Connected Worlds Prototypes

Back after a lengthy hiatus, a lot has been going on.  First of all, it was delightful to see so many friends and learn so much at AAM.  I had a chance to engage in some great and contentious discussions along with relaxing into the cloud of friendship and support of the museum community.


The day that I left from NY, we held a prototyping session/advisory committee meeting for one of our major exhibition programs, which we are now calling “Connected Worlds.”  This will be the centerpiece experience in our Great Hall, which in turn is being renovated as the centerpiece of our 2014 50th year anniversary celebration.  2014 used to be a long time from now, but it isn’t any more.  So it is time to get down to cases.  Connected Worlds is built around the idea of sustainability, which we are hoping to approach from a more human, local context rather than the beyond-all-hope-and-control global context.  Its kind of funny/sad how Al Gore’s passion translated into his being such an ineffective bummer. His film has become kind of the touchstone of what we don’t want to do, scaring people about this global phenomenon that they can’t really do anything about and using data in misleading ways.

We have had had many long discussions with our invaluable advisors about where we stand with global warming (a fait accompli), and what we do next to mitigate its worst effects.  I would refer you to the work of the CIESEN group at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Lab, who have been our principal scientific advisors, as well as the research on cooperation of David Rand at Harvard to explore some of these ideas.
Suffice it to say that it is a difficult topic surrounded by a roar of conflicting opinions and advice. 

The prototyping session involved 3 interactive full body-scale gesture based screens in which changes in one area either automatically effected other areas or could be moved through clever RFID design into another area.  Design I/O did an incredible job of providing us with something really substantive to test, and we learned a huge amount.  Here is a video of the prototype

The experience is of three large screens that you figure out how to interact with with very little or no guidance (you show one and it seems you are good for about 20 minutes before someone else seems flummoxed).  The right hand screen is a representation of reservoirs in the mountains with water flow controlled by a discarded cable spool that you can crank.  The middle screen is a corn farm, where by gestures you cut corn, and using a piece of rope, water the corn.  There is a silo on the right that fills up with corn, and can be emptied by placing a RFID’d box next to the silo.  The screen on the left is the city, where there is either enough water, food, and population (a balance) or not enough food and water.  In this aspect, you can pump a pump and water flows into the city (this and the corn field both effect the water levels in the rightmost screen), and you can add the corn you have brought from the silo.

Given how complicated the set of interactions is, there was a lot of great game play, lots of people self organizing (or organizing under big brother’s [literally] thumb), lots of engagement, not too much over the top cranking/button pushing/jumping around like a maniac (not that there is anything wrong with that).

As far as literal learning goals, most of what people had to say had to do with water as a scarce resource and how it is needed for everything, etc.  Overall, lots of positive stuff, and certainly indicators like engagement and excitement were in evidence everywhere.

We were very fortunate to have Cornelia Brunner, from EDC’s Children and Technology program participate in the prototyping/advisor meeting, and a follow up staff meeting.  She was able to articulate something that we have been grasping for, and I will do my best to restate it.  When she works with game designers, 90% of the work is in creating a great game.  10% is embedding some experiential learning in the game.  0% is given to overlaying educational “content.”  As she said, as soon as a kid smells PBS in a game, you’ve lost them.  I know not everyone would agree with this approach (there are some NYSCI staff who would argue strenuously, Hi David K).

This depends on a deep and mutual confidence between the museum team and the designers, and that is the subject of another post.  I think we have the chops to pull it off, both on our side and on Design IO’s side.  It also requires being crystal clear about the experiential learning

After much discussion, we have narrowed down our experiential goals to help people experience and explore “systems thinking” and “balance.”  These ideas are a big step toward making the exhibition more experiential and less didactic.  People can experience aspects of systems thinking, like feedback loops, and also engage in the idea of balance, as in water seeking its level.

As a matter of fact, water seems like a good organizing principal/metaphor because it is an essential resource for life (both biological and social) and also a bit mysterious.  I always wondered why we should conserve water, its a closed system, water isn’t going anywhere.  If anything, water is being added incrementally to our environment.  The most recent exhibition on Water, done by AMNH and Science Museum of Minnesota (which is traveling, and has a number of excellent qualities), didn’t resolve this problem for me.  Maybe I missed it, but if I did, probably a significant number of others missed it as well.

So now we crash on to the design development phase of this work, ending in, you know, a design…this is where the you-can-do-this and you-cant-do-that comes in, which I actually thrive on. 

A question for the readers.  If you wanted to create introductory and follow on experiences, whats wrong with a plain old high quality video?  Ever since we hosted 1001 Inventions, and ever since Martin Weiss did Charlie and Kiwi, and Sean Duran’s wonderful videos for Amazon Voyages (mudfish!), I have become kind of focused on the 5 minute video.  Yes, I know its not interactive, but so what?  Also, we hired the brilliant Geralyn Abinader who started and ran the media program at AMNH for a decade, so I know we have the in house capacity to kill in that form.

I’ve been running a high fever this week, and had feverish dreams from about 6-9 AM about all the projects that still have open questions.  We are placing our markers on some major commitments to new approaches as we speak, and its great to be able to share these ideas with NYSCI’s and others who read this post.