The Wonder of Light: Touch and Learn!

Review

of an Exhibition

by Tara Owens

Published on March 02, 2011, Modified on September 26, 2011

  • Description:

    The Smithsonian’s new interactive exhibit The Wonder of Light: Touch and Learn! (The Wonder of Light) premiered on November 9, 2010, in the Great Hall of the Smithsonian Castel, officially named the Smithsonian Institution Building. As a group effort from the National Museum of American History, the National Postal Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and technology experts from the Washington-based InfoStrat , The Wonder of Light educates younger museum visitors on the history of light within our culture through an interactive touchscreen social kiosk. The exhibit embodies the ideals and values that museums in the Web 2.0 world of today strive to achieve in attracting and maintaining visitor attention; however, when these ideals and values were actualized in the physical social kiosk made possible by Microsoft’s Surface multitouch digital display, the visitor often feels left in the dark, searching for the light switch that always seems just out of reach.

    The Wonder of Light is highly successful in engaging and enhancing the experience of young museum visitors by converting their curiosity into active participation. Children can use various props when interacting with the touchscreen to perform informative hands-on-activities. For example, a visitor can magnify images of lighthouses found on postage stamps, shine a flashlight to illuminate sea creatures that live in the dark abyss of the ocean, or start a fire by spinning a wooden stick on a pile of firewood (See Figs. 1-3). Through these interactive games and tasks, museum visitors of all ages explore the evolution of light through the narrative of human development. Light is no longer simply the flipping of a switch, but the end result of thousands of years of human cultural experimentation.

    In opening the visitor’s eyes to the multiple roles light has played and continues to play in our daily lives, The Wonder of Light greatly expands the museum experience. Building upon a basic assumption of museum visitor knowledge of the history light, the exhibit rewards curiosity by providing stimulating and entertaining activities that incorporate Microsoft’s Surface multitouch digital touchscreen display technology and the actual museum visitor who must actively engage with physical props, and often those around him/her, to successfully complete the activity at hand. The fact that the social kiosk requires engagement and participation rather than mere passive attention is also what makes the exhibit entertaining. The puzzles challenge the mind while the interactive technology between the computer, props, and visitor delights and amazes the average museum goer.

    Although it appears The Wonder of Light exhibit offers a real-life example of a museum successfully implementing technology to attract and maintain visitor attention, a practical examination of the social kiosk reveals that great ideas do not always translate to great products/exhibits. When the visitor enters the Great Hall of the Smithsonian Castle, they may walk past the exhibit and into one of the side halls searching for it. The exhibit is not easily visible upon entering the Castle and is currently located against the wall opposite the main information desk. If the visitor does manage to find the exhibit, they may run into another problem associated with the exhibit’s placement: lighting. The touchscreen is extremely sensitive to light, and performance, in terms of response time to touch, can be greatly improved by simply creating a shadow with your hand and then interacting with the screen. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian shines fake, indoor lighting on the kiosk causing light interference. But an even greater cause of light interference comes from the large window not more than about a foot to the right of the touchscreen. When the sun shines the light is so bright the screen’s response time and performance is noticeably affected. This issue can be easily solved by moving the touchscreen, which is plugged into a power source somewhere to the left of where it is currently located. It could be as easy as switching the touchscreen and the display case, located to the left of the kiosk, to improve performance. But physical location of the kiosk is the least of its problems.

    Overall, the exhibit fell short of its potential and failed to live up to its ideals of engaging, expanding, enhancing, and entertaining children at the museum because it was not user-friendly. For the most part, a clear set of instructions are either severely lacking or simply nowhere to be found. There is one task/information activity that does clearly delineate instructions: making fire (See Fig. 4). This type of instruction should have been the rule rather than the exception to the rule, instead of leaving visitors wondering what it is exactly that they’re supposed to do. Furthermore, the program consists of many small circles that when touched enlarge to provide facts or questions (See Fig. 5). While these pop-up blurbs are informative and can be fun at times to “click” on, after a while they soon become a hindrance to completing the task at hand because they float around the screen and there doesn’t appear to be a way to get rid of them. Another problem in terms of usability involved the props. The visitor can select from tools such as a paintbrush, flashlight, zooming circle, and magnifying glass that each contain white dots on a black background located on the bottom of each item. Some of the dots had become dirty so the computer did not recognize the tool, and thus the tool would not work. The props are also housed in two black boxes on either side of the kiosk, but the screen protector overextends so far beyond the actually screen that it blocks these prop boxes from view. And finally, the way the visitor returns to the main menu is not intuitive and brings us full circle back to the issue of clear and available instructions. Once the visitor finds the symbol (See Fig. 6), which is located in all four corners of the screen, they simply have to touch it to return to the main menu. But the visitor should be warned that the two symbols located in the bottom two corners flip the screen one way while the two symbols located in the upper two corners flip the screen in the opposite direction. Again, the only way to find this fact out is through trial and error. This feature would be beneficial if the kiosk was located in the center of the Great Hall and could be accessed from both sides, but as it is flush with the wall this feature only becomes confusing.

    The Wonder of Light should be applauded for its ingenuity and creativity as a museum exhibit that experimented with technology. Yes, it has its flaws, but those can be easily fixed with software corrections and some good old fashioned hard work. The point is not whether the kiosk functions perfectly. The point is that they took a chance and went for it. And from their design, those within the museum industry can learn lessons about technology placement within the physical museum and how to iron out the kinks as these new technologies develop and are implemented within real-museum settings. Besides, what piece of technology has ever worked perfectly?

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