Friday, 4 January 2008

Conceptualizing and Prototyping Museum Exhibits in Second Life

An interesting museum-oriented session was held earlier today (noon, SL time) at Dr Dobb's Island Amphitheatre. It was very well attended. The session started with an overview of the work currently going on at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA, which is:
using Second Life to reinvent the exhibit design process. Rather than relying on in-house designers to conceptualize and create exhibits, The Tech has launched a collaborative online platform to support a diverse community of designers, artists, scientists, and interested folk conceptualizing and prototyping exhibits. Projects are proposed and teams formed on the web ( and then prototyped in Second Life (The Tech, built by Involve, Inc.). The Tech is offering exhibit design tutorials, design reviews by museum professionals, and the chance to see your virtual ideas become real exhibits. The Tech intends to design all future exhibitions in this way, working with outside individuals to bring their unique creative vision and expertise to the museum to create unusual, extraordinary exhibitions. The Tech launched this project in Dec 2007, and is piloting with an exhibition (to be mounted in RL in June 2008) on technology in art, film, and music. Ten virtual exhibit prototypes will be selected for development in the RL exhibition, and their creators will be invited to San Jose for an awards ceremony and exhibition opening in June 2008.
Brief presentations were given by Nina Simon (manager of The Tech Virtual Museum Exhibit Workshop for The Tech - SL: Avi Marquez) and Ron Blechner (Chief Technology Officer at Involve, Inc - SL: Hiro Pendragon), followed by an open question and answer session.

The most interesting part of the discussion (for me at least) arose from a question about how The Tech plan to quality control the factual information that surrounds virtual artifacts ( a question which on the face of it doesn't seem very interesting, since it would appear that the SL problems in this area are no different to quality controlling any factual information presented in a museum setting).

Time didn't really allow this thread to develop to it's full potential. I think it could have gone a lot further. The discussion touched on issues around Wikipedia-like 'wisdom of the crowds' approaches vs. 'in-house, curator-centric' approaches to developing and maintaining factual information.

Perhaps more interestingly, the discussion moved on to considering how museums ensure the 'integrity' of their virtual exhibits. By 'integrity' I mean how closely exhibits mirror real-world artifacts, how well the in-world physics engine works on the virtual exhibit, and so on. There are clearly issues here (as has been noted before in this blog) about the scaling issues around artifacts vs. avatars - it is difficult to stick to 1:1 scale when most avatars are well over 2m tall! Similarly, there are issues with how well the in-world physics engine replicates the real world and limitations imposed by prim-counts.

But as one contributor stated, the integrity of the virtual artifact only has to be fit for purpose - which may be less than perfect. Hiro Pendragon (AFAIR) suggested that it is the collaborative experience around the artifact that is important in terms of any learning that takes place - not simply the artifact itself. This makes a lot of sense to me. The artifact has to be good enough to act as a 'conceptual representation' (to use Klaatu Quintus' term), to inspire the people that engage with it, to motivate discussion, learning and understanding... but the artifact doesn't necessarily have to be an exact replica of a real-world object or system.

I think that there is a lot more millage to be had from this discussion - something that we could perhaps usefully return to in one of the in-world educator's fora?

Anyway... overall, it was a good session and well worth attending. For anyone interested in submitting exhibit ideas to The Tech, see the Web site (above) and join the in-world group - 'Tech Exhibit Designers'. Good luck!

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