Bluetooth LE again

An opportunity may be coming up that has been thinking again about heritage spaces and narrative. This year’s Museums and Heritage Show was full of companies offering Bluetooth LE (BLE, or if you prefer, Apple’s trademarked version, iBeacons) interpretation. Most worked along the lines of “approach object/artwork with your device (phone or tablet), and a BLE beacon will tell your device where it is, whereupon it will serve up interesting tidbits of information.”

It strikes me there’s something more imaginative we could be doing with the technology. It all seems so passive. Yes, you have to carry around a device, and no, you don’t have to follow a prescribed route to make sense of an audio guide. But actually that’s all it is, an enhanced audio guide albeit one that occasionally shows you video, or even superimposes things on the objects you are looking at (but only if you look at the object through the camera and screen of the device). Now it could get more interesting if it was an adaptive narrative – one that changed the content according to what you’d already looked at and heard – but it’s still mediated through a device, and the majority of heritage visitors spurn audioguides and don’t download interpretive tours to their phones.

Not everybody likes talking to museum guides, docents or interpreters either, but far more people prefer interaction with other people than with devices. So, can we use BLE technology to enhance face-to-face interaction? To do so, we need to steal a trick from web-services. Most popular web-based services get to be useful for their customers, because they learn about the individual’s needs. Not only do that they use that information to better meet the needs of each individual, they also apply what they’ve learned to new customers. It can all feel a bit sinister, and indeed people do wonder if one-day Google might change its name to Skynet.

But lets assume for a moment that the heritage can be trusted not to use people’s information for evil. To emulate the adaptive web services, cultural heritage sites need to switch their thinking around, rather than identifying things with BLE, they need to identify visitors. So imagine this: on arrival, each visiting group is given a BLE beacon. They might also be asked a few questions about their interests and plans for their visit. Then they are free to enjoy their visit, “your day, your way” we might say.

The guides or docents they might meet are all equipped with a tablet. And as each group approaches the tablet, their BLE beacon will identify itself to the tablet, and that will fetch the information gathered about that group. They might have said they prefer to read labels rather than talk, so the docent with the tablet might choose not to attempt to start a conversation with them unless they ask him or her a question. Or they might have indicated that they do like chatting and have an interest in paintings, in which case, the docent might approach them to offer to talk about a particularly fine nearby work.

The next docent they approach will not only see their preferences, but also note that they have already talked about that particular painting, so that docent can perhaps point out a companion object nearby, which has a particular relevance to the painting. If the site benefits from sharing an overarching narrative with visitors, that narrative can be spit into chunks, and each docent can relate parts that are appropriate to the surroundings but which also take account of the chunks that that the visitors have already heard.

Human beings can make these connections and adaptations far more ably and with more nuance than even the most interactive computer based guide. This approach arms them with knowledge of the visitors’ preferences and previous experiences, and to help them tailor their interpretation to the needs of each visitor. It does away with repetitive opening questions from docents, and the oft repeated “favourite bit of the story” and allows docents to help visitors explore a deeper connection with the place, with more confident knowledge of what visitors have already been told.

An experiment is required to see if the visitors would perceive these benefits and consider them an enhancement of their experience.

For some of the background to this post, see previous posts on Ambient gaming and Gimbal.