10 Failed Museum Technologies, Part I

Posted by on Sunday April 15 2012

Museums and the Web 2012 finished up yesterday, with a closing plenary called Epic fail – a forum on failure and ‘failing forwards’ with Seb Chan, Jane Finnis and Bruce Wyman. For two hours, we heard about 5 failed technology projects, discussing what didn’t work and why, and any positive outcomes. Maybe that’s why I woke up this morning thinking about the Bump app for iPhone.

So here’s my top 10 list of failed technology initiatives. I’m not going to discuss specific failed projects, but those technologies we, as a community, thought were worth pursuing and, for some reason or another, just didn’t end up becoming an integral part of our musetech landscape. I also want to stress that this list in no way is intended to dismiss the very real value of these technologies, or diminish the efforts of those who saw that value and tried to get programs off the ground. And sometimes, it takes a while for technology to come around again. 10-15 years ago, ebooks were the laughingstock of the failed technology Top Ten lists. But who’s laughing now??

#10 – Bump for iPhone

Bump for iphone

Phone sex?

Bump is an an iPhone app that was supposed to streamline the way we shared information ourselves, like swapping electronic business cards. Two iPhone users (Android wasn’t really around at the time) with the app installed could gently “bump” their phones and the app would input your Bump partner’s information into your contact list. Bump had a lot of hype, and every lucky bastard with an iPhone was trying to Bump their phone with everyone else. There would be meetups and professional gatherings at museum openings, with rampant Bumping. But Bump at the time turned out to be premature technology – it rarely worked, and not everyone had an iPhone. And if you were at an event and someone was impatiently waiting to Bump you, the wifi or 3G connection would invariably fail. Moral – implementing technology while someone is waiting is embarrassing.

#9 – foursquare

Huh? Why is foursquare on this list? It has like 10 20 million users! And 3 million people around the world use their service per day! In 2010, it experienced growth of 3400%! In the past 5 months, it grew by 5 million users. CRAY-ZEE. And location-based interactions and check-ins aren’t going away anytime soon. So… why is it on the list?

Museums followed the hype crest for a while, then made the mistake of assuming that the public would do our work for us. In 2010 and 2011, there was a brief flurry of chatter and excitement about our new Foursquare marketing efforts, with prizes and benefits for check-ins at our events and exhibitions. So… why’d we stop doing that? Seriously – when was the last time you saw a museum website with a foursquare badge, or marketing materials with foursquare promotions? Moral – removing technology from the rotation too early is like wearing zeitgeist blinders.

#8 – Prezi

I’ll admit it right off the top: I hate Prezi. Done well, it’s a beautiful alternative to the expected, stale, familiar PowerPoint. It enjoyed a two-year period in 2010-2011 where museum professionals were Prezi-fying their conference presentations. Then it stopped. Why?

First of all, there’s a learning curve to Prezi. Unlike the linear PowerPoint, it takes time to learn how to use effectively, and a good Prezi will also have some thought about the design in advance. And how many presenters start working on their presentations a month in advance? I think I see about five hands in the back of the room…

Second, well, the above is considered a good example of a well-produced Prezi. Here’s an example of a bad Prezi:

Moral: don’t make your audience seasick

#7 – Laserdiscs

Way back in the 1970s, Laserdiscs were considered to be the NEW new media. They were about the size of a medium pizza (12″, thin crust, hold the cheese), and were considered to be a superior medium for art media and sound. They were also believed to be “archival” – unlike magnetic tape media, Laserdiscs were optical, like DVDs and BluRay disks today, and therefore considered to be less-vulnerable to the elements. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, and, like compact disks, suffered from bit rot. Their size also meant there was more surface area to get damaged. And you could only fit 30 minutes of material on early Laserdiscs, so the user would have to eject it from the player and flip it over to view or interact with more content. Think of it like a cross between an LP and a CD.

Bit Rot: The Phantom Menace

Unlike magnetic mediums, Laserdiscs enjoyed the advantage of being interactive, which made it an attractive option for early gallery interactives. Due to their perceived durability, they were also used to share collection catalogs with other organizations, and as backup storage for media art and collection databases. Laserdiscs never really gained traction in the United States, though, and other playback and storage formats quickly overtook it as the media of choice. Moral: size matters.

#6 – RFID tracking, CueCat, and QR codes

RFID tags, barcode readers (such as CueCat), and QR codes are examples of attempts to bridge visitors of physical exhibits to expanded information in our websites or databases. The philosophy’s a good one: there’s too much information to put on a wall label, so let’s direct the visitor to a virtual resource where they can followup and learn more. Or, let’s use the physical-virtual bridge as a way to continue our impact after the visitor has left the museum.

RFID tags suffered from negative media hype and public perception. In the case of The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, visitors would be handed an RFID-embedded strip that they would wave over an exhibit and they could be emailed with more information, or results and scores from gallery games. Unfortunately, RFID tags also suffered from some recent media scares that they enabled spying and identity theft. RFID = creepy.

RFID tags as adopted by the Tech Museum

and who wants to wear an awkward paper tag anyway?

CueCat was the early 2000s version of QR codes. Visitors could use the cute little barcode reader to scan a code next to an artifact, then when they plugged it into their computer, it would bring up the urls it had read from the barcodes. It was, however, bulky to carry around, and many museums simply didn’t have the time, funding, or infrastructure to develop content that would sufficiently entice visitors to use it.

Cue Cat in the Computer History Museum

It’s really too early to predict its demise, but QR codes may follow the same path. Content needs to be there before adopting the technology, or incorporated as the project is being developed. For some organizations, they’ve already got some fantastic content on their websites, optimized for mobile devices, that works well for QR code use in galleries (and they have solid wifi and a tech-savvy visitor base). Just as crucially, QR codes suffer frommarketing abuse and dubious uses of QR codes that leads to the public believing that the codes are stupid.

Moral: Sean Cummings -

People will not adopt a technical solution that serves to replace a manual task, if that solution is less efficient than the manual task it replaces.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I take a look at websites, VR, and learning communities, amongst others…

Filed under: Random Musings

4 Responses to “10 Failed Museum Technologies, Part I”

  1. justin
    April 16th, 2012 09:26

    QR codes are at #6? 1-5 must be some real jaw-droppers!

  2. Cherie Whipple
    April 18th, 2012 02:28

    Brilliant as usual! So, what say you on Pinterest, Twitter, Trello, and any other number of social media du jour apps? Many museums are on the Pinterest bandwagon at the moment. Some doing it well, others seem forced, as if they know they should be in the sandbox but aren’t quite sure what they are supposed to do once there.

  3. Nika
    November 23rd, 2012 12:11

    Am i correct, you saying that RFID sucked cuz of bad media influation? or also it was used in inappropriate way?
    Can you probably suggest a good example of using them in museums?

  4. Nika
    November 23rd, 2012 12:13

    Am i correct, you saying that RFID sucked cuz of bad media influation? or also it was used in inappropriate way?
    Can you probably suggest a good example of using them in museums?

Leave a Reply