Can Big Data Make for Better Exhibitions?

Rene Chun
Sep 22, 2016 7:21PM

The Brooklyn Museum’s ASK app. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

In 2013, Apple introduced iBeacon, a technology able to track smartphone users with incredible accuracy. Even better, the apps running on those phones could receive messages from special Bluetooth transmitters known as “beacons.” This brick-and-mortar form of GPS ushered in a new era of automated shopping. Tracking customers in real-time allows companies to decipher demographics and individual interests. Using this data to ping product notifications and coupons to consumers has taken the guesswork out of retail. But although iBeacon has been a boon for commerce, it also has the potential to dramatically bolster our understanding of how we engage with art.

In fact, when Apple first debuted iBeacon to software coders at the World Wide Developers Conference in 2013, engineers presented museum exhibitions as the ideal turf to install this technology. Rather than punching “stop numbers” into a handheld brick, visitors could augment their experience with any work of art by just glancing at their smartphones. Three years later, museums from the Met to the Louvre are exploring beacon technology—to enrich the viewing experience, promote interactivity within exhibitions, and gather visitor analytics. But how is the technology developing, and how will museums implement the Big Data they collect?

The potential of this technology continues to expand as early adopters exploit its capabilities. The Brooklyn Museum, which began using beacons in 2014, pairs them with the brilliant ASK mobile app to link visitors with on-site experts who will answer questions about any artwork in the galleries. The average “depth of conversation” is 14 message exchanges between visitor and expert, and the percentage of “power users” (those who visit three or more galleries) is a robust 18%. The Brooklyn Museum’s tech guru Sara Devine stresses that all ASK conversations are anonymous, and visitors aren’t tracked through the building like lab mice. “The data we gather helps us get an idea of what our visitors want to know, and whether our interpretation is working,” says Devine.

But beacons aren’t just about improving the visitor experience. They can also be used to make money. While most museums shy away from discussing revenue streams, The Art Institute of Chicago is an exception. It has leveraged its 300-beacon network (activated when visitors connect to WiFi) to increase paid attendance from $14.8 million in 2015 to a projected $19.9 million the following fiscal year. The user data is crunched to produce coveted analytics like “heat maps” (a visual representation of the total number of interactions with an exhibit), travel paths (where people walk) and dwell times (how long they stand in a gallery). When a small Edgar Degas show at the museum was an unexpected hit, the red-hot heat maps and killer dwell times it generated (more than two times the baseline) indicated that promoting it could drive ticket sales. “We were able to dramatically grow our revenue with minimal additional investment by responding to this data,” says Andrew Simnick, the museum’s vice president of finance and strategy. “Now we can supplement and crosscheck this knowledge with new insights, and run experiments against these assumptions to grow our attendance even more.”

Sample data from the Tech Museum of Innovation. Image courtesy of the museum.


Impressive. But to see where beacon analytics are really headed, visit the Tech Museum of Innovation in the heart of Silicon Valley, in downtown San Jose. An ambitious permanent exhibition installed in 2014, “Body Metrics: Exploring the Digital You,” uses iBeacons and wearable tech to monitor visitors’ biometric feedback (heart rate, muscle tension, brain waves) to create a bio-psycho digital profile for each guest. Imagine an exhibition that shows how physical, social, and emotional aspects of health are affected by environment, behavior, exercise, and personal interaction. It’s Minority Report meets Bill Nye, where everyone’s a walking data stream. Two years in the making and budgeted at $3 million, this is the most technologically complex exhibition ever mounted at a science museum.

Experiencing this interactive exhibition requires strapping on a Sensor Kit, three pieces of customized wearable hardware that measure, record, and display six body metrics in real-time: activity level, tension, mental focus, talkativeness, attitude, and the number of people nearby. The kit includes a wireless headset that converts signals from a user’s brain into digital information; a muscle tension and heart rate monitor; and a hacked iPod worn around the neck that records the subject’s surroundings using its camera, accelerometer, external microphone, radio frequency identification chip, and Bluetooth sensor.

After completing a battery of activities, visitors are encouraged to explore the rest of the museum, which is where things get interesting. That’s because all the sensors attached to their bodies continue to collect data after they leave the “Body Metrics” exhibition: Are you tense, relaxed, engaged, or distracted as you stroll through the other galleries? How large can a crowd get before you get anxious? Does your heart rate spike when you build a robot? Did you lose focus at the “Innovations in Health Care” show? And which IMAX film triggered more conversations post-screening: Humpback Whales or Journey To Space? Visitors can view their entire experience on a 12-foot touch screen before exiting. This is the kind of Big Data that museum directors have been waiting for.

This innovative exhibition, co-funded by Kaiser Permanente, is specifically engineered to show how people can improve their mental and physical well-being through behavior modification. The data collected will also dictate how the exhibition evolves over time. “The insights and visualizations displayed through the exhibit then affect the choices of future museum patrons,” explains Victor Liu, an engineer at Datameer, the analytics firm that collaborated on the “Body Metrics” exhibition. “The more the data pool grows, the more we learn about ourselves.” Liu is confident that wiring museums to mind data is the future, and also pretty cool: “We immortalize ourselves in this big data exhibit. It’s an intriguing dance of human-machine interaction.”

When the future does arrive, there won’t be any cumbersome headsets to wear or sticky biosensors to fiddle with. Somaxis, the company that developed the muscle and heart rate gizmos for “Body Metrics,” is already experimenting with a shirt that monitors everything from heart rate to limb position. The next step, of course, is eliminating wearable tech altogether. The German company Bayer is already pursuing this grail. They’ve awarded a grant to a Germany-based tech startup that is experimenting with radar sensors that can track heart rate and respiration, without any wearable tech whatsoever. This human Doppler radar has the ability to track subjects—individually and in pairs—at a distance, and even penetrate through walls. “There’s already proof-of-concept that this technology works,” says Alexander Grey, the co-founder and president of Somaxis’s American division. “This is beyond A-B testing and crude focus groups. It’s the next level for marketing.”

It’s only a matter of time before this sans-hardware mind-reading science will trickle down to the fine art crowd. When that happens, museums could use radar beacons to curate a bespoke art tour for each individual visitor—all based on emotions teased from a person’s vital signs. In fact, this is already in the planning stages at the Tech. “Emotionally mapping a museum is a long-sought-after metric for space design,” explains Romie Littrell, the curator for health and biotech exhibitions at the museum. “Our beacon analytics can be used to direct visitors toward a preferred experience—active, social, focused, whatever.” Will this data dictate content? “I could see tracking visitors who spend a large percentage of their time at specific exhibits, and using that data to push suggestions based on those topics.”

In the meantime, the Tech is experimenting with their new digital toys, crunching numbers and taking notes. One simple but powerful analytic currently being tested is how the new beacon data compares to the museum’s old tracking system, where visitors scan their admission tickets upon entering an exhibition. With the beacon proximity data, the staff can now see which exhibits are being overlooked and which are being actively ignored. That’s a crucial distinction. It ultimately determines if an exhibit should be moved or completely changed.

Traditionalists may cry “Big Brother” and bemoan the dystopia that awaits us, but as virtual and augmented reality increasingly become part of our cultural fabric, museums can choose to either compete with the technology or embrace it. 

Rene Chun