Art World: the Future of Museums

Wednesday, June 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BALTIMORE (AP) — Amid the stillness and silence of a museum exhibition room, an ancient vase stands in its housing, unable to reveal the secrets of its rich past. But as easily as a visitor slides on a pair of transparent eyeglasses, the artifact comes to life.

Images appear to the side of the case, revealing the unearthing of the vase, providing similar artifacts for comparison as well as comment and analysis by experts in the field.

The secret of this technology is a prism-like computer chip inserted into a portion of the eyeglass lens.

This ``augmented reality,'' as it is known, is one form of technology that could change the museum experience of the 21st century and beyond. Augmented reality is a way to layer the virtual world on top of the real world, without replacing reality, according to Phil Hoffstetter, Multimedia professor at California State University, Orinda.

While ``virtual reality'' games involve wearing a type of full head gear that monopolizes most of the senses and shuts out the rest of the world, augmented reality allows the user to ``navigate'' in the real world, Hoffstetter said.

An example of today's technology is IBM's Wearable Computer. It has a Walkman-like headset, a display smaller than two sugar cubes and an attached microphone that allows the user to control the computer by speaking. The computer is based on the Think Pad Series and is about the size of a deck of playing cards. The technology can be tailored to meet the individual needs of museums and their exhibitions.

The wearable computer has been around since 1998, but the marriage of the wearable computer to software that recognizes items and calls up audio and visual enhancements is only a few months old, according to Cameron Miner, a User Interface Design Engineer who leads the DesignLab at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Ca. Miner said IBM is the only company that has this technology.

There are no firm plans in place to operate IBM's augmented reality wearable computer prototype in any museums, but Miner said he has spoken with some museums about that possibility.

``The technology is here,'' he said.

The costs of the technology could prevent smaller museums from accessing wearable computers.

Fifty-seven percent of all museums have annual budgets of $100,000 or less, and 38 percent have annual budgets of $50,000 or less, according to a survey administered by the American Association of Museums in 1989. The organization says those numbers largely hold true today.

It's not clear how much it would cost to implement IBM's wearable computer system in museums. But for research studies, Miner said the wearable computer is less expensive than an ordinary computer.

``The wearable computer could be created for 30 percent less than the cost of a PC,'' Miner said. The computer display is what makes PCs cost more.

A museum's decision to implement technology into exhibits requires a substantial budget for the technology itself, but also for the initial set up, personnel training and maintenance personnel.

And then there will always be the struggle to keep up with the latest technology.

``I think in the very near future, we won't be wearing computers. The computer will be in the wall and data will be transmitted to it,'' said Hoffstetter.

Not all industry members attending a recent gathering of the American Association of Museums in Baltimore agreed that high tech is the way to carry museums through the 21st century.

``Technology must be the servant of content,'' said Peter Johnson, director of design at the New England Aquarium in Boston. ``It can be very seductive, and you have to tell people to slow down.''

Abbie Chessier heads Quatrefoil, in Laurel, Md., a company that specializes in museum exhibition design, fabrication, interactives, multimedia and electronics.

``The first thing I want to tell people is, you don't necessarily have better exhibits through technology,'' she said.

Museums must first determine their content and goals before deciding whether technology will improve exhibits, she said.

Attaching sounds and screens to an exhibit changes the way a viewer reacts to it.

``No media can touch reality — real place, real objects,'' Chessier said. ``Some connection to real, whether it's in the past or present, makes a good exhibit.''