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Since 2009, the British Museum has educated youngsters in Bloomsbury via its Samsung Digital Discovery Centre (SDDC). It’s free, and is the most extensive on-site digital learning programme of any UK museum.
I went along to the British Museum last week to see the launch of a new image recognition and augmented reality (AR) app, A Gift for Athena, helping kids to engage with the museum’s Parthenon gallery.
The app, built by Gamar, is simple in premise and use, but also a lot of fun, showing that augmented reality can succeed when applied in the right manner.
In this post I’ll discuss why the app works, and what’s needed to succeed with AR.
With Samsung set to support the museum’s Discovery Centre for another five years, and this new app being the first of a series, we can expect more best practice to come.
The British Museum has previous with AR, the mobile programme Passport to the Afterlife, which runs on Samsung Galaxy Nexus phones in the ancient Egypt galleries, being a notable success.
The museum plans to use new technology to provide innovative in-depth activities including touch tables, 3D printing, 3D animation, as well as increasing use of augmented reality.
A Gift for Athena
The app isn’t available yet for visitors to the museum, other than those in the discovery centre, but it’s likely to be in both major app stores at some point next year.
I’ve included some snapshots below. Let’s look at why the app is a success.
Tip one: allow image recognition or augmented reality to advance a narrative
The initial premise of the app is to identify certain statues and artefacts in the Parthenon gallery by their shape, then hovering the virtual outline over the statue in question and advancing the narrative in the game.
This simple act of engaging with a museum piece, revealing information and going to the next section is instinctively understood by a user.
Tip two: keep the interface as simple as possible
The app is designed for Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11). Even with this age group in mind, the interface is refreshingly decluttered, with nice cartoon imagery and limited options for the user.
In the style of interaction, this is not far removed from those old role playing games on the BBC Micro. The joy was in their simplicity, and the fact that the narrative was distinctly linear and one way.
Tip three: augment something misunderstood
The beauty of this app is it literally gives children another eye with which to view the Parthenon gallery.
Augmenting these statues is a great idea, because although exquisite, they don’t appeal to children in the same way they do to scholars.
Children need this extra interactive incentive to study. Choosing what object to build your narrative around, it’s best to choose something intriguing or misunderstood.
If you pick something too interesting, it likely doesn’t need augmenting; if you choose something too plain, arguably the content may as well be solely on screen, with no need for the object.
Tip four: think of different ‘keys’
One of the impressive parts of this new app, is the different methods of interacting with the Parthenon gallery. I didn’t complete the journey within the app, but I did use different keys to unlock content.
This wasn’t just a range of statues that needed to be hovered over. In the example below, the app presents a puzzle, where pieces need to be switched to complete a picture.
In order to complete this puzzle one has to find the correct sculpture in the gallery and use it as visual reference (if you like, the solution on the jigsaw box) to complete the game’s puzzle.
Tip five: aim for native
I was impressed, using the app, to find that there was no lag or latency, and the Galaxy tablet was sturdy but light. This makes a difference when kids have hundreds of questions even before getting hold of the app.
Making the app native is fairly important for museums that haven’t yet got WiFi and want to avoid as many pain points as possible.
There aren't many keeping it simple with apps in general, let alone augmented reality. Keeping in mind how a user learns about, or interacts with, any object is the most important factor when building an app with augmented reality or image recognition.
As perhaps the early catalogue of app failures is mothballed, museums and indeed brands will learn from their expensive mistakes keeping things simple and entertaining, without aiming too high.
Doing so will result in a digital asset that will last (though not as long as the Greek civilisation).