The University of Birmingham's Digital Humanities Hub has been a fascinating and challenging project for us at Mechdyne. The product of an elaborate and far-reaching collaboration, the Hub might be described as equal parts complex research instrument and high-tech, interactive digital museum.
Visitors to the Hub's Michael Chowen Digital Prototyping Hall are in for a rare interactive experience. Mechdyne worked with the University to create a collaborative, immersive exhibition environment equipped with multi-touch screen enabled tables, wall mounted touch screens, and a massive 4K 3D multi-touch wall. Each visitor to the gallery is provided with a tablet or other handheld device that is networked with the larger screens. Guests can display collections of assets, examine and manipulate them onscreen, and share them with other screens using familiar touch screen gestures.
But there's another layer to the Hub experience. While visitors are checking out the museum, University researchers are focusing on the visitors. Specially designed headwear and glasses intricately track each individual's head movements and gaze, delivering invaluable insight into people's choices and viewing patterns. As they move around the gallery, statistics are compiled on which exhibits they select, how they display them, and which items they focus on.
Designing either layer of the Hub's technologies was a complex and multi-faceted undertaking. Creating an environment that seamlessly integrated both worlds was even more demanding.
Ironically, the process of designing such technology really begins with encouraging people to not think about it. The goal for us is to get people to focus on the bigger picture - to talk about what they want to accomplish, without getting caught up in pre-conceived notions of what may or may not be possible with a given technology. For people whose daily work is immersed in technology, this is not an easy task.
For us, it starts with knowing not only what questions to ask, but how to ask them.
When we asked researchers at the University about those big picture goals, it became clear that what they were looking for was not just a redefining of the visitor experience, but a way to gain insight into what people wanted to see, to create better and more interesting museums.
Our overarching goal, therefore, was to design a system, using readily available technologies and components that could deliver both a stunning and compelling visitor experience, and a powerful and highly versatile research experience.
For the visitor, we have an environment not unlike a website, where they can navigate through exhibits, examine them in intricate detail, dig deeper for more info when they wish, rate it, and in some cases even integrate it with an online purchase.
For the scientist, we have a research instrument that can yield insights enabling creations of the museums of tomorrow. But that is only the beginning. No one can predict what advancements will be discovered using that research instrument. And that, in itself, is truly exciting.