Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Erik Thogersen

Published on September 24, 2008

  • Description and goals

    A new collection of exhibits focusing on the human Mind opened at the Exploratorium in November 2007. The exhibition focuses on three areas of psychology; attention, emotion, and judgment. This case study is not an attempt to describe the whole exhibition. Rather it will focus on one aspect, the strong role of exhibits that require social interaction in the exhibition.
    Overall, the goal of Mind was to give visitors direct experience with psychological phenomena that occur in their own minds. We built approximately 40 exhibits, and of these, 8 either can’t be done alone, or work much better with a partner. Though we didn’t know it at the outset, encouraging social interaction among visitors is a great way to get them to explore their minds.

  • Development process and challenges

    In the tradition of the Exploratorium generally, we focused our process on exploring the territory of our topic and trying to root out the strongest possible experiences, rather than starting with content goals. Unlike physical phenomena, psychological phenomena generally take place inside the minds of visitors, rather than within the casework of the exhibits. This makes prototyping more difficult as there is less that we can do at our desks, and more that can be seen only when visitors are actually using our prototypes. The exhibits are essentially props that make things happen in the minds of the users.

    One thing that stands out when you compare the Mind exhibits to other collections at the Exploratorium, is that almost a quarter are multi-user. One of the most effective ways to get visitors to engage with their own minds, is to harness the minds of other visitors to create the experience. Humans are extremely adept at provoking mind-y experiences in each other. Visitors know their companions and they get feedback as to how their companions are responding. This often makes them much better at provoking each other than a computer or video. We do however have to be careful not to facilitate kids being mean to each other and we tried to avoid excessively uncomfortable situations. Negative emotions can be easier to provoke than positive ones. We tried to avoid making the exhibition a downer, though it’s not all rosy. Visitors look at pictures of disgusting wounds and are booed by a simulated crowd for example.

    Here are some examples of exhibits that are inherently multi-person. It might be possible to do some of them as one person exhibits using video, but they would likely be weaker experiences that lack the full spectrum of outcomes that human social interactions allow.

    Poker Face has a liar, and a judge. The liar is presented with 4 hands of playing cards. One of which has 4 aces. After seeing each hand, the liar looks into the judge’s eyes and says “I have no aces.” The liar tries to hide his or her emotions, and the judge tries to read the liar’s emotions.
    Reading Eyes asks two people to communicate using only their eyes. They silently look into each other’s eyes and try to express questions like “Is everything all right?” or “Are you ready to leave now?”
    Bronze Hand asks a visitor to place their hand out of sight below a sculpted bronze hand. Another visitor taps and strokes both hands at the same time. After a while, the first visitor begins to see the bronze hand as their own, and finds it quite disquieting when the tester starts touching the hidden real hand and the bronze hand differently.

    There are also exhibits that can, and sometimes have been done as single person exhibits. But we found that they became stronger when we made them multi-user.

    Dare to Compare consists of a row of sliders, each assigned a personality trait. Two visitors choose a target person to analyze, and then use their sliders to assess that person. This can be done alone, but the real fun comes when two people see how different their judgments can be.
    Emotion Tracer: The exhibition Goosebumps, at the California Science Center, has a GSR (galvanic skin response) exhibit. It graphs the user’s heart rate and GSR, and then suggests “taking a few quick breaths” to change the response. We created Emotion Tracer, which uses a similar graph, but involves two visitors. One has their GSR measured, while the other uses a set of activity cards to try to provoke a response. “Describe someone you have a crush on.” The most compelling part of the exhibit turned out less to be the GSR graph, and more the activity of exploring what gets a rise out of your companion.
    Trading Places: The Implicit Association Test can be found on the Internet. It asks subjects to quickly sort words into categories. Most people find that some associations take longer to make than others, even if they are actively trying to ignore stereotypes. It’s easier to categorize the word “corporation” if the choices are “male/career” or “female/family” rather than “male/family” or “female/career”. We found that making the test a physical card game that two people did simultaneously was simpler and more compelling than the single player computer game. Visitors can actually feel their hands stutter as they choose a place to lay down a card.
    Judging the Odds: The Monte Hall problem can be found on the Internet as a one player game. We considered building a mechanical/electronic version that could be used by one person, but ended up with a much richer two-player version where visitors take on the roll of Host or Contestant. This allows visitors to see the effect from both sides, and provides more chances to argue about it, and hopefully come to understand it.
    Time to Think: Reaction Time is a classic one-person exhibit that uses a falling ruler to measure the time it takes a visitor to react. We built a two-player version that also added options like react only sometimes. As it turns out, it’s much more compelling to see how your reaction time compares to your friends, than to see if it’s 0.2 seconds or 0.3.
    Masks: Visitors dawn masks with fixed expressions, and then try to convey emotions using only their bodies. While they can try this in front of a mirror, the exhibit is set up with a performer and an audience whose task is to interpret the body language of the performer.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    There are downsides to developing multi-user exhibits. It makes the development process harder because you can’t conduct even preliminary testing by yourself. You need at least two visitors to try the exhibit, and it can be awkward for a developer to play one role if the topic is personal. The instructions also tend to be more complex, and more in need of careful crafting, as at least one visitor needs to follow them well to make the experience work. Some exhibits also don’t work for solo visitors.
    Poker Face, Reading Eyes and Bronze Hand are the only exhibits that truly can’t be done by a solo visitor. The rest are less rich, but can be done, so we felt we had plenty to offer the solo crowd.
    We initially worried that exhibits on the Mind that didn’t seem like traditional exhibits would disorient some visitors, and that we would have to work hard to let them know that they were entering a different part of the museum. In the end the external appearance of the mind exhibits looks reassuring enough that this wasn’t a problem. Evaluation revealed that most visitors did understand that the exhibits explored phenomena taking place in their own heads, but visitors took this in stride, along with the notion that the mind is something that can be studied scientifically at all. Visitors also seem to easily adapt to exhibits asking them to engage with their companions. In fact, visitors at multi-user exhibits seem better able to successfully understand complex instructions because they have someone to work with. We frequently see visitors sharing their interpretations about what they and their companions should be doing. Adding the social element does much to enrich the experience, without much cost, and is certainly a good strategy for a topic like the human mind.

Latest Comments (1)

Sounds worth looking into

by Dave Stroud - February 18, 2010

I am interested in encouraging interactions between guests and have always found it difficult.

I will be at the Exploratorium next month and will check this out.

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