Augmenting Museums and K-16

Last month, I kicked off a series of posts about museums and emerging technologies, and specifically the actual and potential interplay of technologies across educational sectors (K-12, museums, and higher ed)—and how museums might make the most of these intersections. In this post I’m going to consider augmented reality—a technology the New Media Consortium forecasts will be more widely adopted in museum education and interpretation within the next couple years, and within K-12 education within four to five years.

The NMC’s 2011 Horizon Report for museums explains augmented reality:

Augmented reality applications can either be marker- based, which means that the camera must perceive a specific visual cue in order for the software to call up the correct information, or markerless. Markerless applications use positional data, such as a mobile’s GPS and compass, or image recognition, where input to the camera is compared against a library of images to find a match. Markerless applications have wider applicability since they function anywhere without the need for special labeling or supplemental reference points. Layar ( has been a leader in this space with augmented reality applications for the Android and iPhone platforms. Layar Vision is a markerless application of AR that makes it easy to develop apps that can recognize real world objects and overlay information on top of them.

Augmented Reality is already in some museums

Museums are pretty far ahead of their K-16 colleagues in implementing this version of augmented reality. Some examples:

  • Archeoguide was developed ca. 2000 as an AR platform that can be deployed at any cultural heritage site.

Once downloaded, you need only point your phone at a targeted marker for [James] May to appear in all his three-dimensional glory on the screen of your smartphone or tablet. Your position in relation to the marker directly effects Mr. May’s. So, if you were to walk 180 degree around it, you would see the opposite of Mr. May’s body. Through nine installments in the gallery, he will talk to you and move just as if he were there in the flesh, your own diminutive downloadable docent!

You can download the markers for the exhibit (PDF) to watch May’s performance from anywhere in the world.


One of the most exciting museum AR projects to date didn’t originate with the museum itself. Rather, two artists made a guerrilla art show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, superimposing new artwork onto the walls of MoMA’s galleries through Layar, and even adding an additional virtual floor onto the museum to accommodate the new pieces.

The HistoryPin app draws on HistoryPin’s crowdsourced project to put historical photos on the map.  Using the app, you can superimpose historical photos onto the present-day landscape. History museums and archives could use this simple AR platform to share their collections. Each photo that your institution adds to the HistoryPin map includes a link to your institution’s HistoryPin “channel,” where you can talk up your museum, its exhibits, and its collections.  (Check out the U.S. National Archives channel for a great use of this platform.)  You can also create tours, as the National Archives has done with the civil rights-era March on Washington.  (You might also check out Tagwhat, a similar app that allows people to build “interactive stories” that include photos and video.)

These AR applications are targeted largely at adults, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave kids out of the fun.  I’m a fan of traditional sand-and-water tables, but this use of the Kinect platform at UC Davis is pretty damn cool.  Imagine all the ways science centers might deploy this technology–what about demonstrating the possible shifts of rivers, oceans, lakes, and terrain due to climate change?

Deploying the technology in your museum

I frequently hear museum administrators say they can’t adopt these technologies because their staff doesn’t have the expertise—or the time to develop that expertise.  And I get that–we’re all very busy trying to stay afloat in an underfunded cultural sector.  However, just because we lack the time or expertise doesn’t mean we can’t bring someone on board who either has that expertise or–even better–wants to acquire it.

My solution: find a student intern who wants to learn about some aspect of museums, and then encourage her to find new applications for these technologies in the department in which she’s interning.

So, for example, you can hire a collections intern and immerse her in conservation work—by which I mean you both guide her through the process of conserving an artifact or a small collection of artifacts, but also impress on her the broader contours of, and challenges facing, the field. You might emphasize that some objects are too fragile or unstable to be put on exhibit, lament that only a small portion of the museum’s collection will ever be displayed, or express visitors’ frustrations that they can’t see the back of some of the textiles currently on exhibit.  You would then challenge the student to use augmented reality technology to make the collections more accessible to visitors.  Depending on the length of the internship, you could either have the student actually deploy a beta version of your AR project or have her write a white paper on the various AR technologies that might reasonably be used by the museum, recommend one, and then outline how to deploy an AR project for the next intern. Alternately, depending on the student’s interests, you could ask the student to research opportunities for grants, and then draft a grant proposal.

It’s win-win: Your intern gets a sense of collections work and new technologies, your museum learns about how it might deploy AR, and your intern has a project–either an AR project, white paper, or grant proposal–to show to future employers.

I’m putting this into practice myself in the fall, when undergraduate and graduate students in my new Digital History course will research AR platforms and create a walking tour of downtown Boise that uses AR to give visitors a glimpse of the historic city.  (I’ll let you know how that goes.)

One caution

Of course, it’s easy to get caught up in the oooh! shiny! factor of new technologies, and AR implementation definitely presents such a peril. If we’re not careful, it could become just another gimmick instead of truly augmented educational programs and projects. Margaret Schavemaker points out that it’s important to foreground museum visitors’ authentic encounters:

Of course one can denounce “paratouring” — or, in terms of AR, “pARatouring” — as a distraction from what the tour is really about, namely, mediating knowledge and enhancing visitor experience both inside and outside the museum. This is a risk, and we should take care that it does not obstruct the actual encounter with the museum, collection or exhibition.

Will your museum try augmented reality?

As you can see by some of the examples—particularly those platforms that allow anyone to contribute, such as Tagwhat and HistoryPin—museums can test the waters of augmented reality without breaking the bank.  Whether you budget a bit of time for your staff to upload photos to HistoryPin or hire an intern to explore Layar or Aurasma, your institution need not invest a lot of money into exploring this virtual frontier.

How might your institution use AR?

If you want to read about additional opportunities for museums to deploy AR, you can download Areti Damala’s dissertation, “Interaction Design and Evaluation of Mobile Guides for the Museum Visit: A Case Study in Multimedia and Mobile Augmented Reality.” (PDF)

Museums and the Horizon Reports

In collaboration with its various partners, the New Media Consortium (NMC) each year publishes three versions of its Horizon Report: one each for K-12 education, higher education, and museum education and interpretation. Each publication forecasts trends in technology in these respective sectors.

The reports always generate thoughtful discussion among practitioners in these fields, and I’ve noticed that of particular interest to many folks are the technologies forecast to be three to five years out. That said, I haven’t heard much conversation within each field about the others’ reports.  This is an odd gap in the discourse about technology, as formal and informal education influence one another in dynamic ways.  With mobile devices becoming increasingly ubiquitous across socioeconomic classes, the lines between informal and formal educational spaces are blurred, sometimes beyond recognition or restoration.

I’ve created a table comparing the most recent NMC technological forecasts for museums, higher ed, and K-12 education.  Take a look:

Click image to enlarge. Note: I received a pre-release copy of the 2012 K-12 Horizon Report. It’s not yet available in its entirety to the public,but those of us with pre-release copies are encouraged to write about it.

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone within these educational sectors that mobile apps and tablet computing are arriving on the scene. Students, faculty, museum visitors, and museum staff frequently carry smart phones that allow them to access all kinds of information at a moment’s notice.  Nor do I think it’s particularly surprising to suggest game-based learning and PLEs are hot in K-12, or that games and learning analytics are going to take off in colleges and universities. However, the rest of the technologies on this chart are, while certainly not controversial, more open to debate and speculation.

I’d like to take some time, then, to reflect on the relationships among technologies such as augmented reality, games, analytics, PLEs, digital preservation, smart objects, and gesture-based computing, and consider how students’ and visitors’ use of these technologies might be brought to bear within museum exhibitions, programming, and digital outreach.

I’ll be publishing a series of posts on the utility of, and the possibilities inherent in, these technologies—taken individually, and as a constellation—across sectors.


But first, some definitions, pulled directly from the reports:

Augmented reality is “the layering of information over 3D space” to produce “a new experience of the world,” a “blended reality” (Museums, p. 18).

Game-based learning encompasses a broad spectrum of “serious play,” including “games that are goal-oriented; social game environments; non-digital games that are easy to construct and play; games developed expressly for education; and commercial games that lend themselves to refining team and group skills. Role-playing, collaborative problem solving, and other forms of simulated experiences are recognized for having broad applicability across a wide range of disciplines” (Higher Ed, p. 18).

“Learning analytics refers to the interpretation of a wide range of data produced by and gathered on behalf of students in order to assess academic progress, predict future performance, and spot potential issues” (Higher Ed, p. 22).

Personal learning environments (PLEs) cross the borders between formal and informal education in their support of “self-directed and group-based learning, designed around each user’s goals, with great capacity for flexibility and customization. The term has. . .crystallized around the personal collections of tools and resources a person assembles to support their own learning” (K-12, p. 24).

Digital preservation refers to the conservation of important objects, artifacts, and documents that exist in digital form.” Software and hardware can become obsolete very quickly, and museums that collect electronic media are going to find such the management of such artifacts and resources increasingly complex. “Digital preservation calls for a new type of conservationist with skills that span hardware technologies, file structures and formats, storage media, electronic processors and chips, and more, blending the training of an electrical engineer with the skills of an inventor and a computer scientist” (Museums, pp. 26-28).

Gesture-based computing and natural user interfaces allow users to engage in virtual activities with motions and movements similar to what they would use in the real world, manipulating content intuitively” (Higher Ed, p. 27; K-12, p. 33).

The Internet of Things has become a sort of shorthand for network-aware smart objects that connect the physical world with the world of information. A smart object has four key attributes: it is small, and thus easy to attach to almost anything; it has a unique identifier; it has a small store of data or information; and it has a way to communicate that information to an external device on demand” (Higher Ed, p. 30).

Stay tuned. . .

I expect the first of these posts to be up later this week.  I’ll link to each post in the series as they become available.