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How MoPOP Will Keep Delivering Interactive Experiences In A No-Touch/Low-Touch World

We’re excited to announce that MoPOP will reopen to the public beginning Friday, September 18! As you’re making plans to visit us, we want to make sure you understand all of the ways we’re making the health of our guests and staff our top priority. Whenever you're ready, we hope you'll plan a visit with us.

Hi, my name is Brad Purkey and I have a super fun job. As the Senior Interactive Technology Producer at the Museum of Pop Culture, I get to lead a team that creates and installs audio-video installations and interactive technology exhibitions at MoPOP. We love bringing content to life with technology. Whether it’s an LED-enabled guitar that can teach you to play the blues; a real-life, RFID-based Minecraft crafting table; or a 65” multi-touch table that tells the story of science fiction and fantasy legends, our tools are many and varied. There is, however, a common trait among many of them: Touch.

Kids using MoPOP's 'Minecraft: The Exhibition' physical crafting table

In our quest to engage and enlighten our visitors we often ask them to touch screens, buttons, knobs, faders, headphones, guitars, keyboards, game controllers, mice, and more. We use touch a lot! Tactile interaction requires a visitor to focus and actively engage with the content. That is why touch has been an important—and very successful—aspect of the museum interactive playbook for many years.

With the advent of COVID-19, the potential of spreading disease via shared touch surfaces is a serious concern. With so many of our interactive exhibitions relying on some form of touch or shared small spaces, we’ve had to do some hard thinking about what changes we need to implement to keep our visitors safe while continuing to deliver the excellent interactive experiences that they expect and deserve. It’s a challenge that provides a unique set of constraints and an exciting opportunity to expand our tool set. We knew we would need a range of solutions, including short-term modifications that we could implement quickly, and then longer-term changes that we could incorporate into our ongoing exhibition development process.

One of our first and most pressing concerns was touchscreens. Almost every exhibition has some version of touchscreen in it, and there are over 70 touchscreens in the museum! Even our way-finding kiosks rely on touchscreens. With so much engaging and important content on the line, we had to find a solution that allowed our visitors to safely access it.

Enter the lowly stylus. The darling of ’90s PDA computing, the stylus had been largely tossed aside in ensuing years. Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, our fingers have taken the place of this easily-lost accessory. Despite this, the stylus does have a couple advantages. First, it’s more precise than your big ole’ finger. Second, and most important for this discussion, it does not require you to touch a shared surface, just the stylus. When MoPOP re-opens, we plan to issue each visitor their own stylus upon entry (and we'll clean them after every use). We have also added graphics reminding users to use their stylus at each activity. Thanks to the good old stylus, we can continue to use one of our most effective and ubiquitous tools.

Another short-term concern for us is headphones. We have more than 100 pairs of headphones throughout exhibitions at MoPOP. The shared nature of these devices and the challenge of sanitizing them properly led us to decide (at least initially) to remove all headphones from our exhibitions. That means more open audio via speakers. One solution we are pursuing to limit the cacophony of too many open audio sources is proximity-controlled audio. The idea is to sense when a person is present and to adjust the volume of that exhibition accordingly. We are working on a simple solution that we can plug between a sound source and the amplifier and can use one of many possible sensors (proximity, motion, pressure, etc.) depending on the needs of the particular exhibit.

Thinking longer term, we have started to explore many other technology-based solutions for interaction that we could retrofit into existing exhibits or add to our playbook for future exhibits.

  • We have had good initial success with simple Arduino-based gesture tracking devices. These can detect a set of simple hand gestures (swipe up/down/left right, twirl, etc.) from about 6-8” away and send appropriate control signals to a device or computer. While there are some key limitations (no positional info like a touchscreen and a slight delay) these gesture sensors provide a simple and engaging touchless solution that may start finding its way into some of our exhibitions soon (check out a short demo in the video embedded above).
  • Hand tracking via devices like Leap Motion and body tracking via webcam with software like Tensorflow have promise as well. We are currently working on an iteration of our Minecraft crafting table that will incorporate Leap Motion.
  • Eye tracking and gaze tracking has been used for many years in research environments and is often used to analyze the efficacy of a website design and user interfaces. It has not been used extensively as an input method, but with advances in imaging and image processing technologies, and new frameworks and products being released, this could become an interesting possibility.
  • Another option might be to co-opt the super-duper, little input device that most of us carry with us every day: the cell phone. With Bluetooth, wifi, NFC, and other technologies available on most phones there could be very interesting ways to incorporate visitors’ devices into exhibits. Whether it’s as simple as scanning QR codes to access additional information, or as complex as using a phone’s gyroscope to remotely control an exhibition via Bluetooth, there is a lot of potential there.
  • Voice input is something that we have not used yet but could be a lot of fun in the right application. Doesn’t every Star Trek fan want to stand in front a large screen and say “Engage” to start the warp engines?

So, like I said, I have a pretty great job, and to be honest the challenges we face with COVID-19 have kickstarted some interesting and exciting discussions around how we can continue to deliver a stellar interactive experience in a no-touch/low-touch world. It means that some tried-and-true methods might not be appropriate anymore, and it means we have a whole new set of constraints and requirements to consider. As we all know, though, limitations often inspire the most creative and innovative solutions.

We cannot wait to share some of that inspiration and innovation with our visitors.

Learn more about MoPOP's reopening and, whenever you're ready, plan your visit with us! For contests, the latest news, and behind-the-scenes content, be sure to follow us on YouTubeFacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

If you like what you see, support our work by making a donation or planning a visit to MoPOP today!

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About the author

Brad Purkey is the Senior Interactive Technology Producer at MoPOP.