Chapter 6. Humanizing Augmented Reality with Lumin
- Megan DiRienzo
- Andrea Montiel de Shuman
- Alicia Viera
Art museums are packed with objects that connect us to the creativity of human beings from around the globe and throughout time. So, why—in this media-saturated world that confuses fiction with fact—would museums choose to disrupt this authentic connection to humanity with a handheld device that augments reality? The formative evaluation of Lumin, an augmented reality (AR) tour at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), revealed some compelling reasons.
The three-year project put the visitor first, including evaluation at every development phase to garner feedback about content and usability. The evaluation findings provided a cache of useful data that, together with critical self-reflection on our interpretive practice, guided the Lumin team through the development of 12 AR prototype experiences (Figure 1).
The Potential of AR
AR allows us to place digital objects over real objects, or anywhere around us. The ability to insert digital artworks, game experiences, content overlays and/or live dinosaurs into the museum is enticing. However, we found that in order to create impactful experiences, the endless possibilities of AR need to be strategically pared down into engagements that weave together human-centered functionality and human-centered content.
Re-learning Human Behavior
The first evaluation report completed in the spring of 2017 revealed that AR required visitors to use handheld devices in unfamiliar ways. Visitors were pinching and zooming expecting an up-close view of an AR object. But because Lumin AR objects behave like “real” objects, visitors had to physically move the device toward objects for a closer look (Figure 2). They also found it unintuitive to explore their surroundings with the device, typically missing digital objects placed above or behind them (Figure 3).
Those who quickly picked up the unfamiliar behaviors had an easier time engaging with AR experiences. But visitors who did not adapt to them, either missed the full experience or had to request assistance from others. The team tested a number of solutions to this problem, including a training game about unfamiliar behaviors and written directions telling visitors where to look or go. Visitors reported that neither approach completely compensated for the unfamiliar functionality.
Respecting human behavior is key to creating an effortless experience, so we stripped away complex gaming elements, aligned digital objects within obvious sightlines, and carefully sized and placed digital objects in ways that did not require moving closer to appreciate details.
Although we experimented with AR’s full potential in a number of stops, the most impactful prototypes had the simplest functionality, allowing visitors to focus on the surprising human connections AR can reveal rather than navigating its unintuitive aspects.
Humanizing AR Content
Artworks that are functional, have hidden or unseen elements, or once existed in a time or place remote from the here and now had the deepest impact on visitors according to our findings. The examples below highlight our three most successful prototype AR experiences.
AR Shows Objects in Action
Two marble jar stands, called kilgas, are displayed in a dark passageway toward the back of the Islamic World galleries at the DIA. School children on tours often giggle when they see them, thinking they are toilets. In actuality, kilgas hold water filtration jars. Impurities are filtered out of the water as it seeps through the jar’s pores and drips into the bowl of the kilga. Revealing the filtration process through traditional media like photos or video isn’t possible because few jars have survived. Placing a virtual kilga, complete with a functional jar and the sound of water drops, next to the real kilgas brought the purification system to life, connecting visitors with the universal need for cool, clean water (Figure 4).
AR Reveals Unseen Humanity
AR presented the opportunity to help visitors recognize the mummy at the DIA as a human rather than an intriguing artifact. GuidiGo’s animators created a three-dimensional reconstruction of the person’s skeleton based on x-rays the DIA had taken a number of years ago. When viewed in AR, the 3D model is overlaid on the mummy, driving the point home that it’s a human! The team was surprised by the visitors’ response to the experience with comments like, “There’s a person in there!?” The Lumin stop physically demonstrates the mummy’s humanity and includes text overlays that share what little the DIA knows about the man’s life (Figure 5).
AR Melds the Past and Present
The Ishtar gate leading into the ancient city of Babylon was adorned with dozens of mosaics depicting fierce creatures. The DIA has one of these mosaics displayed in a central location, holding together a gallery space that explores empire building in the ancient Middle East. An immersive recreation of the Ishtar Gate viewed through the Lumin device allows visitors to experience the sense of grandeur likely felt by the people entering the ancient metropolis (Figure 6).
Experiences to Share
Although there is much we are still discovering, we hope that the lessons we learned during the development of Lumin will be valuable to museum professionals as they embark on their own AR journeys. Here are five major insights from our prototype project.
Plan for sustainability. As technology and tools evolve by the day, it is important to evaluate the opportunities and limitations of what is available at hand in different phases of the project. Some things we were not able to do in the first prototype we were able to accomplish in the second because of how the tools upgraded.
Design in three dimensions, but don’t assume your visitors will think spatially. It is crucial to consider the positioning and movements of the user in relation to physical and digital objects. Visitors aren’t used to looking up and around for content, so position digital objects in plain sight or give a strong visual clue to move.
Acknowledge that AR is exhausting. Figuring out how to engage with a digital object that behaves as a real object is foreign and demands extra effort from the user. Focus on reducing the number of steps to an experience, simplifying the interface, balancing engagement levels, and strategizing content to fit natural user behavior and avoid sensory overload.
Avoid thinking you know your audience. Tech fans won’t be the only ones trying new technology. Focus on broad accessibility principles like large font, clear icons, and intuitive user flows. Research findings can help negotiate with developers when there are changes needed to platforms.
You might not need AR. Resist the temptation to invest in assuming that innovation requires the latest, flashiest technology. AR projects can be costly in the budget and human resources. Use AR where the limitations of reality results in specific, addressable visitor needs.
The Lumin team looks forward to sharing the summative evaluation report at MCN after the polished experience debuts to the public in April of this year.