Category Archives: Publishing

Label Whisperer

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Have you ever noticed the way people in museums always take pictures of object labels? On many levels it is the very definition of an exercise in futility. Despite all the good intentions I’m not sure how many people ever look at those photos again. They’re often blurry or shot on an angle and even when you can make out the information there aren’t a lot of avenues for that data to get back in to the museum when you’re not physically in the building. If anything I bet that data gets slowly and painfully typed in to a search engine and then… who knows what happens.

As of this writing the Cooper-Hewitt’s luxury and burden is that we are closed for renovations. We don’t even have labels for people to take pictures of, right now. As we think through what a museum label should do it’s worth remembering that cameras and in particular cameras on phones and the software for doing optical character recognition (OCR) have reached a kind of maturity where they are both fast and cheap and simple. They have, in effect, showed up at the party so it seems a bit rude not to introduce ourselves.

I mentioned that we’re still working on the design of our new labels. This means I’m not going to show them to you. It also means that it would be difficult to show you any of the work that follows in this blog post without tangible examples. So, the first thing we did was to add a could-play-a-wall-label-on-TV endpoint to each object on the collection website. Which is just fancy-talk for “another web page”.

Simply append /label to any object page and we’ll display a rough-and-ready version of what a label might look like and the kind of information it might contain. For example:

http://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18680219/label/

Now that every object on the collection website has a virtual label we can write a simple print stylesheet that allows us to produce a physical prototype which mimics the look and feel and size (once I figure out what’s wrong with my CSS) of a finished label in the real world.

photo 2

So far, so good. We have a system in place where we can work quickly to change the design of a “label” and test those changes on a large corpus of sample data (the collection) and a way to generate an analog representation since that’s what a wall label is.

Careful readers will note that some of these sample labels contain colour information for the object. These are just placeholders for now. As much as I would like to launch with this information it probably won’t make the cut for the re-opening.

Do you remember when I mentioned OCR software at the beginning of this blog post? OCR software has been around for years and its quality and cost and ease-of-use have run the gamut. One of those OCR application is Tesseract which began life in the labs at Hewlitt-Packard and has since found a home and an open source license at Google.

Tesseract is mostly a big bag of functions and libraries but it comes with a command-line application that you can use to pass it an image whose text you want to extract.

In our example below we also pass an argument called label. That’s the name of the file that Tesseract will write its output to. It will also add a .txt extension to the output file because… computers? These little details are worth suffering because when fed the image above this is what Tesseract produces:

$> tesseract label-napkin.jpg label
Tesseract Open Source OCR Engine v3.02.01 with Leptonica
$> cat label.txt
______________j________
Design for Textile: Napkins for La Fonda del
Sol Restaurant

Drawing, United States ca. 1959

________________________________________
Office of Herman Miller Furniture Company

Designed by Alexander Hayden Girard

Brush and watercolor on blueprint grid on white wove paper

______________._.._...___.___._______________________
chocolate, chocolate, sandy brown, tan

____________________..___.___________________________
Gift of Alexander H. Girard, 1969-165-327

I think this is exciting. I think this is exciting because Tesseract does a better than good enough job of parsing and extracting text that I can use that output to look for accession numbers. All the other elements in a wall label are sufficiently ambiguous or unstructured (not to mention potentially garbled by Tesseract’s robot eyes) that it’s not worth our time to try and derive any meaning from.

Conveniently, accession numbers are so unlike any other element on a wall label as to be almost instantly recognizable. If we can piggy-back on Tesseract to do the hard work of converting pixels in to words then it’s pretty easy to write custom code to look at that text and extract things that look like accession numbers. And the thing about an accession number is that it’s the identifier for the thing a person is looking at in the museum.

To test all of these ideas we built the simplest, dumbest HTTP pony server to receive photo uploads and return any text that Tesseract can extract. We’ll talk a little more about the server below but basically it has two endpoints: One for receiving photo uploads and another with a simple form that takes advantage of the fact that on lots of new phones the file upload form element on a website will trigger the phone’s camera.

This functionality is still early days but is also a pretty big deal. It means that the barrier to developing an idea or testing a theory and the barrier to participation is nothing more than the web browser on a phone. There are lots of reasons why a native application might be better suited or more interesting to a task but the time and effort required to write bespoke applications introduces so much hoop-jumping as to effectively make simple things impossible.

photo 2
photo 3


Given a simple upload form which triggers the camera and a submit button which sends the photo to a server we get back pretty much the same thing we saw when we ran Tesseract from the command line:

Untitled-cropped

We upload a photo and the server returns the raw text that Tesseract extracts. In addition we do a little bit of work to examine the text for things that look like accession numbers. Everything is returned as a blob of data (JSON) which is left up to the webpage itself to display. When you get down to brass tacks this is really all that’s happening:

$> curl -X POST -F "file=@label-napkin.jpg" http://localhost | python -mjson.tool
{
    "possible": [
        "1969-165-327"
    ],
    "raw": "______________j________nDesign for Textile: Napkins for La Fonda delnSol RestaurantnnDrawing, United States ca. 1959nn________________________________________nOffice of Herman Miller Furniture CompanynnDesigned by Alexander Hayden GirardnnBrush and watercolor on blueprint grid on white wove papernn______________._.._...___.___._______________________nchocolate, chocolate, sandy brown, tannn____________________..___.___________________________nGift of Alexander H. Girard, 1969-165-327"
}

Do you notice the way, in the screenshot above, that in addition to displaying the accession number we are also showing the object’s title? That information is not being extracted by the “label-whisperer” service. Given the amount of noise produced by Tesseract it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Instead we are passing each accession number to the collections website’s OEmbed endpoint and using the response to display the object title.

Here’s a screenshot of the process in a plain old browser window with all the relevant bits, including the background calls across the network where the robots are talking to one another, highlighted.

label-whisperer-napkin-boxes

  1. Upload a photo
  2. Extract the text in the photo and look for accession numbers
  3. Display the accession number with a link to the object on the CH collection website
  4. Use the extracted accession number to call the CH OEmbed endpoint for additional information about the object
  5. Grab the object title from the (OEmbed) response and update the page

See the way the OEmbed response contains a link to an image for the object? See the way we’re not doing anything with that information? Yeah, that…

But we proved that it can be done and, start to finish, we proved it inside of a day.

It is brutally ugly and there are still many failure states but we can demonstrate that it’s possible to transit from an analog wall label to its digital representation on a person’s phone. Whether they simply bookmark that object or email it to a friend or fall in to the rabbit hole of life-long scholarly learning is left an as exercise to the reader. That is not for us to decide. Rather we have tangible evidence that there are ways for a museum to adapt to a world in which all of our visitors have super-powers — aka their “phones” — and to apply those lessons to the way we design the museum itself.

We have released all the code and documentation required build your own “label whisperer” under a BSD license but please understand that it is only a reference implementation, at best. A variation of the little Flask server we built might eventually be deployed to production but it is unlikely to ever be a public-facing thing as it is currently written.

https://github.com/cooperhewitt/label-whisperer/

We welcome any suggestions for improvements or fixes that you might have. One important thing to note is that while accession numbers are pretty straightforward there are variations and the code as it written today does not account for them. If nothing else we hope that by releasing the source code we can use it as a place to capture and preserve a catalog of patterns because life is too short to spend very much of it training robot eyes to recognize accession numbers.

The whole thing can be built without any external dependencies if you’re using Ubuntu 13.10 and if you’re not concerned with performance can be run off a single “micro” Amazon EC2 instance. The source code contains a handy setup script for installing all the required packages.

Immediate next steps for the project are to make the label-whisperer server hold hands with Micah’s Object Phone since being able to upload a photo as a text message would make all of this accessible to people with older phones and, old phone or new, requires users to press fewer buttons. Ongoing next steps are best described as “learning from and doing everything” talked about in the links below:

Discuss!

“cmd-P”

I made us a print stylesheet for object pages on the collections website. (What does that mean? It means you can print out the webpage and it will look nice).

Printout of Object #18621871 before stylesheet

Printout of Object #18621871.. before stylesheet.

Printout of Object #18621871 after stylesheet. Much better.

Printout of Object #18621871 after stylesheet. Much better. Office carpet courtesy of Tandus flooring.

This should be very useful for us in-house, especially curators and education.. and anyone doing exhibition planning.. (which right now is many of us).

It’s not very fancy or anything. Basically I just stripped away all the extraneous information and got right to the essential details, kind of like designing for mobile.

six printouts on standard paper from the collections website, taped in two rows to an iMac screen.

cascading style sheet is cascading.

In a moment of caffeinated Friday goofiness, Aaron printed out a bunch of weird objects he found (e.g. iPad described for aliens as “rectangular tablet computer with rounded corners”) and Scotch taped them all over Seb’s computer screen as a nice decorative touch for his return the next morning.

What we realized in looking at all the printouts, though, is that the simplified view of a collection record resembles a gallery wall label. And we’re currently knee-deep in the wall label discussion here at the Museum as we re-design the galleries (what does it need? what doesn’t it need? what can it do? how can it delight? how can it inform?).

I don’t yet have any conclusions to draw from that observation.. other than it’s a good frame to talk about our content and its presentation.

..to be continued!

Little Printer Experiments

We are fans of the Little Printer here in das labs, so when it was released last year and our Printers arrived, we started brainstorming ideas for a Cooper-Hewitt publication.

In a nutshell Little Printer is a cute little device that delivers a mini personalized newspaper to you every day. You choose which publications you want to receive, such as ‘Butterfly of the Day’ or ‘Birthday Reminders’. LP publications are created by everyone from the BBC to ARUP to individual illustrators and designers looking to share their content in a unique way.

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some existing LP publications

The first thing we thought of doing was a simple print spinoff of the existing and popular series on our blog called Object of the Day.

Aaron's first stab at simply translating our existing Object of the Day blog series into (Little) print format.

Aaron’s first stab at simply translating our existing Object of the Day blog series into (Little) print format.

Then we tried a few more iterations that were more playful, taking advantage of Little Printer’s nichey-ness as a space for us to let our institutional hair down.

little printer printout with a collecitons object in the middle and graphics that borrow from the carnegie mansion architectural details.

We tried to go full-blown with the decorative arts kitsch, but it came out kind of boring/didn’t really work.

Another interesting way to take it was making the publication a two-way communication as opposed to one-way, i.e., not just announcing the Object of the Day, but rather asking people to do something with the printout, like using it as a voting ballot or a coloring book. ((Rap Coloring Book is a publication that lets you color in a different rapper each week, I think it’s pretty popular. I was also thinking of the simple digital-to-analog-to-digital interaction behind Flickr’s famous “Our Tubes are Clogged” contest of 2006 which I read about in the book Designing for Emotion (great book, I highly recommend).))

paper prototype for little printer publication with hand drawn images and text

Took a stab at a horizontal print format with a simple voting interaction. Why has nobody designed a horizontal Little Printer publication yet? Somebody should do that…

The idea everybody seemed to like most was asking people to draw their own versions of collection objects that currently have no image.

If you look on our Collections Online, you’ll see that there are plenty of things in the collection that “haven’t had their picture taken yet.”

screenshot of cooper hewit collections website showing placeholder thumbnails for three items.

Un-digitized (a.k.a. un-photographed) collections objects

I think this is a better interaction than simply voting for your favorite object because it actually generates something useful. Participants will help us give visual life to areas of our database that sorely need it. Similar to how the V&A is using crowdsourcing to crop 120,000 database images or how the Museum Victoria in Australia is generating alt-text for thousands of images with their “Describe Me” project. The Little Printer platform adds a layer of cute analog quirk to what many museums and libraries are already doing with crowdsourcing.

paper printout of little printer publication. big empty box indicating where drawing should go.

This prototype (now getting closer..) uses machine tags to allow people to link their drawings directly to our database. I printed this with an inkjet printer so it looks a little sharper than the Little Printer heat paper will look.

Lately at the museum we’ve been talking about Nina Simon’s “golden rule” of asking questions of museum visitors—that you should only ask if you actually CARE about the answer. This carries over to interaction design, you shouldn’t ask people for a gratuitous vote, doodle, pic, tweet, or whatever. I think some of the enjoyment that people will get out of subscribing to this publication and sending in their drawings will be the feeling that they’re helping the Museum in some way. [We know that there aren't that many Little Printers circulating out there in the world but we do think that those early adopters who do have them will be entertained and perhaps, predisposed to playing with us.]

flowchart style napkin sketch showing little printer's connection to the internet, collections site and database.

A typical Aaron diagram.

The edition runs as part of the collections website itself (aka “parallel-TMS“). We chose to do this instead of running it externally on its own and using the collection API because it’s “fewer moving parts to manage” (according to Aaron). Here’s a little picture that Aaron drew for me when he was explaining how & where the publication would run. If you’re interested in doing a standalone publication, though, there are several templates on GitHub you can use as a starting point.

We’ll see how people *actually* engage with the publication and iterate accordingly…

Rebooting Museum Publishing

For over two years, much to many people’s surprise, Cooper Union Museum’s and Cooper-Hewitt’s historical publications have been publicly accessible via the Internet Archive. Many of these publications are rare and in some cases, the only known existing copy is held in our National Design Library who worked hard to have them digitized. Sadly, these long digitized Museum publications have languished without much visibility.

In fact, in The New York Times’ 11/26/12 piece “The Art World, Blurred”, Carol Vogel identifies the “graveyard of out-of-print books” that is rapidly haunting museums. In shout-outs to these savvy go-getters, she cheers for a long list of online museum initiatives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, LACMA, and the Art Institute of Chicago, to name a few. Can anyone say Cooper-Hewitt?

Thankfully, all that is changing!

With our Historical Publications section, this material is now easily accessible and can be explored right on the page without leaving the site. In addition, integrating these publications on our site provides a growing connection with the Museum collection and exhibition archive, while also establishing an invaluable foundation as the Museum moves into new publishing territory. Expect to see rich connections to and from our evolving Online Collections soon

Publishing is experiencing a renaissance at Cooper-Hewitt, led by the newly-formed Cross-Platform Publishing team now part of Digital and Emerging Media. We are particularly excited about our new imprint, DesignFile, which was created to publish ebooks on design research and writing. Design Cult, a collection of essays by design critic and National Design Award winner, Steven Heller, will be one of three DesignFile releases set to launch in January 2013. Look for it in epub , iBooks, and Kindle. Spoiler alert: there will be an upcoming post offering some cool insights from our in-house graphic designer, Katie, about the process of designing covers for ebooks vs. print.

We have more projects underway—including a rethinking of publishing workflows much in the vein of Auckland Museum’s ‘COPE’ strategy (create once publish everywhere).

In the meantime, check out one of our favorite historical pubs, the 1941 A Brief Introduction to the Museum’s Facilities, which is a fascinating glimpse into both mid-20th-century design thinking and the museum experience.

Pam Horn & Sara Rubinow