Museum visitors to get active

April 01, 2004, vol. 29, no. 7
By Trina Ricketts

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Museum visitors will soon interact with exhibits that respond to their movements, gestures and actions rather than just be passive viewers.

That's the hope of researchers at the school of interactive arts and technology in Surrey who have been working on a technology called ec(h)o that puts the museum patron in control of their own experience. Ron Wakkary (right), Marek Hatala and Kenneth Newby demonstrated a prototype of ec(h)o technology at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa on March 30.

Wakkary first became interested in how people experience museums when he worked in one after achieving his master of fine arts degree in 1993 from State University of New York.

In the following years, he collaborated with several museums doing interactive installations and web projects which led to his focus on research and interactive design.

The inspiration for ec(h)o came three years ago when the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria approached Wakkary because it wanted to use technology in their natural history exhibits.

In most museums, patrons can use audio tapes as they wander through the exhibits instructing them where to look next. The person's behaviour is controlled by the tape.

In the ec(h)o design, however, the museum patron is in charge. Their behaviour controls the computer. “The whole museum is a computer that responds to the physical actions and movements of each individual,” he says.

Participants are asked to choose three topics of interest before they enter the exhibition as a system starting point to learn about the user.

A patron walking into an exhibition space may hear sounds and words that relate to that particular exhibit. By manipulating a wooden cube, the viewer will have access to more detailed information about the exhibits of interest.

Wakkary says the cube is not connected to the computer system in any way. It is the action of rotating the cube in one direction or another that engages specific responses from the interactive exhibition.

The Canadian Museum of Nature has partnered with Wakkary, Hatala and Newby by making researchers available to the team and by providing public exhibitions to test the project.

As for the origin of ec(h)o, Wakkary explains that it combines the eco of ecology with the echo that occurs in a large space.

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