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published: April, 2002

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


Eavesdropping on Electronic Guidebooks: Observing Learning Resources in Shared Listening Environments
Paul M. Aoki, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, USA
Rebecca E. Grinter, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, USA
Amy Hurst, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, USA
Margaret Szymanski, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, USA
Allison Woodruff, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, USA
James Thornton, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, USA

Session: The Enhanced Gallery

We describe an electronic guidebook, Sotto Voce, that enables visitors to share audio information by eavesdropping on each other's guidebook activity. We have conducted three studies of visitors using electronic guidebooks in a historic house: one study with open air audio played through speakers and two studies with eavesdropped audio. An analysis of visitor interaction in these studies suggests that eavesdropped audio provides more social and interactive learning resources than open air audio played through speakers.

Sotto Voce runs on handheld computers that include a color LCD touchscreen display. Individual visitors obtain information about objects in their environment using a visual interface that resembles a set of Web browser imagemaps. The visitor sees a single photographic imagemap that depicts one wall of a room in a museum or historic house; visitors can choose which imagemap to display at a given time. When visitors tap on an imagemap target, the guidebook plays an audio clip that describes that object.

In previous experiments with the guidebook, visitors liked sharing descriptions by playing audio through speakers of the device. However, this solution is noisy and generally unsuitable for public settings. Therefore, we have developed a new prototype that uses wireless local-area networking to allow paired visitors to share audio content. Each visitor is able to eavesdrop on their companion's guidebook, using a special volume control. With this design, each person can operate their own guidebook and choose the descriptions they want to listen to, while preserving the ability to listen to descriptions synchronously with their companion. To facilitate conversation, Sotto Voce uses single-ear headsets that leave one ear available to hear sounds from the external environment. Since we use single-ear headsets, both personal and eavesdropped audio content are necessarily presented in the same ear. We distinguish the two types of content using reverberation and volume differentiation.

Sotto Voce has been tested in several rooms at Filoli, a historic house in Woodside, California. Our most recent study included 47 members of the general public, who were observed in situ, interviewed, and monitored by video and audio recording and logging of guidebook activity. Our evaluation includes affinity clustering of interview data and the use of conversation analytic techniques. The results indicate that visitors are able to use the system effectively, both as a conversational resource and as an information source. Visitors who listen to audio together typically assign Sotto Voce a role in their conversations, verbally responding to it and treating it like a human storyteller. This promotes visitor interaction while preserving each visitor's ability to select individual objects. Further, our results suggest that the technologically mediated audio often coheres the visitors' conversation and activity to a far greater degree than audio delivered through open air via speakers.