhibit as that information can now be tailored to each individual visitor; they can personalize the audiovisual explanations provided to the public based on the visitors' type and exploration strategy.

With respect to the traditional museum audio tour the museum wearable introduces the following innovations: it does not constrain the visitor to follow a predefined sequential path in the museum but it relies in its sensing system to find the visitor's location and respond consequently; it adds a layer of visual augmentation and not just auditory; through Bayesian network based user modeling it provides personalized content to each visitor, as a function of the estimated visitor type.