• Museum Audio Tours

    I love museums, and am fortunate that San Francisco has a number of great ones. I especially enjoy exploring museums with a friend. Wandering through a museum sharing thoughts about what we see is a big part of how I experience art and history. I also love to learn as much as possible about what I’m seeing, and in recent years this means taking advantage of the audio tour.

    The problem with most audio tours I’ve experience however, is that they generally require headphones. Headphones are isolating and make it very difficult to share the experience with a companion. It isn’t just that earphones aren’t well designed designed for sharing, but also because my companion also tends to have their own headphones. Continually putting on and taking off headphones to chat is off putting. Ultimately, for me, this degrades the experience.

    I recently had a great experience at the De Young museum when I went to see the King Tut exhibit that changed my perception of audio tours greatly.  Instead of offering a set of headphones, we were offered what looked more like a wand with a earpiece on one end.

    In addition to the earpiece, the lightweight device had a keypad built into it, and a strap to hang it around my neck. When we reached an exhibit with an audio portion, I keyed the number into the device and – this is the best part – could then SHARE the audio experience with my friend simply by putting our heads together and earpiece to both our ears. No headphones required. Content aside, the final experience was much more enjoyable than any headphone driven audio tour I’ve ever had.

    All the advances in using mobile phones, spacial awareness, RFID tags and lasers that folks are talking about for next generation museum tours are all well and good, but museums shouldn’t forget that sharing is key to many folks experiences. It’s hard to share your experience if you’re isolated by headphones.

    There are 8 thoughts on this idea

    1. Jamie Bresner

      I’m curious. Is this the device you used at the Museum:


      I’ve also seen visitors in other museums use the guide-by-cell type audio tours and share headphones (an earbud in each person’s ear).

      I’d also be interested to see visitors contributing to the overall experience for future visitors through the use of comments, photos, videos, or virtual tagging of collections. Imagine a museum tour that could then be selected by a new visitor of past students, scholars, or other topics that would allow unique perspective of the exhibition space. Not sure if museums would want their carefully curated spaces opened like that, but it might be interesting to hear/see what others could “share” with their future counterparts.

    2. Jan

      This is what human-centered design should be all about no? Creating solutions that people really can use in a certain context or environment. You are talking about visiting a museum in a social context in which you want to share opinions with another friend. This is also the way in which I love to visit museums, and you are lucky with the San Francisco ones I would love to visit them one day myself 🙂

      I feel that when people design solutions they satisfy themselves with only one solution, like we want to share information with our visitors without disturbing the other visitors. This is great when you are visiting a museum on your own, but a lot of people go with their wives, children, friends and family and want to share their thoughts, without disturbing other visitors too much. But this gets forgotten in the process because we’ve already found a very easy solution which will satisfy some visitors but what about the rest?!

      In my company we call it the engineer’s approach, no hard feelings 🙂 Whenever we come up with an idea we want to create a lot of different solutions for the different kinds of people we have in mind, just sketching, writing scenarios, creating storyboards, etc. But when we have engineers or software designers, btw I have an Msc. In computer science so I may say this, we end up very quickly with one very narrow solutions because they want to jump into the coding as soon as possible and don’t want to look at other possible solutions… .

      All I want to say is that when people create new products, I have the feeling that they want to have a solution good or bad as soon as possible and it is very hard for them to open their mind and change their view… . So it is good that there are companies where they have an open mind and are able to create solutions that people really like!

    3. LukeLucas

      I recently completed showing my master’s installation which involved the use of hypersonic directional speakers to encourage a shared audio based educational interaction in a public space. What I found was that users were interrupted from the experience by the need to locate the technology. They changed their focus from the exhibit content to the technology.

      What I think is interesting about the difference between these Audio Wands and the directional speakers is the amount of control the user has with the wand. I would guess that interruption caused by UbiComp technology is decreased when there is some control the user has over the intervening tool. This is somewhat counterintuitive because the wand has more physical presence.

    4. Todd Elliott

      Yes, that’s the one. Compact, simple and easy to use. No cords, no headphones. Thanks for the link.

      I agree augmented reality would be an interesting way to increase the learning potential of exhibits, while keeping the physical exhibits easily accessible to anyone.

    5. Nancy Proctor

      What an interesting – and surprising – post and conversation about what is just about the oldest audio tour technology design still in use. I was head of new product development at Antenna Audio for about 8 years and have taken hundreds of audio tours around the world on all sorts of different technology platforms. My conclusion has been that the content, not the technology, makes the experience good or bad. Nonetheless, personally, I can’t stand those wands, though I agree they have their place: I don’t want to have to hold something up to my ear for an extended visit (this includes cellphones), and I hate the mono audio quality. I much prefer stereo earphones and a high quality, immersive audio experience when I visit the galleries. Just goes to show: there is no one size that fits all!

    6. Christopher Bazley

      As someone who works for the company that does the de Young, which is also the company that does most of its experiences with a reliance on headphones, here’s the thing:

      Audio tours that cuts visitors off from their friends; audio tours that provide ‘sealed;’ experiences and prevent people from communicating from each other – it is actually not the fault of the technology, and least of all the headphones – it is the fault of the production. Headphones are nothing more than a layer of sponge – that also enable great stereo sound and better ease of listening. But the audio tour that cuts off the user form communicating his or her experience from his or her peers is a boring audio tour that is not doing its job of opening the eyes. Blaming the technology is a cop-out – it would be the whole tour that would fail.



    7. Robin White Owen

      In response to Jamie Bresner’s comment about visitor contributions, SFMOMA created a blog for their Olafur Eliasson show that allowed visitors to post comments that were a kind of guide for future users – it was really a nice idea.

    8. Owen Saldeiro

      I think audio tours are a strong tool to understand pictures, buildings or other places. Generally people prefer that anybody tell the story of than read a guide.

      Recently I found a web of free audio tour ( http://www.audioviator.com )

      You may dowload free audio tous.

      This web allows you to easily create a walking tour by entering the desired text, background music and an image of the tour. It’s totally free.

      AudioViator will dub your points of interest automatically. It also gives you the option of uploading audio instead of text.

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