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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Sensors and Microcontrollers to Augment User Experience

Miriam Langer and Lauren Addario, New Mexico Highlands University, USA


Sensors in exhibits offer myriad possibilities. This mini-workshop will explore using the popular Arduino microcontroller to sense users in a gallery space. This might take the form of switches, motion detection, automated counters, or audio control to enliven and enhance experiences in the gallery. Arduino interfaces seamlessly with ethernet, video, audio, and flash, allowing easy and exciting ways to trigger sensors from different locations.

Arduino is an open-source microcontroller supported by a vast community of designers, artists, and do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts of all kinds. This mini-workshop will demonstrate some simple sensors and provide a place for brainstorming for new implementation ideas.

Keywords: Arduino, sensors

1. Better than Buttons

Microcontrollers in general, and Italian-designed open-source Arduino specifically, have been the darlings of the DIY electronics, interactive art, and tinkerer community for a long time. MAKE magazine recently sent out its quarterly edition (MAKE, 2011) with the cover headline, "Join the Arduino Revolution!" Many of the rapidly growing numbers of people who have heard of Arduino, at least vaguely, might be wondering if there are benefits to its use in galleries to implement microcontrollers to enhance user experience.

Any science museum, children's museum, or other exhibition space that focuses on user-interaction probably has specialty designed microcontroller-based exhibits offering interactivity to visitors. In these cases, the exhibits have most often been created offsite by specialists at large outside firms with specific learning objectives tied to an exhibit, such as a slider that allows users to increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and see a screen-based version of its effects.

Our mini-workshop, on the other hand, will talk about simpler implementations of microcontrollers, techniques that do not necessarily require outsourcing to a large exhibit design firm, but can be built and managed in-house (or with minimal off-site contracting). Microcontrollers can be set up for a variety of uses, ranging from carrying out Web 2.0 communications to connectivity with the many devices of a distributed network.

Keep in mind that the Arduino microcontroller and its many components have an infinite number of applications for interactive installations. In our classes, for example, students are primarily thinking in terms of interactive installations for their own sake – such as touch-responsive sculpture, video, or audio triggered by movement, or visualization projects taking information from various sources, physical and virtual. The focus of this mini-workshop will be on Web 2.0 applications in the gallery rather than in installation art.

In discussions with exhibit designers working in-house at museums, there has been a lot of talk about how to trigger engagement and offer a degree of interaction without the use of buttons or screens. While no one denies that screens have their place in the gallery, especially in the form of a multitouch environment, for video delivery and to surface visual content that would otherwise be excluded, screens can create a vortex of distraction. Microcontrollers allow for interaction without the use of a screen (although, of course, they can communicate with screens and projection).

Wherever they are used to trigger illumination, activate audio, or start a process, buttons can be very easily replaced with Arduino and a few inexpensive sensors. In a discussion with Michael Wilson, Education Technology Specialist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, he had this to say about buttons and their effects:

There is a better way than buttons.

There are two main purposes for museum interactives: to display information or tell a story anytime a guest wants to see or hear it; and to create experiences that can't be had anywhere else. Unique experiences are a goal of museums in general, and interactives should reflect that. Buttons can help provide information at a finger touch, but they can't provide a unique experience. For example, at NHM we have a robotic pelican that talks when you press a button. The button works great and people (including children) know exactly what to do to get the pelican to talk, but imagine how much nicer it would be if the pelican knew you were there, turned toward you, and began speaking when you got near, and stopped if you went away. The power of microcontrollers and sensors is they allow for personal and unique interactions. Sensors add intelligence to interactions in a way that buttons cannot.

A key point is that while everyone, especially children, instantly understands the action to be taken with a button, it requires an intermediate step between the visitor and the interaction, a step that may not be taken at all. However, a simple infrared sensor at a cost of $12 and an Arduino microcontroller at $30 can replace the button, with the result that the experience and the conversation – at least the mechanical part of it – is guaranteed to begin.

A talking pelican should be magical, but a button confirms the visitor's suspicion that it's a dumb, not a smart, device. When visitors have experiences that are gesture-based, even if they are facing the seduction of a screen-based interactive, the mere fact that they haven't deliberately pressed a button and caused something to happen invites them to begin a dialogue. An exhibit still in its prototyping phase invites the visitor to use a spotting scope to look for birds. A natural movement, aiming the spotting scope at the bird, triggers an infrared sensor, a light illuminates the bird, and the visitor hears the birdsong.

Studies on user interaction in the gallery are not new, and the intention of the mini-workshop is not to reproduce studies but to discuss how to get started on the path to microcontroller interaction in your museum. To begin, think about existing interactions that require an intermediate step to trigger visitor engagement, and brainstorm a method that could remove that step. Possibilities include motion sensing, proximity sensing, small cameras to detect the population density in a given space, and sensors that detect volume or breath, allowing users to use voice triggers. These are all examples of input devices that communicate easily with the microcontroller and can use that input to begin a conversation.

Once the input device has detected something – which can be as general as movement or as specific as a color the visitor is wearing, and as simple as proximity to an exhibit or as complex as reading an RFID tag – the output can be many things: from an audio cue or spotlighted illumination to a directed path through the gallery space. It can be motor-driven, such as the turning pelican head mentioned above, or in communication with online devices.

Microcontrollers, especially the Arduino, have components available in the $20-$60 range that facilitate wireless communication with networks. In a Web 2.0 environment, a museum site can be instantly updated to reflect the most popular paintings or the most populated gallery space. Obviously, there are uses in the form of invisible data collection as well.

2. Getting Started

When New Mexico media arts students finally enrol in our class in interactive environments, they are usually terrified. They have seen the previous term's students cursing the soldering iron, struggling with code, and dragging wires and cables up and down hallways as they work feverishly on their installations the night before a show opens. Working with electronic components requires more steps than they are used to and more hands-on construction from the bottom up. But satisfaction comes fast – from the initial triggering of LEDs, to the dimming and pulsing of a 60-watt incandescent bulb, to using voice as input for a piece of illuminated wearable clothing. When the students need to transition these experimental projects into a robust set of sensors for a gallery, as often happens in our Cultural Technology internship program, it often turns out to be pretty easy, because . . .

3. The community of support is vast and wide!

If there were ever a group of DIY-ers that sends the message "you are not alone," it's the hyper-documenting, ultra-responsive community of Arduino developers. The number of Arduino users is vast, and support from them for programming and circuitry is growing daily. From open workshops in cities around the country to shared labs (the FabLab phenomenon) and hacker spaces, there are people everywhere delighted to share their knowledge, in person or on-line.

The best thing about this movement (or revolution according to MAKE magazine) is that the barrier for entry is low, in level of both skill and cost. You can get started with a kit for under $100. In the U.S., you can go to the Sparkfun website and order an Arduino starter kit, or assemble your own from parts, then download the open source programming environment to your computer. This is all you need to prototype many projects. Below, we give a short list of online resources for the beginner.

Last year at Museums and the Web Denver, we held an un-conference session about using Arduino in museums. The session began with a discussion of large-scale, responsive, immersive environments. We discussed at length the many ways that microcontrollers, sensors, and screens can be used on this large a scale. But the discussion soon began scaling down to simple solutions intended to remove intermediate steps and clunkiness from the gallery experience as a first step. In some cases, the focus changed because participants represented museums that are collections-based without large immersive/interactive experiences, or because it seems likely that funding will be lacking for the creation and maintenance of complex installations with lots of moving parts. The discussion ended up focusing on low-cost microcontroller solutions for interactivity and communication.

4. Conclusion

This is precisely the focus of our mini-workshop: the ways simple and inexpensive solutions can be produced in-house (or by short-term contractors) – solutions that put in the hands of those who know their visitors the best tools to create modes of communication that are dynamic, responsive, easy to maintain, and less dependent on buttons – even less dependent on screens – both in galleries and on networks.

5. Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank Michael Wilson of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; the media arts students of New Mexico Highlands University; Jonathan Lee; and the participants in the Arduino Un-conference Session, Museums & the Web 2010.

6. References

"Join the Arduino Revolution" (February 2011). MAKE: Technology on Your Time, Quarterly, 25 , 41-45.

7. Resources for New Arduino Users

Arduino Web Site – for support, software downloads, and forums:

Sparkfun Web Site for Arduino parts, kits, components and manuals:

Cite as:

Langer, M., and L. Addario, Sensors and Microcontrollers to Augment User Experience. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted