Venturing down the digital trail

The interpreter in the form of a mountain biker.

I am a mountain biker.

Ok, lets keep it relevant… I am a mountain biker and an interpreter.

I started mountain biking in 2001, and it was love at first ride. I used to spend every spare daylight hour I had out on the trails around Wellington with my mates. I used to read all the magazines, watch all the movies and spend hours wandering through bike shops marvelling at the shiny new bikes. I found a huge amount of joy in discovering new trails and mastering the trails I knew well.

Now, I would never claim to have mastered mountain biking but by 2006 I was pretty competent, knew my way around a bike pretty well and could find my way down most trails as good as any. When this contentment happens, ‘the search’ starts. It’s the search for something new and exciting, a chance to add a new layer to my mountain biking experience.

A friend of mine floated the idea of night riding, which basically consists of strapping the brightest light you can find to your head and tearing through the forest in the middle of the night. I had my reservations about this new idea – lights were expensive, it was colder at night, it was risky as it would be harder to get help if someone was to get hurt.

All reservations considered and addressed, we ventured out into the night for a ride. It was amazing. We rode the same tracks we had ridden for years, but when put in a new light became a brand new experience. I got that extra boost of energy and excitement for riding again.

While the search as a mountain biker led me to night riding, the search as an interpreter has got me looking at digital experiences. I, like a lot of interpreters, have my reservations about digital experiences. They tend to be expensive. They can be too difficult for visitors to use. Maintenance of content can be frustrating and time-consuming. Then there were download size issues to consider, and how to encourage visitors to download the app onto their phones in the first place.

Recently, after considering and addressing all these reservations, we at Wellington Zoo rolled out the STQRY app.

A STQRY code placed at exhibits that visitors scan using the app on their smart phone. If you scan this code now with your phone using any QR code scanner it will prompt you to download the app.

The app, developed by a Wellington-based company, allows visitors access to text, images, maps, videos, links (and much more) through their smartphone. Visitors can either search an alphabetical list of animals and exhibits or they can scan QR codes at exhibits to access relevant information.

The approach we took to the development of content was that it should complement what visitors see at exhibits. In other words, it encourages them to interact with the physical space around them. It is designed to be another layer to the experience. It is not a replacement for other forms of interpretive media, just another opportunity where visitors can customise their own experience.

A preview of the STQRY interface.

Just like night riding boosted by buzz for mountain biking, developing this experience for our visitors has given me that extra boost of energy as an interpreter. It is an opportunity to shed a new light on our experience and engage visitors in a way we have not done before. That, for me as an interpreter, is exciting. What a ride!

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Museums and the Web 2012- All things techie!

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rainy, cold and windy san diego

Cold and rainy is not how you would normally describe San Diego, but I can because it was just that for most of my five-day visit for the Museums and the Web 2012 conference. However, this did not dampen my excitement or those of the over 530-strong contingent gathered to share stories, secrets, and advice about all things museum tech. From websites to augmented realities, to analytics to CMS and crowd sourcing—there was something to titillate every taste.

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ok there were a few beautiful days too

I was there wearing many hats—as the head girl of Girl Museum, as web administrator for INNZ and as a freelance exhibition developer. But mostly I just wanted to understand better how best, and when to use, technology; in gallery interp, interactive games, social media or even when not to use it at all.

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a session panel and all the laptops, iPads and iPhones going for it the whole time

The range of topics offered an angle for most tech comprehension levels and I especially enjoyed how international the crowd was—there seemed to be someone from everywhere. It was striking how accepted it is nowadays that people will be on laptops, iPads, iPhones and other technologies during sessions and lectures. I still have a hard time with this, it just seems rude, even if you are tweeting or blogging or engaging in some other esoteric way.

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behind the scenes in the restoration shop at the Air and Space Museum

The behind the scenes tours to several of the museums in Balboa Park were really cool, especially the Air and Space Museum restoration area—secret stuff going on down there.

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Epic FAIL

Particularly excellent was the closing panel about failure. Five brave souls got up in front of the crowd and confessed major project failures running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was poignant to hear their stories and how they came through and what they learned at the time. On reflection now, it is even more powerful going forward,wondering how I will deal with such things, hopefully with as much grace and humor.

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California style 'guilt free' drinking (note Eco-Mojito)

Of note was the copious amount of coffee and tea on offer, as well as snacks and heaps of nice food. Being fed and watered properly at a conference is very important to how you take everything in and the overall pleasure of the experience.  I can safely say there was enough of everything when you needed it.

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photo opp- dress up like Neil Armstrong and walk on the moon

This was a valuable conference for those seeking like-minds, searching for general solutions or directions, but not really to solve specific problems. There could definitely have been more doctors’ surgeries and outpatient care offered for specific projects, and more for those of us who have a serious interest in using technology to interpret and display, but don’t have big budgets or audiences.

My takeaways were mainly about resources; to always know that every project will take more time, money and people than you anticipate; and to budget for maintenance, both in time and people, or the amazing things that we do will be broken, forgotten or scrapped.

Stones to iPhones – INNZ Spring Workshop

I attended the INNZ Spring Workshop in Timaru to be inspired. To see things from other points of view, to network with like minded individuals, working in fields unlike mine. While working within the zoo industry is great, stepping out of that context and looking to bring in ideas from other types of organisations is an exciting challenge; a challenge of great benefit to me as an interpreter.

Oli and guides at the Eagle Cave.

I'm on the left as our guides Karl and Sue invite us to explore the Cave of the Eagle.

This year we were hosted by Te Ana: Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre. A highlight of day one was going out to the rock art sites to look at drawings done hundreds of years ago. There is so much mystery around them. Who drew them and why? Were they the work of an accomplished artist? Were they a means of communication between travelling iwi? Or were they an ancient form of graffiti, maybe done to entertain the mokopuna? Our guides were friendly and informative, but still allowed provocative thought – they were fantastic.

Inside Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

INNZ workshoppers have a go at creating their own 'rock art'

We heard from the Te Ana development team about the process of designing the centre. The work that was done by the development team was a reminder to engage the right people in the process. The centre is about giving Ngai Tahu the means to tell their stories. As interpreters we focus a lot on the final product, the message that is being portrayed to our audience, but sometimes how we get there is just as important.

On day two of the workshop, a World Café session was hosted. It was a great opportunity to get together and discuss current issues in our industry. Three table discussions were set up. Kate Woodall from Te Papa hosted the topic ‘Why digital?’ – very relevant to our industry, as some of the biggest buzz going on at the moment is around digital experiences. (Stay posted to this blog for other World cafe dicussion topics).

As an interpreter looking for inspiration QR codes, iApps, augmented reality, and RFIDs to name a few, offer new possibilities. But the question around the table was, who really wants digital experiences? Do our audiences expect them? Or is it an expectation from within the industry?

As the discussion went on it became clear that we should be asking ourselves “how can digital enhance the experience for visitors? Is it always the right tool for the job?”

One of Kate’s messages was – if you are going to do it, do it right and for the right reasons. Digital experiences are a tool that can add another layer to an experience. One of the people around our table suggested that maybe an indicator for success in this area is that visitors don’t know they are having a digital experience. I like the idea of that seamlessness.

Valley of the Eagle.

A landscape of inspiration - the Valley of the Eagle

There is so much good work being done in New Zealand. Every time I go to an INNZ workshop or conference I see something or experience something that reinvigorates and inspires me. The Interpretation Network of New Zealand is only as strong as it members, and if the recent workshop is anything to go by, it’s going from strength to strength.