“The O” put Art Processors at the cutting edge of museum visitor mobile experiences with its January 2011 launch in the 90,000 square foot (8,000 square meter) Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). The O guide is a custom-designed mobile tour technology that replaces traditional wall-mounted interpretive texts and labels. As of January 2017, more than 2 million visitors have used The O to fluidly engage with MONA’s architecture and exhibits. Our light, seamless, and intuitive design has allowed The O to become a central yet unobtrusive part of a visitor’s museum experience.
In 2007 MONA’s owner David Walsh sought a solution to two of the greatest problems he was facing in creating the experience he wished for visitors: to enjoy the artwork in an aesthetically pleasing a space and to deliver rich content to each visitor in an individual manner without it distracting from the aforementioned aesthetics. This challenge is what lead to the development of The O technologies.
“One of the many ‘delights’ I discovered on The O when visiting with my companion (with her own O) was that often there were multiple ‘ideas’ and that very rarely would we both get the same one at the same time. This gave us prompts to talk to each about the objects we were looking at – ensuring that sociality was not eroded by every visitor being glued to their own screens.”
Faced with this brief, Art Processors delivered an innovative iOS mobile application that provides location-based content, tools for engagement, the ability to save and send one’s tour, and the possibility of group-differentiated content distribution for increasing engagement.
In early 2009, we developed a prototype that proved the feasibility of using indoor positioning technology to provide proximity-based artwork content. This solution fulfilled Walsh’s request to both provide content and keep the museum free from anything other than the objects on display. This radical design and curatorial decision is a first for a major art museum, and placed significant demands on us to create a reliable, versatile, and user-friendly mobile technology.
MONA wanted an application that would address visitors’ variety of learning styles and interests, so we developed the ability for the visitor to control the amount of information about any nearby artwork with one touch on-screen access to rich content. For example, the museum curators can offer academic, research-focused material as well as more personal, emotive responses to artworks. The visitor can select either or both. This feature also eliminates the curatorial problem of choosing between information scarcity (as with labels) and overload (as with interpretive texts).
In order to encourage conversation during the museum, Art Processors created a feature we call “proximity-based content seeding.” With this feature enabled, groups who start their tour together can receive different interpretive content for each artwork to each device. Museums can use this to develop complementary or competing viewpoints, promoting debate, and encouraging dialogue. This tool is especially useful for student and return visitors.
The mobile guide is designed to store a visitor’s movement history and to offer the visitor the app allows visitors to save and email their tours after the creation of a user account.
“The O liberated (MONA) from white walls… (It delivers) vastly more information of greater richness than conventional signage.” — Richard Flanagan, The New Yorker 21.01.2013
The O was written natively for iOS to be used on museum-owned mobile devices. Each step of the project was focused on delivering an effortless user experience, so visitors of all ages could enjoy the benefits offered by the device.To assist with this experience, The O takes advantage of Art Processors’ Enso platform for seamless onsite content delivery. The location accuracy achieved by the Enso Locate system gives an accuracy of 3-10 feet, providing visitors with intuitive and immediate access to works around them.
The innovations within The O were the result of close collaboration with the museum and Art Processors staff over a three-year period. Art Processors founders worked closely with Walsh and his dedicated team of exhibition designers, art directors, architects, and curators in designing the new mobile guide.
During the design of The O, steps were carefully planned so that after the device’s launch much of the management could be undertaken by MONA staff. To facilitate this, we met technical requirements for on-site housing of servers, cabling and other infrastructure, as well as software management that gives staff easy access to creating new content, updating existing content, and managing objects within the space. Great care was taken to design hardware solutions for maintaining the fleet of 1300 iPods, including custom charging units and handout/drop off stations so that MONA staff could easily move visitors through the front of house area and into the Museum proper. Post launch, this close relationship has continued with management of new operating systems, improvements to the indoor location hardware, application updates for changing special exhibitions and for re-branding projects.
Visitor, Client Reaction & Outcomes
With more than 2 million users to date, the O is a well-tested and beloved part of the MONA experience. Since the January 2011 launch The O has been used by over 90 percent of all visitors to the gallery, with the technical rigour making sure that uptime has exceeded the initial goals of 99.999 percent.
As well as enjoying the experience onsite, more than 20 percent of visitors use the O to create museum accounts and to save their visit for return viewing online. This “save visit” functionality has resulted in additional reach through both traditional and social media platforms.
In March 2012 an independent research survey was undertaken to investigate the impact of The O on the museum visitor. This survey was conducted again in August 2016 to assess both the impact of platform enhancements and the changing perception of mobile devices in museums.
What’s next for The O?