In January, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) announced that they would be the first museum in the world to use Google Tango for an augmented museum tour. As someone with a background in both archaeology and instructional design/technology, I have an abiding interest in how museums can help visitors understand and contextualize artifacts, so this intersection of museum and augmented reality was very appealing.
It took me a few months to get over there and try it out, but the Lumin system didn’t disappoint. Currently, while it only covers 7 artifacts on one level of the museum, it’s a strong start with a lot of promise.
Description & Features
The Lumin system is based on a Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, one of the only smartphones to currently support Google Tango with a depth camera on the rear. The phablet is securely attached to a handle for easy carrying and pointing. The content was developed in GuidiGo’s AR Composer, which among other features can use Bluetooth beacons for indoor position.
The app starts with a map of the ground level of the museum and markers for each of the featured artifacts. You can choose an artifact and get directions–a trail of blue dots overlaid on the camera view, leading you to the artifact. When you reach the artifact, you can go into a 3D View, which is the camera with augmented reality features. This takes a distinct shape for each of the artifacts–for one, it’s a cutaway, operational model; for another, it’s a game where you match animals with different aspects of the artwork; for others, it involves finding specific things on the art or exploring different aspects.
Getting a Lumin is easy but not obvious; no signs jumped out at me and nothing was mentioned as I checked in, so after I got my free admission as a tri-county resident, I asked and was directed to the far end of the ticket desk. In fact there was an letter-sized standup there labeled Lumin, but I didn’t spot it walking up to the desk in the first place. There, I could leave my driver’s license to check out a Lumin handset for free.
The app itself doesn’t have any onboarding; the system was explained to me by the person running checkout. She did so ably and very nicely; I’m sure this is helpful for people less familiar with smartphones, but I feel like this is a miss–if the Lumin system becomes more popular, when the museum is busy this could be a real chokepoint. The system is easy to use and a built-in tutorial would be much quicker at busy times.
The Lumin system starts with a map showing the artifacts and your current position, and if you choose shows a dotted path to a chosen artifact, overlaid on the camera view. In general, the system did a good job locating itself in the museum; a couple times when I’d rested the phablet with its depth sensor against something, it needed several seconds to re-orient itself but the rest of the time it knew where it was pretty exactly.
The directions were good but could use a little tweaking; it only shows a few dots ahead, making it unclear when there’s a turn fairly close (at least depending on the angle at which you’re holding it). Also, it can take a few seconds to calculate a path when an object is chosen; at one point I hit the direction button expecting to be directed the opposite way, and waited far too long expecting dots to appear when it wanted me to turn around but gave me no indication.
The map positions your location well but stays in the same orientation regardless of how you turn–it doesn’t turn with you, which makes it harder to orient against what you’re seeing depending on how you’re used to using a map. Still, the map and directions go a long way to helping a visitor orient and find the artifacts.
Overall, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro performed well. It gets more than a little warm but the Lumin’s handle doesn’t, so it’s not a comfort issue. Even rendering a full environment on the screen (which is the reward for one of the activities–see left), it kept up well and updated based on position and angle smoothly. For one artifact, it renders a virtual copy, carving it from a tree trunk; this seemed to be the most intensive task as it was a detailed model, and the system did freeze on me the second time I tried it–the software still worked but the camera view was frozen no matter what I did, until I backed completely out and restarted the exhibit.
The Lumin system was intuitive and useful, although I did think there were some opportunities to improve its usability:
- As mentioned, there was a delay in calculating directions which was confusing sometimes–are the directions not ready or am I looking in the wrong place? “Calculating” or “Turn→” feedback on the screen would resolve this.
- For some artifacts you could touch callouts on the screen to get more information or see detailed views. When images came up here, there would be a flash through white as they came in which I found unpleasant. Either flashing through black or just fading in over the camera view would be nicer.
- For a couple of artifacts you needed to find something near them on the augmented view. This wasn’t always clear; one of the virtual items took time to appear and I passed over its space many times before I did it slowly enough to see it start to appear, and for another virtual item I needed to take several steps back because I was too close to the real artifact and there was no indication. For one of the artifacts, interactions only produced sound but I looked all around to try to find virtual items which ended up not being there.
- When you follow the directions to get to an artifact, you can’t go directly to the 3D (augmented) view, you have to back out of the directions and then touch 3D view; it just seems an unnecessary step.
- The Phab 2 Pro screen was great for the purpose and the handle made it easy to carry and use. It came with a wrist strap, but there was no easy way to stow it when not using it. I felt awkward carrying it into the bathroom in particular, and if I’d been staying at the museum longer and looking at other things in between Lumin artifacts I might want to put it somewhere. It seems like a neck strap or a neck pouch would be a good solution for stowing it–the phablet was too big for a pocket, even my hoodie pocket, especially with the handle.
The DIA’s Lumin system is a great first step into integrating Augmented Reality in the museum space. It shows off a variety of interactions and capabilities across the 7 artifacts. I enjoyed using it and when bringing others to the museum, I’d definitely encourage them to try it as well. I look forward to when the museum has more artifacts included; I’d particularly like to see a future exhibit where most or all of the displays have Lumin interactions. If you’re going to the DIA or interested in the current state of AR, definitely check it out!