Video labels for mechanical interactives

Part of Exhibition: Launchpad

Topic: Technology

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Teresa Teixeira

Published on March 20, 2009, Modified on August 07, 2013

  • Description and goals

    This case study presents an innovative interpretation method for mechanical interactive exhibits. The addition of a simple video label to several popular mechanical interactive exhibits successfully helped visitors access and experiment with the core phenomena. Moreover, by providing a model of interaction with the exhibits, the video labels helped parents ‘scaffold’ their children’s interactions and promoted intra-group conversation.

    The background

    In 2005 we started an 18-month redevelopment project of the Launchpad gallery at the Science Museum (London, UK). Launchpad is a hands-on gallery aimed at 8- to 14-year-olds visiting in family or school groups, where visitors can explore scientific phenomena and technology through electro-mechanical interactive exhibits, shows and demonstrations. The redeveloped gallery opened in November 2007, and has had over 1.2 million visitors during its first year of operation.

    Since this was a redevelopment project, we were in the fortunate and unusual situation of having an existing gallery in which to conduct extensive formative evaluation. We used the old gallery to:
    • Identify barriers to visitors’ engagement with the exhibits.
    • Identify barriers to visitors’ learning from the exhibits.
    • Test innovative approaches to interpretation.

    The problem

    During development, we identified several interactive exhibits that, although popular with visitors, mostly failed to generate the intended phenomenon. Visitors would instead concentrate on trivial secondary features of the experience – often things which offered little or no opportunity for genuine open-ended investigation, and did not challenge preconceptions of the world in any way. These interactive exhibits included Turntable (demonstrating conservation of angular momentum) and Arch Bridge (demonstrating the stability and strength of arches).

    Although these interactive exhibits worked well when a trained member of staff (an Explainer) was present, we needed to find additional solutions if we were to retain these exhibits in the new gallery. This was because:

    • At these exhibits the role of the staff was restricted to simply instructing
    visitors in the basic operation of the exhibit, leaving little or no time for them to scaffold genuine inquiry-based learning.

    • There would never be enough staff available in the gallery to provide this vital supporting role for the vast majority of visitors. At best there would only ever be one member of staff available in the gallery for every 12 exhibits.

    Observation of parents and teachers in the gallery showed that they were often unsuccessful in guiding and supporting their children’s use of these exhibits. In many cases adults showed little inclination to join in the interaction.

    Ultimately, we wanted to retain these popular exhibits, and guide visitors towards generating a surprising and intriguing phenomenon which they could then investigate further in a self-directed manner. We also wanted to provide subtle hints to accompanying adults as to how best they could support children’s learning. All of this should occur without requiring constant intervention from staff.

    The traditional approach to tackling such challenges would be to provide a text label, perhaps with some accompanying graphics. However, the nature of these exhibits was such that providing instructions in text format was extremely complex, requiring a lot of words and difficult explanations. In all likelihood few visitors – either adults or children – would ever read such labels and fewer still would understand them.

    Finally, we wanted to develop a system that would get visitors started on a successful interaction without becoming overly didactic. The interpretation needed to provide just enough hints on what to do while still encouraging novel but appropriate use of the exhibit. In essence we wanted to engender the type of behaviour that was found to occur at the immensely successful APE exhibits developed by the Exploratorium (Humphrey et al. 2005).

    Case study: Turntable

    The Turntable is an exhibit designed to allow users to experience the concept of conservation of angular moment by spinning on a turntable and moving their body weight in to spin faster and out to spin more slowly.

    Visitors loved the turntable in the old gallery (Fig. 1), but most perceived it as a machine to make them dizzy. They did not experiment by moving their centre of mass towards or away from the axis of rotation, which would have caused a dramatic and surprising change in the speed of rotation. Little evidence was found of any conversation between adults and children at the exhibit or of any affective support by the adults.

    We needed to find some way of improving this exhibit, but we could not see how that could be done through a redesign of the exhibit itself. In our search for a solution we were inspired by the work by Gelman et al. (1991) and by Stevens and Hall (1997) that showed the value of presenting hints and concepts through moving-image media such as video technology and its effectiveness in facilitating adult–child interaction at exhibits. We decided to create and test video labels in order to convey basic instructions and supporting contextual information for the Turntable exhibit.

    During development, we tested two types of video labels (Flynn et al. 2006):

    • A slide show on a seven-inch screen, displaying computer graphics illustrating what a user should do at the exhibit (lean in and out while spinning).

    • A short looped video on a 17-inch screen, displaying footage of an Explainer using the exhibit followed by brief footage of an ice-skater performing a corkscrew spin to illustrate the connection between the exhibit and a real-life instance of the same concept (conservation of angular momentum).

    Testing revealed that the video label on the larger screen was significantly more effective at helping visitors use Turntable as intended. This appeared to be because:

    • The larger screen size allowed more people to be able to view simultaneously what was on screen. This was important to us because Launchpad is a busy gallery and we wanted to give visitors waiting for their turn on the exhibit a focus for their attention, and to provide a shared experience for small groups of visitors to encourage discussion.

    • The slide show used static images, which did not effectively illustrate the necessary motion, such as someone spinning on the turntable or the movement of the ice-skater. In addition, we felt that the video provided subtle details that could be important for successful interaction and that were difficult to convey with static slides (e.g. how to use your foot to set the turntable spinning).

    • People tended to assume that the small screen was a touch screen and got frustrated when their attempts to control its operation failed.

    Next, working in collaboration with Robin Meisner (King’s College, London), we tested four versions of the video label, using a mixture of different words and actions in the videos in order to establish whether text should be added, and if so what form of words:

    • Label 1: Loop sequence of Explainer doing basic sequence of moving bum in/out, no words.
    • Label 2: Added words ‘Can you do this?’ and ‘Try’ before loop sequence as in label 1, and added sequence of Explainer moving leg in/out.
    • Label 3: Same as label 2, but with text added to images: ‘Bum out = spin slower’, ‘Bum in = spin faster’, ‘Leg out = spin slower’, ‘Leg in = spin faster’.
    • Label 4: Same as label 3, but with ‘weight’ instead of ‘bum’ and ‘leg’.

    This testing showed that:

    • Including key phrases for instructions worked well – visitors were heard using the words shown in the video, especially ‘bum in’ and ‘bum out’ (in the UK ‘bum’ is a colloquial term for bottom).

    • Using ‘bum in/out’ was better than using ‘weight in/out’, presumably because using ‘weight’ assumes visitors have more prior knowledge of how to reposition their weight.

    • ‘Leg in/out’ did not work, because children do not have heavy enough legs to effect noticeable change in speed of rotation; this highlights the importance of testing with the actual target audience, as it was something we had not anticipated.

    • Featuring an Explainer in the video appeared to encourage adults and older children to have a go on the turntable, perhaps because people are more willing to imitate someone who is older or the same age rather than someone younger.

    The final version

    In the new Launchpad gallery, the video label for the turntable exhibit is displayed on a 40-inch plasma screen standing next to the turntable (Fig. 2). It can be seen not only by a user at the turntable, but also by visitors looking on or waiting for their turn at the turntable. It can also easily be seen at a distance. The video itself is displayed on a continuous loop lasting 50 seconds that does not require visitor or staff intervention. Both the video and the set-up were produced in house at low cost.

    The final version of the video label for the turntable includes a challenge (‘Can you do this?’) and simple instructions using key phrases or words (e.g. ‘bum in = fast, bum out = slow’), as can be seen in the video presented here. It also includes footage of an ice-skater, showing a familiar example of the phenomenon.

    In addition to the turntable exhibit, three other exhibits also have an accompanying video label. These are: Arch Bridge (which had a version in the old gallery), and Lens Line-up and Yacht Racer (both of which were developed by the Exploratorium for the new Launchpad gallery). All four interactive exhibits had been chosen to have video labels because of the difficulty of providing comprehensible and concise text-based instructions.

    How the video labels work in the new Launchpad

    Evaluation of the video labels after the opening of the new Launchpad gallery showed that they were extremely successful.

    We evaluated the impact of the video labels for three of the exhibits: Arch Bridge, Lens Line-up and Turntable. We used qualitative methods in the evaluation: observations of visitors using the exhibits; semi-structured questionnaires including a mixture of closed and open-ended questions after visitors used the exhibits; and post-visit focus groups with schoolchildren who had visited Launchpad three to four weeks earlier.

    The main findings were:

    • The video labels are widely noticed and very popular with children, adults and staff. Visitors feel they can easily understand the instructions from the videos and they are observed to use the exhibits correctly, even in the absence of Explainer staff.

    • Explainers feel that since the video labels provide guidance on how to use the exhibits, they can focus on scaffolding visitors with more in-depth investigations of the science content.

    • By providing a model for exhibit use, the video labels help adults become more involved and scaffold their children’s interactions. After they had watched the videos, adults were observed helping their children to use the exhibit and to discuss how and why the exhibit works. Adults feel empowered to take on the role of ‘Explainers’ for their children. Adults were also frequently observed using the exhibit themselves.

    • By providing a focus for attention, the video labels attract and retain visitors around the exhibits, supporting not only intra-group conversation and interaction, but also inter-group interaction – both directly by unrelated users passing on instructions to each other, and indirectly through mimicking observed behaviour.

    • The use of short key phrases as guidance in the video labels is particularly successful. Users were often heard to repeat those key phrases to give instructions to other users. In addition, when interviewing schoolchildren we found that they still remembered the key phrases four weeks after their visit to Launchpad. So we conclude that such key phrases can be instrumental in linking the experience of the exhibit to learning, with potentially long-term impact.

    • The video labels were also effective at delivering a link to real-world applications that would not necessarily be clear to users from interacting with the exhibit. This was particularly evident from the results for the Turntable video label: without the video label visitors could not connect the exhibit to anything they knew from real life, but by watching the video visitors became aware of the connection with the everyday experience of watching an ice-skater move.


    Our work with the video labels showed that adding simple visual instructions – such as video footage with key phrases – can transform exhibits that are poorly understood and used by visitors, and turn them into successful exhibits that visitors can use and explore by themselves.

    It must be stressed that methods of interpretation such as the video labels, whilst being useful and effective, are complementary, not supplementary, to the exhibits, to the gallery Explainer staff and to other methods of interpretation. It is by offering visitors a range of different interpretations and scaffolding tools that we can effectively engage with all of our audiences.

    Furthermore it is important that video labels strike a careful balance providing just enough information to get visitors started on a journey of exploration while avoiding the danger of becoming excessively directive of visitors’ interaction. The video labels designed in Launchpad are intended to lower the barrier to use – to give visitors access to the scientific phenomena intended by the exhibit and, hopefully, to allow visitors to engage in further, more open-ended exploration with the exhibits.

    Finally, this work was the result of a great and fruitful relationship between practitioners and researchers, working together through successive stages of development, testing and evaluation to ensure that lessons were learned and acted upon for the benefit of the team and, above all, of our visitors.

    1. T. Humphrey, J.P. Gutwill and the Exploratorium APE Team, ‘Fostering Active Prolonged Engagement – The Art of Creating APE Exhibits’ (2005)
    2. R Gelman, C M Massey and M McManus, ‘Characterising supporting environments for cognitive development: lessons from children in a museum’, in L Resnick, J Levine and S Teasley (eds), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition (1991), pp 226–56
    3. R Stevens and R Hall, ‘Seeing Tornado: how video traces mediate visitor understanding of phenomena in a science museum’, Science Education, 81 (1997), pp 735–48
    4. K Flynn, F Geller, K LeBlanc and E Sosnovsky, ‘Investigating visual instructions for mechanical exhibits at the Science Museum, London, UK’ (2006)

Latest Comments (4)

I am experimenting with this as well

by Dave Stroud - February 17, 2010

This is a concept we are playing with right now. Our extremely inexpensive prototypes indicate to me that this definitely worth pursuing. Thanks for citing your resources, that is very helpful.

innovative stuff

by Erik Thogersen - June 21, 2010

I was just at Launch Pad and I was excited to see the videos as I’ve been considering something similar. My first impression was that visitors weren’t attending to them very much, but reading your very well done report is making me wish I’d had longer to observe. Your report is very helpful in that you mention the previous versions (such as a slide show) so I can avoid that path. What struck me as most innovative was the modeling of parent child interactions, and the avoidance of sound by using gestures and small bits of text.

Great idea!

by Joanna Fisher - June 23, 2010

I haven’t made it to London (someday!) but had a chance to play around with the prototypes Dave’s team in working with. Wow! The video was so much more helpful than ANY of the text or graphics at the interactive.

Very useful

by Joe Martin - May 25, 2012

Thanks for this Teresa.

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