The Digital Rails project was done in partnership with the fine folks at Chicago's Field Museum. The museum had recently opened up a state-of-the-art gallery called the Hall of China with the intention 0f educating museum visitors about China's complex history using historical/cultural artifacts. Quoting from the Field Museum's website:

These objects come together to tell the story of China, a land of diverse societies unified by shared traditions and a history of dynamic change"

Throughout the gallery, many of the glass showcases housing the artifacts also had large touchscreen displays in an elongated form factor (like a very wide/elongated iPad); we called these Digital Rails. The content for these displays was designed to mimic static/printed exhibit rails, but had the advantage of being easily changed/updated.

digital rail underneath a glass showcase with multiple artifacts

Unfortunately, this gallery was very close to the Evolving World (dinosaurs!) exhibit, and given the choice between marveling at dinosaurs vs. pots-and-pans, guess which gallery visitors tended to spend less time in?

While there's no magical cure/solution for this, our team (Northwestern University + Field Museum) thought that the digital rails presented an opportunity to explore different visual designs and U/X patterns that could lead to greater visitor engagement. With touchscreens in museums becoming ever more prevalent, if nothing else, we would learn whether certain design paradigms had a higher chance of drawing in and holding a visitor's attention.

I was in charge of designing (iteratively, through multiple rounds of feedback) and implementing the software for this project. Eventually we tested two distinct designs on the museum floor. As a part of the first phase in trying to understand visitor movement patterns, I also experimented with coarse location tracking using iBeacons. Here's a short video of this in action:

using just 4 iBeacons per room in the gallery, I was able to get coarse indoor location working

In the end, we settled on manually observing visitor interactions, and using a combination of video recordings and web analytics (on the digital rails) to understand visitor behavior. Based on that, we found a significant difference in visitor retention / interaction time based on the design deployed on the digital rails.

Video demo:

Software | iOS app written in SWIFT, web app written in HTML, CSS and Dart, with a Django + MySQL backend.

Hardware | Estimote bluetooth beacons for coarse indoor location tracking.

Excerpt from a paper published at CHI'18:

How can we use interactive displays in museums to help visitors appreciate authentic objects and artifacts that they can’t otherwise touch or manipulate? This paper shares results from a design-based research study on the use of interactive displays to help visitors learn about artifacts in an exhibit on the history and culture of China. To explore the potential afforded by these displays, we unobtrusively video recorded 834 museum visitor groups who stopped in front of one collection of objects.
Drawing on cognitive models of curiosity, we tested three redesigns of this display, each focusing on a different strategy to spark visitor curiosity, interest, and engagement. To understand the relative effectiveness of these designs, we analyzed visitor interaction and conversation. Our results uncovered significant differences across the conditions suggesting implications for the use of such technology in museums.

Related Publication(s)