Smithsonian Collab: AR Blog

Smithsonian RFP Process

January 26, 2018

Briefly describe the museum’s design values?

The Museum is primarily looking for an informative, educational experience for all ages and abilities that allows visitors to discover and interact with the exhibit in a fun and engaging manner. They are very interested in the sense of discovery and allowing the visitor to learn on their own and have the chance to interact with either physical or digital components.  Accessibility is also a top priority for them.  


Specifically, what kind of stories are they interested in for the infectious disease exhibit?

They are interested in exploring the stories behind infectious diseases. For example, the origins of the diseases and how modern civilization has played a role in their rise and spread.. The Smithsonian would like to closely look at how human patterns, cities and lifestyle over the years led to outbreaks like the Ebola outbreak in 2013.  


Additionally, they are interested in stories of the professionals and experts tackling infectious diseases today. Especially, how these experts are using technology and “disease” infrastructure or research methods to track, understand and treat disease.


What technologies are they interested in?

They are interested in both physical and digital technologies that allow people to explore. They are interested in any number of digital technologies as long as it pertains to the exhibit as a whole, works within a physical space and can be durable.


What is your recommended schedule for prototyping and where does it fit within the timeframe?

After the wireframes and design comps have been approved. I would recommend a 8 week prototyping to build an MVP and perform user testing.  I would allow 3 weeks for the production and 6 weeks for rapid prototyping with iteration, refinement and UX testing at key intervals.


Write a concept statement describing a project that you think fits their needs

How a disease moves from animals to human and why

The exhibit would look back at swine flu and then move to the more recent outbreak of ebola in Guinea, which was said to have started with bats. The exhibit would have various areas for exploration to see how a disease biologically moves into a human host, including a AR/VR microscopic lab where the patient could study and interact with organism in an immersive environment rather than a microscope. This experience would allow you to essentially become the disease and follow a first person narrative of its journey, exploring the scientific details of how and why it reacts the way it does to various environments.

Augmented Reality Narratives / Gems Exhibit

February 2, 2018


For this post, I am exploring ideas and context for creating an augmented reality experience for the Smithsonian’s “Gems” exhibit. There are a lot of interesting stories about gems that could be told. I did a project awhile back when I was studying multimedia journalism in Sierra Leone and saw the effects of the civil war that occured there 10 years earlier, essentially because of the diamond trade. There are so many anthropological, cultural and civil implications behind the gem industry. Gems have shaped society as we know it across the world and I think there are many stories to be told there, like ones in Sierra Leone where war and corruption erupted over the stones. Or perhaps cultural ones, like Jade that have religious and spiritual value in places like China and South America.
Augmented reality will define how the narrative is told because there is so much possibility for interaction. The narrative is less constrained when the user can interact as they choose and the interface is the real world, which they already know how to navigate. Augmented reality also has the possibility to create the impossible by add a third dimension to our world. For example, we might be able to see the ancient Mayan warriors that used jade for spears walking next to use, despite the fact that they lived thousands of years ago. For example, a user could enter into the exhibit and hold up their phone to see some of the artifacts made with jade during that time period.
A user can leave a persistent mark through a few different means ranging from an interaction choice that changes the AR experience to taking a photo of the interaction and allowing other users to navigate based on their experience.

3 AR Experiences I enjoy:

1. Zach Lieberman’s Visualizing Sound AR: For this AR experience you can make sound and your phone creates real-time AR visualizations based on the sounds you are making. It’s a great way to interact differently with simple sensory input. It’s also fun to just make weird sounds and watch the different visualizations form.
2. Franklin Institute – Terracotta Warriors : This is a cool experience because it allows artifacts and pieces of history to come alive. You are able to hold up your phone and literally “arm” them with ancient weapons. It’s a great way to provide visual context to the story without forcing people to imagine what tools they might have used.
3. WWF Arctic Polar Bears– I love this experience because it allows you to be fully immersed on an iceberg with a polar family. Eventually the ice melts and breaks off and you are forced to watch the family swim and try to find another iceberg, meanwhile you feel as though you are drifting away. It’s an emotional experience in the museum that groups can participate in and provides a way to educate kids and adult on the abstract yet serious problem of climate change

AR Experiences and Smithsonian Gems Storyboard

February 9, 2018

Breakdown of two AR experiences:

  1. Dark: A horror AR story
    1. Summary: An interactive narrative that functions a lot like a video game but is in your living room and forces you to walk around and interact with the space in order to progress in the game
    2. Coolest part: It’s pretty scary! The AR app has a dark and foggy filter over it as you walk around and answer short messages in the game.  After you look through the phone long enough you start to forget that you are actually in your well-lit comfortable living room eating dinner.  The music really adds to the experience and after a short period you are desperately waiting for something startling to happen.  It felt a lot like being on the edge of my seat watching an unsuspecting victim walk into a trap- except that victim was me.
    3. Could be better: The messages that I was receiving from the “command center” about my mission were vague and unengaging. It also required me to walk around the space for awhile in order to get the next message and the reward for doing so was another short message. It would be better if there was a more interactive way to build the story, aside from message pop-ups.
  2. Holo
    1. Summary: An AR app that allows you to place animated 3D gifs anywhere you want and take a photo with or without yourself in it and send it to people
    2. Coolest Part: It’s pretty fun and seems like a nice upgrade from the usual filters of snapchat or instagram
    3. Could be better:  It gets boring pretty fast.  After you have played around with a couple of the GIFS, you don’t want to play with it in much.  A lot of the fun lies in the novelty and not in the actual sharing of the images and GIFS.


Storyboard Idea: Hidden World of a Gem

  1. Summary:  An AR experience that allows you to look inside the “hidden world” of gems that is found under a microscope.  When examined they reveal unique and often wild looking structures with their own surfaces and variations.
  2. Discovery: A sign at the entrance of the gems exhibit, info on the museum pamphlet, in a gems movie, online- showing pictures of the inner worlds and telling people about the 3D AR version in the museum
  3. Engagement:  Indicate which gems have been augmented with a hide and reveal sign that encourages them to see what the naked eye can’t
  4. Action: People can hold up their phone after downloading the app and see the various inner worlds of each gem
  5. Follow-up: A description of the chemical and physical reasons that led to the formation of the gem on this microscopic scale

Where History Comes Alive: Augmented Reality in Museums

February 16, 2018

For museums, what are the pitfalls of investing in new technology?

For museums new technology that is designed for ipads or iphones can be difficult to build in a way that works with the actual artifacts and history in the museum.  The goal for museums to use new technology is to create a seamless experience that enhances the user’s experience. Additionally, building out high-end applications using cutting-edge technology can often have a lot of overhead in terms of cost, user-testing, and performance among an audience not familiar with that technology, especially in the museum context.

How could you convince museums that technology is worth investing in?

For me, the key to convincing museums that technology is worth investing in comes from user testing and prototyping. The effective application of things like AR/VR is still largely undetermined and building something stable and accessible to wide audiences is expensive.  Building smaller experiences that target highly specific needs and audiences allows new technology to be implemented in a more controlled manner on a smaller scale. Once the museum has gotten a chance to observe, iterate and prototype they can then expand to scale that experience or broaden it to cover more materials or topics.

Alternate ways to prototype

February 23, 2018

In thinking about prototyping new technology like AR/VR it’s helpful you have to think beyond 2D. How can we make a 3D interaction using basic material or traditional media like video?

We are beginning to think through how we can prototype our AR microscope concept for the Smithsonian Gems exhibit. We are creating basic interaction with Invision and using video wrapped around a 3D object to create the experience of AR without actually coding and building it right away.  In doing this, we are able to get focus on things that often get overlooked- like UI in 3D space and how people want to interact. This information is integral in learning early on so you can apply that to your prototype before you beginning building complex 3D models and coding the interactions.  It’s too easy to get caught up in the novelty of the experience and the exciting visuals, while forgetting the functionality and the design within a particular context. Creating an MVP in 3D in any possible way, whether faking it with 2D media or using paper and cardboard- this helps you save time and design a better experience in the long run. Additionally, it’s always been helpful to design around education and creating something the user is learning or taking away from the experience.


How do you make an AR app avoid gimmick?

March 3, 2019

Avoiding gimmick can be tricky when dealing with new technology that doesn’t have all the kinks worked out and that people don’t know how to use.  In this case, it can be tempting to build the most fun, easy-to-use product, but this is often how apps end up gimmicky and quickly boring. For me, the key is in making the experience rich, useful and engaging and I think this is possible if you design with goals and not interaction in mind. For example, are you creating and education app, a healthcare tool or a story? It’s more to know hot to build a roadmap to the content early and and avoid designing an experience tailored to the platform rather than a purpose.

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