Sunday, August 29, 2010

Future of museum multimedia in Canberra

The National Museum of Australia (NMA) Yiwarra Kuju Exhibition features a painting by Rover Thomas and an 8 metre interactive multimedia display. Museums Australia ACT Chapter organised a "Hands-on demonstration and debate: The future of museum multimedia" as one of a series of events associated with the exhibition. The video makers and multimedia artists involved described the origins of the project and the design choices made. I felt a little out of place being about the non-museum person, but had the sense I was seeing history in the making, with a change in the way museums work happening before me.

In my view, this one multimedia display is of more value, and more significance, that the whole of the rest of the NMA, its building and collection. This reminds me of several years ago when Australian universities formed AARnet, to provide networking services. AARnet when on to foster the development and use of the Internet in Australia. While the universities see AARnet as a minor service function it is perhaps the most useful and valuable service universities have ever provided to Australia. Similarly, this one multimedia display is enough to justify the cost of setting up MNA, even if the Museum never does anything else of value.

One frustration with the event was that I did not know exactly who all the people speaking were, as they were not listed on the museum's invitation. The first speaker was a film documentary maker, who described how the project worked with local people to record interviews.

Then "Michael", the multimedia display maker, discussed the table top multi-media presentation. He showed previous examples, including the "number" display at the Berlin Jewish museum and the timeline at the Churchill war rooms in London. He pointed out that this form of display allowed for social interaction between people as well as with the system.

One subtle difference I noticed with the NMA display is that the screens are staggered, not in a neat straight row, like Berlin and London. Michael pointed out that his was a multi-touch display. This allows a more free-form use including control of images.

One frustration I have with the Canberra exhibition is that few people will see it. This is partly because it has been very poorly promoted and also because the display is limited to the physical exhibition in one room in one place. The exhibition is intended to be sent around Australia, but even so few people will get to see it. There is a web site associated with the exhibition, but this does no more than hint at the significance of the paintings and the multimedia. The obvious next step would be to create an online version of the interactive display and also a conventional linear documentary film version.

The display devices used are made by a start-up company in Finland co-founded by Professor Giulio Jacucci at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT). These are "MultiTouch Cell" units from MultiTouch Ltd of Helsinki (Australian agent: Lightwell, Chippendale, Sydney). The units feature a backlit LCD display (better than front projection units) and have a smaller bezel than the Microsoft Surface product, allowing multiple units to be placed together for a bigger display.

The MultiTouch units appear to be reasonably robust and might provide useful for command and control facilities in military and emergency headquarters, such as the new Joint Task Force Headquarters (JTFHQ) Afloat, to be installed on the Canberra class ships HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide. The US 7th Fleet may also wish to re-equip the Joint Operations Center on USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). Also these displays might be used in the new emergency centres being built by the Victorian and ACT governments. At tens of thousands of dollars each, these screens are relatively inexpensive. The units have survived six weeks use so far by the public, including children, which is a severe test.

The design for this display was first prepared on a full scale paper mock-up on the floor. This stage the value of having the screen tessellated became apparent. This provide more space for people to stand around the display.

The modular nature of the display could also prove useful in military and civilian command and control applications, where separate units could be reconfigured as required.

Another interesting aspect of the design was the use of audio. Each unit has its own audio and so there could be competing sound, but in practice this works. This could also be useful in command and control applicators, with staff naturally gravitating to the relevant display a, but still being able to hear what is happening around them.

One improvement which could be made to the multimedia display, and the whole exhibition, would be to make it less isolated. I was reluctant to enter the imposing front door of the exhibition. When I entered the exhibition I felt as if I was in a big black box, cut off from the world. It seemed odd that an exhibition about a very bright desert was shown in a dark cave. Perhaps there could be some live input to the display, from the stock route in real time and from people around the world looking at the same display.

At question time the issue of extending the interactive display online was raised by several people. Also the use of mobile devices was raised. It seemed obvious to me that a version of the multimedia display should be made avialable on the web and that it would make a compelling application when displayed on an iPad or similar multi-touch device.

At question time, I pointed out that because of the title of the exhibition I was expecting a few old stock whips and this was taken up by one of the panellists. Apparently "Canning Stock Route" was intended only as the subtitle. But the title of the exhibition is not in English, and so will be meaningless to most of the Australian public. This is the single point on which the exhibition could fail. Perhaps the ACT government and non-government tourism promotion bodies should step in to promote the display while it is still in Canberra. This exhibition has the potential to be more popular than the blockbuster Musée d'Orsay exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.

Another interesting question was if the format of short idea snippets of video would displace longer linear film documentaries. This is an issue I was interviewed recently regarding text. The film maker explained that the video snippets are designed to standalone but also be joined together to be a longer film.

One disappointing aspect of the event about the exhibition was the video recording. The session was recorded, but this was done with one camera and some poorly placed radio microphones. This distracted from the event, with audio feedback and the camera continually swivelling around. It seemed a shame for the NMA to invest so much in an event about multimedia and not correctly use microphones and cameras. Perhaps NMA need some advice on how to hold a live event with multimedia. The National Library of Australia do this very well with their Innovative Ideas Forum.


Sean said...

Hi Tom, possibly before making a judgement call on the technical aspects of the recording you should probably speak to the technicians running the event, or wait 'til you see the final video product - this was done as a 3-camera shoot, but the wide- and mid-shot cameras were in the control room behind the audience. The camera in front was doing close-up pickups, and was placed in the only position possible, given that the organisers didn't want the camera/operator to take up any of the seating. The venue was never designed for multi-camera productions, but has been pressed into service due to the (fairly recent) closure of the Broadcast Studio (which was a space designed specifically for this kind of production - albeit with a smaller audience capacity) follwed by a push by the Museum to increase the amount of Video-on-Demand content being made available.

Tom Worthington said...

Sean commented September 06, 2010 9:41 PM:

>Hi Tom, possibly before making a judgement call on the technical aspects of the recording you should probably speak to the technicians running the event, or wait 'til you see the final video product ...

No. I was commenting as a person who was at the live event. My enjoyment of the event was adversely effected by the poor use of microphones (causing a howl) and the distracting camera panning around.

As for the "final product" I have not seen any follow up from the Museum to say that they have produced anything.

>The camera in front was doing close-up pickups, and was placed in the only position possible ...

It is was very distracting. They could have used a less conspicuous camera.

>The venue was never designed for multi-camera productions, but has been pressed into service due to the (fairly recent) closure of the Broadcast Studio ...

Sounds like poor decision making by the Museum management. But even so it would not be difficult, or expensive to equip the larger hall for video recording.

The National Library of Australia have a very cramped old theatre which was not designed for video recording, but they manage to get the sound and images to work. They also incorporate social networking into their events.

As I suggested in my post, perhaps the Museum should see advice from the Library on how to do this well.