of an Exhibit

by Ed Rodley

Published on October 21, 2010 , Modified on December 13, 2010

  • Description:

    Scapes is a two-way visitor created audio experience which uses the phone’s location-sensing ability to tag visitor comments to a particular spot in the sculpture garden. When you launch the app, it locates you, and offers you two choices; Listen or Speak. That’s it. If you pick Listen, you can put the phone back in your pocket because you don’t need it for anything. The app handles the rest. What you get in Listen is an ambient soundtrack of musical themes composed by Burgund and mixed by the computer, based on where you are. If you’re near the pond, you get soothing strings. Closer to the parking lot where the school groups are, you get more percussive beats. The music is never intrusive but it is a noticeable subtext to the whole visit. It’s like being in your own personal film. You get a soundtrack that is seamless, that changes as the scene changes, and provides an auditory bridge between the separate acts of looking at individual sculptures. So I love it on the first count that it works as a musical experience. But there’s more.

    Layered on top of the music is a random, changing collection of visitor comments that were made in that space, which cycle in and out like spirit voices. There are no obvious authorities, all the comments are visitor-derived, and the quality of them was really high. I found myself reacting to other visitors’ reactions to the art as if they were talking to me. Things they noticed, I looked for. Connections they made, I made too. I was successfully slowed down. I spent longer looking at these sculptures than I typically would, and nobody had given me any traditional content. I didn’t learn anything more about the pieces themselves from the comments, but I made a much stronger connection to them. The tone of the music seemed to inspire reflective, hushed comments. Maybe it was the subject matter that made people sound a bit tentative. I don’t know, but the quality of the commentary was very high and felt very private. I was eavesdropping.

    Before my friends and I had gotten past the first sculpture, I’d decided I needed to leave a comment and see how that worked. When you press the Speak button, you get a list of questions you can choose from, the first of which basically gives you permission to say whatever comes into your head. I chose “Look up and tell us what you see.” And said something about the beautiful blue sky, Fall foliage and birds darting around. We continued to mill around the same area and within a few minutes, I heard myself in the mix. The sound quality was so good I was unclear if I was hearing myself. Apple puts good mikes in their phones, it seems. It also made it clear that the comments weren’t being vetted for approval by some shadowy curator. A very gutsy thing to try. As someone who’s cleaned out my share of comment card boxes, feedback albums and digital video directories, I know how appallingly low the signal to noise ratio can be. Somehow Scapes managed to pull it off.

    We wandered around the grounds for a long time, listening and laughing and sharing things we’d heard. Sometimes, we’d clump up and talk and at other times, we each drifted off. The headsets were light Sennheiser on the ear type headphones, so they didn’t get in the way of talking. I heard adults and children. Some of the comments were profound, some random, but it didn’t matter. It felt like overhearing conversations in a physical museum, only more private, more personal. At one point a woman said “I’m looking at a giant tree root, it’s all gnarled. I’m not sure if it’s art but I’m not sure that matters.” I went over to share my latest discovery and my friend said, “That was me! I said that!” I don’t think we’d’ve shared that observation if we’d just been talking.

    We explored until it was time to head to our next location. On a lark, we plugged a phone into the car stereo to see if we’d pick up anything, and as we drove out of the museum grounds we could hear the spirit voices still talking until we got too far away. We were left with the music, which kept playing as we drove down the road. It was magical.

    So what made this experience work?

    I think a lot of factors combined to make this an experience that spoke to me when so many others haven’t.

    1) It’s an artwork. Halsey Burgund, the artist who created Scapes, was interested in making music that incorporated visitor voices. His definition of success was primarily aesthetic – it had to be good music, not just noise. There is an attention to detail that I love. Tracks fade up and down smoothly and mesh with the music organically. The sound quality of the recordings is stunning, given the fact that they’re all done outdoors with a phone mic. The user interface is simple and pleasing. Even the brand of earphones was selected to provide good sound while not obstructing your ability to hear real-world sounds. Quality, quality, quality where it counts.

    2) It’s a small place. The de Cordova is small museum in a wealthy suburb that doesn’t see the same kind of numbers as a Metropolitan Museum or Louvre. They could deploy ten iPhones and sets of headphones and be OK, where a larger museum might need 100 or 700.

    3) It’s outdoors covering a wide area. We all know that wayfinding with mobiles is still a stretch goal, but being outdoors amongst widely scattered, large-scale sculpture works with the current generation of phones capabilities. The accuracy of the positioning wasn’t great, but it didn’t need to be. Several times I heard someone talking about things I couldn’t see and it spurred me to go look for them.

    4) It’s not a tour. If I were starting out to “make an app for the sculpture garden” I don’t think I’d ever have come up with something like Scapes. I’d be so busy working on my content strategy and educational goals for the project that I would have produced something much more educational and probably less affective.

    In short, a lot of things were working in favor of this app and I can think of a million reasons why this couldn’t translate to other places easily. But, in the end, they don’t matter. Scapes is a truly great mobile experience that only works because it’s mobile, and location-aware. Instead of having a hypothetical example of “What would a great mobile app be like?” I now have a real one. Go experience Scapes if you can.

    Halsey Burgund, Scapes
    July 13, 2010 – November 14, 2010

    (this review is part of a longer one posted at

Latest Comments (3)

Beauty of an Experience

by Carey Tisdal - October 27, 2010

Ed, thank you for sharing your experience and for your insights. I was struck by your observation that focusing on goals and content would probably not have lead a designer this seamless,enveloping experience. Goals and focused content approaches are appropriate and useful for SOME designs. But not for all. It concerns me that sometimes people perceive that evaluation demands those linear approaches — some evaluation models do. But, there are evaluation approaches that don’t force designers down that path. Robert Stake’s responsive evaluation for one. A client just led me to Saville Kushner’s, Personalizing Evaluation — that is another similar approach. As a community that values experiences such as the one you so beautifully shared, I hope we remember that and protect our developers and designers from having to work only one way — valuing their creativity and individual vision and protecting from them demands that there is only one way to work.

Ooh, more books to read!

by Ed Rodley - October 28, 2010

Thanks, Carey! Do you have particular references for Stake I can get? I’ll order Kushner via interlibrary loan. At this point, I can’t imagine what these kinds of evaluation would look like, but I’d like to.

sounds cool

by Dave Stroud - November 11, 2010

Thanks for this description of what sounds like a very intriguing “exhibit.”

I like the idea of the simplicity of the interface, and the way it sounds like you become part of the experience. Many of the “smart phone apps” for museum ideas I am presented with are not interactive, and frankly do not sound like they would really pull the guest into the experience, rather they sound more like a map or guide.

This however sounds like it really works.

I personally like the idea of unfiltered guest input in real time despite the obvious possible outcomes.


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