Birmingham, UK… Museums have long embraced technology as a means of enhancing the visitor experience. But the University of Birmingham’s Digital Humanities Hub is an elaborate fusion of research and exhibition space that gives new meaning to the term “interactive.”
At the heart of the facility is the Chowen and Garfield Weston Foundation Digital Prototyping Hall, a collaborative, immersive exhibition space equipped with touch screen enabled tables, as well as wall mounted touch screens and a massive 3D multi-touch wall. Visitors are provided with hand held devices, which interconnect and interact with the larger screens.
“A visitor to the museum can walk up to a collection of assets displayed on a screen,” explains Dr. Richard Clay, Senior Lecturer at the University and Co-Director of the Hub. “They can use familiar touch screen gestures to select a particular asset, rotate and manipulate it, and zoom in on it to extraordinarily fine detail.”
All screens are tightly networked, enabling a visitor to move the content they are looking at from wall to table top to handheld device. “They can drag an item to their device, and share it using hand gestures to ‘flick’ it to the device of person next to them,” says Clay.
But beyond what the visitor sees, the Hub takes interactivity to an even deeper level. Visitors to the exhibits agree to be outfitted with special headwear and glasses designed to intricately track each individual’s head movements and gaze. As they move around the gallery, statistics are compiled on which exhibits they select, how they display them, and which items they focus on. The result is a wealth of information, providing the University’s researchers with an immensely powerful set of tools for learning about the user experience. “It helps content providers put together better exhibits, which ultimately benefits visitors,” says Clay.
Taking the University’s multifaceted vision and turning it into a functional reality is the product of an intricate collaboration between the University and Mechdyne Corporation. The company has a long history of innovation, creating interactive visual information tools and technologies used in industry, research and education, architecture, government, design and manufacturing, medical, and a host of other applications.
Creating the integrated technologies behind the Hub was an elaborate and complex undertaking, explains Julien Berta, Mechdyne’s VP of Technology and Innovation. “In designing the system, we are essentially serving two different layers of users. The first layer is the visitor experience — the touch screens, the interactivity — and how we can create a unique and interesting environment that is both educational and easy to use.
“The second layer is the researcher experience. While the visitors are in there learning about archaeology, the researchers can study their behavior, and learn what works and what needs to be improved.”
Ironically, the approach to designing such a complex system begins with a decidedly non-technical approach. “Ideally, we want to get people to approach the process without focusing on technology at all,” says Berta. “That’s not easy to do, particularly with people who are all, themselves, very tech savvy. But we try to get them to focus on the larger question: what are they trying to achieve, and how will they measure success?”
“We do have a very tech savvy team here at the University, and the ideas fly fast and furious,” says Dr. Clay. “And the process of developing those ideas and translating that into functional systems is made a lot easier by having people like those at Mechdyne to work with, who can rise to the challenge of taking our wild ideas and making them into something tangible.”
The result of this collaboration has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. “What we have built, essentially, is a research instrument,” says Berta. “And as with any such instrument, no one can predict what advancements will be discovered once you place it in the hands of scientists. And that, in itself, is truly exciting.”