Going to the trenches with meSch technology
There’s no such thing as testing technology for real, in place, with users. The amount of feedback that can be gained out of the lab on the technical issues, emotional impact, content adequacy, and interaction effectiveness is invaluable.
The Companion Novel multi-point auditory narrative system, was designed by the meSch team at SHU for amplifying the emotional and interpretative dimension of the visit of outdoor heritage sites with particular historical and emotive values. We tested it in a field trial at the trenches of Nagià Grom from the 21st-25th July 2014. It was quite an intense and exciting July for the multidisciplinary team of designers, technologists and cultural heritage professionals of SHU, FBK and MdG who wore the trekking shoes and deployed the technology in the mountains!
Getting ready for the WWI domain
The testing of the Companion Novel concept in a scenario other than the Sheffield General Cemetery involved a preliminary re-making and re-purposing phase that allowed the meSch team to shed light on the process, effort and technical support required to cultural heritage professionals to re-use and fit augmented interaction experiences to their own domain and setting.
The original Companion Novel prototype is based on an interactive book-like device that visitors carry with them while walking the ground; the book is complemented by a set of Blue-tooth speakers located at points of interest (hotspots) and used to play relevant content. The content is location-dependent and is organized into different thematic threads that the visitor can select by changing the position of a bookmark in between the pages of the book. An early decision for the tests at Nagià Grom was to re-use the book and simply load new audio files and print new pages. The curators of the Museo della Guerra in Rovereto re-designed the visitor experience in terms of which points of interest should be included and which content should be delivered, by carefully taking into account the morphology of the place, their educational experience, their goals and the rich available material (as described in a previous blog post).
In the renewed version of the book, each page corresponds to a different genre/theme or story related to the WWI trenches of Nagià Grom, such as; camp regulations, letters and diaries from the trenches, war as seen through the eyes of women and poems. The technical team at FBK experimented with the process of re-making a new set of lanterns following the instructions provided by the SHU design team that included; a detailed list of hardware components to purchase, a file in standard format with the blueprint for fabricating the plywood encasement with a laser-cutter, a video tutorial that shows how to assemble the lanterns and a software image to initialize the lanterns. The MUSE FabLab in Trento provided logistical support and assistance in the making of the lanterns.
In the meantime, the design team in Sheffield were finalizing the revision of the design concept in its form to come up with an alternative companion device carried by visitors more suitable for the trenches.
This second version of the system features a different encasement for the companion device carried by the user, a belt with multiple pockets. The belt was inspired by WWI military cartridge belts and disguises the technology for tracing visitors’ proximity to the lanterns and choosing the most appropriate content to play. The theme selection, that in the book was supported by the bookmark is here supported by illustrated cards augmented with NFC tags that can be inserted in and slid into one of the belt pockets. Both the book and the belt-based versions of the system were tested in the field tests at Nagià Grom.
The original plan of having one day of outdoor technical tests followed by three days of accurately interspersed evaluation sessions with small groups of visitors had to be modified due to the adverse weather conditions of an unusually rainy summer. The final setup of the experiment consisted of one initial afternoon for on-the-spot investigation, selection of the most appropriate method and height for hanging the lanterns at the selected hotspots, and technical tests of the system by the project team (two computer scientists, one interaction designer, and three curators).
Two days after, five groups of people (4 couples and a group of three) were invited at different times to attend an evaluation experiment (approximately 45-50 minutes per visit) and a follow-up interview (45-60 minutes of discussion). Another two volunteers who participated at the restoration of the trenches, were present and were exposed to the system functioning as well. Apart from the particular technical problems that emerged in what was the first intense stress-test for the system, several interesting findings emerged, some more generally related to the design of evocative and embodied experiences and their appreciation by visitors, others more specific to the fact of interacting with technology in such a complex natural environment, and many valuable requirements about the process of re-using prototypes in a different physical environment and domain.
What comes next
The meSch team is now analyzing and reflecting on the considerable amount of feedback that was collected during the field tests from many different points of view. Some of the questions include; How successful was the meSch design intent of keeping the meaning, values and material dimension of objects and spaces at the center of the user experience? How can the technology evolve to meet the requirements of a long-term experimentation in outdoor, unsupervised cultural sites? How can the evaluation findings be translated into general requirements to tune the implementation of a meSch platform that enforces as much as possible the reusability of technology, with a community of designers, technologists and cultural heritage professionals that share their experiences for re-making and re-purposing?
Watch the meSch blog space for updates, as many further interesting reports are coming!