Shaping Personalization for Tangible Interaction

Cultural heritage has been a privileged application domain for personalization technologies for many years, since visitors can highly benefit – during cultural heritage explorations – from individual support that takes contextual and personal attributes and visitors’ evolving behavior during the visit into account. In meSch we push the boundaries of investigation around personalization technology a step forward by addressing the challenges of supporting a personally meaningful, sensorily rich, and socially expanded visitor experience through tangible, embedded and embodied interaction with digital content.

Personalized itineraries for different audiences currently available at Museo Della Guerra

Personalized itineraries for different audiences currently available at Museo Della Guerra

Personalization to become the norm

The workprogramme issued by the European Union under the ICT-2011.8.2 objective “ICT for access to cultural resources” that provides the context and funding for the meSch research and development activities, includes the omen for “personalization to become the norm”. In meSch we have taken this statement very seriously, elaborating on the many facets of its meaning and putting it at the center of the research agenda of Work Package 4.

Personalization as a necessary feature

Indeed, in a scenario of digital content delivery for the cultural heritage sector, either online or onsite, mechanisms for appropriately adjusting what is presented to the user and how, is a stringent necessity. It is a common practice for human guides (i) to flexibly accommodate the varied informative expectations and goals of visitors, educators, curators (content side); (ii) to meet the dynamic aspects of the visit, e.g. order of visit, time constraints, social dynamics, visiting style, etc. (interaction side); (iii) to favour engagement (experience side). This is what curators are keen to transmit as a strong requirement for any information system aimed at supporting their museum mission statements. In meSch, museum experts, curators, designers and technical experts work hand in hand in a co-design process aimed at guaranteeing that personalization requirements are properly spelt out.

Personalization not as a synonym of individualization

Delivering personalized information through personal devices and driving it to the extreme forms might have the negative effect of isolating the visitor within an hyper-individualized experience, which is somehow “unnatural” in a museum context. A visit to a cultural heritage site is intrinsically social. Most likely, people visit in a self-organized group (family, group of friends, class, couple) or a casual group (guided visits), but even when visiting alone, in autonomy, individuals share/compete for the exhibition resources. In meSch we are studying how personalization technology can be carefully employed to avoid disrupting social dynamics or even expressly fostering social interactions.

The Loupe design concept developed by Waag, tested at Botanical Garden

The Loupe design concept developed by Waag, tested at Botanical Garden

Personalization as the normality

meSch starts from the hypothesis that a good personalization is invisible, i.e. it is not perceived as a “special effect” or something exceptional, but smoothly accompanies visitors’ expectations and needs. In meSch we will explore an evaluation of adaptivity that is completely user-centred and, instead of aiming at how good the system is, looks at how many times and why the performance was not smooth.

Personalization of content and interaction

For a long time, personalization in cultural heritage has mostly been synonymous of content adaptation, i.e. dynamically changing the amount or type of information conveyed to the single visitor to fit what visitors like and know and how they behave. In a scenario of tangible, embedded and embodied interaction in which digital content is revealed in synergy with the experience of the materiality of objects and space, personalization techniques need to influence also the sensing and behavior abilities of objects and the overall experience patterns (e.g., very energetic and interactive vs. contemplative and emotional). This adaptation is required to accommodate different visitors’ interaction and emotional attitudes and expectations, as well as social dynamics.

Objects have stories to tell, but they also engage with their materiality and are placed in a context

Objects have stories to tell, but they also engage with their materiality and are placed in a context

Personalization as a feasible and sustainable functionality

What hinders the actual adoption at a large scale and the reusability of personalization components in cultural heritage is often the complexity that makes it prohibitive for institutions in terms of time (to prepare the data in the right format) and technical expertise, and the high cost against benefit for just a small part of the audience. For letting personalization become the norm in museums it is essential that technical architectures are conceived, right from the beginning, to excel in: the reusability of the main functionalities in different contexts (e.g. onsite vs. online interaction); portability to different physical sites and to different domains; high support for content preparation and definition of adaptivity strategies; easy maintenance. In meSch, we are taking sustainability as one of the founding principles for the design of the component delivering personalization services.

Personalization in the hands of curators

Curators and exhibition designers hold the expertise for composing effective museum layouts, labels, panels, guided itineraries for different audiences and educational purposes. They know who their visitors are, the educational/cultural offer the museum is meant to convey to them. In meSch we aim at empowering museum experts with tools that support them in the authoring of personalized museum experiences and with automatic mechanisms that relieve them from the most difficult tasks, to allow personalization to become actually deployable in real settings: professionals in control of an authoring platform would use personalization in any context they consider worth it (e.g. to develop a visitor’s experience specific for older people, another for parents and small children, a further one for school groups to be taken away and used in class, etc.).

Next steps

Starting from the concepts and scenarios that have emerged from the co-design workshops in Amsterdam/Den Haag and in Rovereto (Trento), and from the other investigations with museum professionals reported in the Blog section of this website, work is in progress to translate user requirements into technical constraints for the architecture of the personalization component.

An in-depth study has also initiated on the features that potentially have an impact on the personalization strategies and on the feasibility/sustainability of their implementation. We are currently analysing features belonging to: the stable or dynamic user profile, the interaction or social context, the curators’ goals, the model of the environment, the features of the content or of the physical objects.

More about meSch research agenda on personalization

An ample discussion about meSch research agenda on personalization has been presented in a paper published earlier this year at the workshop on Personal Access to Cultural Heritage, PATCH2013. A pre-print version of the paper can be accessed directly via the Outputs section of this website.

Further insights about how personalization in a tangible interaction scenario can foster social interaction are collected in a paper that contributed to the Workshop on Experiencing Interactivity in Public Spaces (EIPS) held in conjunction with CHI 2013.