During the development of a major project it’s inevitable that certain features just won’t make it into production in time for launch. Sometimes things fall out of scope, or they get left off the priority list and put on the back burner. Hopefully these features are not critical to the project, but invariably they were good ideas, and in many cases should warrant a revisit sometime down the road, when the dust has settled.
At Cooper Hewitt, one such “feature” was affectionately known as the “transfer stations.” The basic idea being that throughout the museum there would be small kiosk like stations where visitors could tap their pens and “transfer” the data from their pen to our database so that they could immediately see their collections from a mobile phone.
It was a nice idea, and we began to implement it, collecting specs and designing the steel stands that would support the kiosks. Eventually the parts showed up, but by that time, we were pretty knee deep in launching the Pen and the museum, so the transfer station idea got set aside.
Fast forward to today, nearly a year since the Pen has been in visitors hands and we’ve been thinking about how we can better onboard our visitors, and how we can remind them that there is something to do after they leave the museum. It’s a complex problem that we’ve tried to address in several ways.
- Visitors arriving at the museum typically don’t know anything about the Pen. At our Visitor Experience desk our staff are trained to quickly explain teach each visitor what they can do with the Pen, while in the background processing their orders and “pairing” each Pen to a ticket. It’s a critical part of the process and one we’ve spent a good deal of time optimizing.
- While visitors are waiting in line, there is an opportunity to help people learn about the Pen. We have a looping video playing in that spot that tries to do this job visually, and additionally, we have small postcards available that explain things further.
- On the way out the door, visitors are reminded that they should hold on to their tickets. This is supposed to happen at the door, in the moment where they are returning their pen.
There are lots of other visual cues and verbal reminders happening while you walk through the galleries, but no matter what, we find ticket stubs left behind. We know from our data that lots of our visitors are checking out their websites after their visits, but maybe we can do better. Also, part of the whole concept behind the Pen is that you “can” look at your collection from your mobile phone right away–we should make that happen more seamlessly.
Technically speaking, the transfer stations have been in play all along. When you walk up to one of our interactive tables and “dock” your pen, we read all the data on your pen ( the things you’ve collected so far ) and store them in our database. So, if you just keep walking up to tables and docking your pen, you’d be able to visit your collection on your mobile phone–no problem. But this doesn’t really do a great job of reminding you, or even letting you know that it’s possible. The tables are about browsing the collection on the tables, and that’s pretty much what their UI describes.
Also, we’ve been using an early version of the transfer station behind the scenes to do a final dump of your pen after you’ve left. This is so that in case you collected objects and didn’t go to one of the tables, you’ll be okay.
All along though, a few of us have been a little skeptical of the function and design of the transfer stations. Will they just create confusion with the visitor? Are they even necessary? Should they have a responsive visual user interface? To get to the bottom of some of these questions, well, we need to birth something into the world and see how it goes.
To get started, we chose to deploy two transfer stations in two areas on the second floor. There was a good deal of work that needed to happen. The transfer station parts needed to be identified, assembled and configured. We’d need to set up their built in Raspberry Pi computers to behave properly, and we’d need to work through their connection to power and network within the galleries. Enter Mary Fe! She is our Gallery Technologist, the person you might see performing maintenance on some part of the technology throughout the galleries the next time you visit Cooper Hewitt. Mary Fe is the person who shows up at 8am before the museum opens to make sure everything is working and looking good.
I asked Mary Fe to work on this project from start to finish, and she’s written up a little documentation on how things went. She says:
I was called in to *clone* the existing and fully working Register station. The stations consist of Raspberry Pi mini computers connected to our museum network over ethernet and an NFC reader board designed by Sistel Networks that are able to download data from a Pen. The Raspberry Pi is mounted in the base of the extremely heavy stands you see in the photo below, and its corresponding NFC reader board is located at the top, behind the “plus” icon.
What we’d need
- Raspberry Pi units programmed to save only ( vs. save and check in a pen )
- Functioning data and power at the locations where wish to deploy the stands
- The stands
- Easy to understand signage
The first part was pretty easy to accomplish. I began by cloning SD cards for use with the Raspberry Pi. These had to be configured to “save” Pen data, and not “check in” the Pen so that the visitor could continue their visit, saving as many times as they like. After cloning, we assigned new names and unique IPs to the Raspberry Pi stations.
I ran into a little trouble when I started testing the data ports. Long story short, I had to learn how to tone/probe data ports from their locations in the galleries to their corresponding positions in the network closet. After a good deal of troubleshooting with our IT specialists in DC, the ports came to life and we assigned their IP addresses.
Once the ports were figured out, and the Raspberry Pi’s setup and configured, everything began to work. Right away I noticed visitors starting to use the transfer stations.
We have more transfer stations waiting in the wings. However, as I mentioned above, deploying these two transfer stations is sort of an experiment. We want to watch and see how visitors react to them, if they cause more confusion, and how often they are getting used.
We’ve already been thinking of ways we might incorporate a screen to add a visual user interface to the stations. Perhaps a more guided experience would get visitors more involved with them. What kinds of problems will introducing a screen add to the device? Maybe we should think about e-ink, a touch screen, or a thermal printer? It’s hard to say at this point.
The next step is to collect some visitor feedback, look at the data, and start prototyping new ideas.