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I-Spy Micrarium Touch Screen (VADU part II)

David Thorpe, 12 August 2014

There is an exhibition showing at National Museum Cardiff called: I-Spy…Nature (until April 2015). One of the touch screens (picture 1) focuses on a selection of diverse, interesting and beautiful biological and geological slides from the Museum’s Natural History Collections. This blog is about the small aspects of the touch screen that I was involved with; plain and simple. 

Resources & Outlines

  • One general overview image of 36 slides
  • 12 very high resolution images of some of those slides
  • 27 inch touch screen
  • Complement an actual Micrarium, which would be displayed neatly above the touch screen
  • Incorporate a Victoriana style
  • Target audience: young folk

Flourishes

The high resolution slide images were always the prize, therefore it seemed obvious to sort out the zoom features first. Using the Javascript version of Zoomify (other javascript frameworks are available) gave us a good foundation to work on. We just needed to tap into their Zoomify Javascript code a little, then add our own layer of Javascript and graphical flourishes to make the design fit in with the exhibition outlines.   

All the controls were laid out in plain sight, hopefully to reduce any learning curve when approaching the interactive; and since the touch screen is quite large (27 inches) we had the space.

Five additional features were added to the zoom screen (picture 4):

  • Zoom controls
  • Navigation controls
  • Home button
  • Information button
  • Change language (English/Welsh) 

n.b. where possible I tried to avoid using words to describe button functions, hence why the home button is only an image, but this idea fell down a little when it became clear you couldn’t avoid a word or two to help the visitor work out what specimen they were observing.

Into the Arms of a Microscope

Once or twice someone may have caught me saying things like: “Plagioclase Feldspar” or “Olivine”. Anyhow, part of the fun with looking at slides is the process of selecting a new slide, I thought so anyway - you were never sure what would be on the other side of the glass.

I wanted to avoid the conventional method of changing between images, which is usually to include a ‘next’ and ‘previous’ button; so tried to incorporate some of my vague science memories with a quick reconnaissance mission (picture 5) to see the microscope that was being prepped for the exhibition.

Since there were 36 lower resolution images on the home screen, but twelve high resolution images on the slide selection screen, it gave some space to move a simple microscope stand into view, which provided the excuse to animate the microscope arms and float the slides back and forth. The iris transition between the microscope slide view and the zoom view is loosely based on the idea of looking down a microscope eyepiece.   

Intermittent Contact

The interactive was built on HTML and Javascript with animations mainly driven by CSS. Due to the amount of images used in this interactive (up to 120MB), the project was exported from Amgueddfacms CMS into a standalone ZIP file then installed onto the exhibition PC - this improves the interactive response times, since it doesn’t have to wait for any image files to download over a network connection.

We’ve been using Firefox for a while as its platform independent and has neat little add-ons (R-Kiosk and Block Site). In this case, the operating system is Windows 7, with a locked down user account which only has access to Firefox and the touch screen drivers.

Usually we use Google Analytics to record button events, to give us an indication of how much the interactives are being used, but Google Analytics is designed to work with regular domain websites, which is not the case when running locally from simple hard drive files. Therefore the button events are recorded by the web server through AJAX calls.

Thinking about it again, it might be more efficient to store Javascript events in the browser’s HTML5 web storage throughout the day and only send it back to the web server when the computer boots up in the morning. Therefore, only bother the web server once a day, rather than hundreds of times a day.

Video Demo

I've included a short demo video for posterity:

In-situ photograph of the interactive within the gallery.
Picture 1: In-situ photograph of the interactive within the gallery (an actual Micrarium appears above the touchscreen).
Home screen, which compliments the actual Micrarium neatly displayed above the touchscreen. This screen only appears when the touchscreen hasn't been used for a while.
Picture 2: Home screen, which compliments the actual Micrarium neatly displayed above the touchscreen (36 slides in three rows). This screen only appears when the touchscreen hasn't been used for a while.
Microscope screen, where the visitor selects the slide they wish to view.
Picture 3: Microscope screen, where the visitor selects the slide they wish to view.
Picture 4: Zoom screen showing the zoom controls, navigation controls, home button, information button and change language button.
Picture 5: Reconnaissance missions to old microscopes.
Someone appears to have a thing with exaggerating movements though graphic pendulums. The left-hand side of the picture depicts the audio player from the Peter Blake iPad interactive (November 2013), while the right depends the zoom button in the I-Spy Mi
Picture 6: Someone appears to have a thing with exaggerating movements though graphic pendulums. The left-hand side of the picture depicts the audio player from the Peter Blake iPad interactive (November 2013), while the right depends the zoom button in the I-Spy Micrarium.
Graphic panels appear in many shapes and sizes. The picture shows a cow with information about the specimen down its flank.
Picture 7: Graphic panels appear in many shapes and sizes.

exciting developments afoot...

Graham Davies, 26 February 2014

After much discussion and background work, the digital team at Amguefdda Cymru today began on the exciting path of redesigning its website.

As well as being timely (it’s been almost 5 years since our last design iteration *gasp*), there are a number of important factors driving this project, including an ambitious digital strategy to help deliver the redevelopment of St. Fagans National History Museum, as well as a comprehensive review of our institutional structure as a result of the Museums Change Programme.

Areas for development in this project will include providing greater access to online collections, increasing digital participation and also integrating today's social networking activities to encourage participation and sharing.

With these drivers in mind, we’ve been busy beavering away in the background over the last few months, researching audiences, analysing metrics, workshoping stakeholders and talking to our users. Why? Quite simply, we want this project to be as ‘evidence led’ as possible - let’s act on what our users tell us, from how they get to our website, to what they do when they get there.

time to put the user at the centre

From all this background research, we have developed a specific list of objectives that our new redesigned website will seek to provide. In summary these are;

  • Reflect first and foremost, the needs and interests of our users
  • Be focused on individual museum sites and our knowledge, not our corporate brand
  • Remove barriers to our information, including language and structure
  • Present a clear and logical navigational structure
  • Remove redundant sections and pages
  • Present a simple, clean design
  • Ensure that there are no dead ends for users - always offer an alternative if no exact content matches their search
  • provide fresh and routinely updated material

We are now in a position to take stock of our whole online offer: microsites, domains, social media connections, visiting pages, collections pages, even our in-gallery interfaces, while at the same time rethinking our traditional ‘institutional’ view of what we present online.

Most of you in Museum digital circles will know just how easy it is for websites to evolve through a reflection of internal structures. This is our chance to turn that thinking around and apply fresh perspectives, new ideas and modern technology to a website that really works for those visiting our websites - all based on evidence driven research, of course...

Timescale for all this? 8 months, so check back for updates to how this journey unfolds…

Amgueddfa Cymru website homepgae
Audience first, or institution first? What really inspires our website visitors to explore further?
Dave working on the soundtrack to Under Milk Wood for the Peter Blake exhibition
Dave, our developer works on our in-gallery interactive soundtrack to Under Milk Wood for the Peter Blake exhibition, 2013.
new mugs
First things first... the digital team prepares itself for a very busy year...

The steady march of the mobile device

Graham Davies, 14 November 2013

Graham Davies, Online Curator, Amgeddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Access to online content is showing a steady shift towards the mobile device. What are the implications for Amgueddfa Cumry’s own website?

There has been much discussion in the museums digital sector lately on the significant rise in websites accessed via mobile devices. It was one of the focuses of the 'Let's Get Real' Action Research project run by Culture24, of which the Museum was a part. The V&A have recently been publishing their findings on what devices people use to access different areas of their website. 

In light of this, I decided to uncover the trends taking place on the National Museum Wales own website: museumwales.ac.uk

Mobile device growth over two years

From the National Museum Wales’ perspective the rate of acces from mobile devices shows pretty much the same pattern reported from other similar institutions.

Overall, we see close to a 25% rise in visits via mobile device to the website over a two year period. This is significant, but applying this as a generalisation of the website as a whole may be hiding other, more significant trends.

Figure 1 shows that people are increasingly looking at our website through mobile devices, but what parts of the site are fuelling this rise? What other trends become apparent when we look at areas such as visiting information, or our content rich collections pages?

So, lets break this down and let's see if we can work out what’s going on here…

What are people mainly looking at when using mobile devices?

A comparison of Figure 2 and Figure 3 clearly show a markedly higher percentage of pages accessed via mobile device to our 'visiting' pages than our content rich Art Online collections pages, (which incidentally show more of a rise in tablet use than mobile.)

What this all boils down to is that our content is now being accessed (and increasingly so) through all manner of different devices, and in all manner of different environments, from coffee shops, trains, your sofa, at work etc., etc.

The devices we choose are driven by the context (or setting) we are in, also the time we have to find out what we need to know.  Think about it for a minute. How do you use digital devices to locate and find out information? Sat at a desk in your lunchtime, with time to sift through search results to find local events this coming weekend, filtering and refining on a large screen with a mouse and keyboard. Then there’s that last minute check on opening times and directions on your mobile phone whilst in a crowded train on your Friday night commute, straining to keep your phone viewable whilst jammed up against another person, typing with one finger. Come Sunday evening, you’re lying on the sofa, tablet on lap learning more about that nugget of information you picked up, or writing about your experiance on a review site.

This behaviour is quite logical if we take time to consider user behaviour on different devices, but what does this mean for our website and how we manage it?

What we must ensure when publishing our content is that we understand that the users could be anywhere, doing anything. A the moment, the evidence seems to suggest most mobile access targets visiting and location based information, whereas in depth collections data remains to be largely accessed via desktops.

The decline of the desktop (well, for visiting information at least)

Figure 2 shows that more people are viewing our visiting information from mobile devices than they are from desktops or laptops. It is therefore critical when planning content and designing websites, that areas of the website need to be thought out in separate ways, with visiting and site based information being designed and created first and foremost to be viewed on mobile devices.

In addition to functionality and design, we must also ensure that the content we provide for those areas of the website that are accessed primarily through mobile devices is crystal clear, succinct and quick to discover and understand - after all, you may only have a 5inch screen to get your information across.

Given the rate of growth from mobile devices it will be interesting to see where we will be this time next year...

Background reading:

V&A Blog

Google research

Adobe Digital Marketing blog

Mobile devices
Todays mobile devices come in a ever widening range of models and types
Access through mobile devices over the last two years to National Museum Wales
Figure 1: Access through mobile devices over the last two years is pretty much along the same pattern reported from other similar institutions
Visiting pages accessed via mobile devices have quickly risen to overtake desktop
Figure 2: Visiting pages accessed via mobile devices have quickly risen to overtake desktop
Tablets trump smartphones in global website traffic
Figure 3: In depth collections data, such as our Art Online Collections Database remains to be largely accessed via desktops

How more sales can mean less revenue

Mari Gordon, 1 February 2013

And they're here: for the first time, we have figures for a year of e-book sales, supplied directly by publishers. It's still far from the whole picture, as not all e-book figures are available. But we now have a much better idea of what the book-buying landscape looks like in the UK.

The figure that stands out is that e-book sales are now up to 13%-14% of all book sales. However, as their prices are cheaper, that's only 6%-7% of revenue. Print book sales are down again, by 3.4% on 2011, as are average prices.

The e-book market is still dominated by fiction, and those e-book figures track the print figures. That is, if a book sells well in print, it also does well in e-book. The stand-out example is a particularly, shall we say, shady trilogy, whose e-book sales are about 36% of the print sales. Could the success of the e-book version of these titles lie, I wonder, in the fact that no-one can see what you're reading on your Kindle...?

So, it's mixed news: more books were bought in 2012, but because more of them were e-books, publishers made less money. Good news for reading, less so for publishing.

Meanwhile, here at Amgueddfa Cymru our journey into 'e' continues...

 

With thanks to The Bookseller for the sales figures.

New Media, New Challenges

Graham Davies, 3 September 2012

Graham Davies, Online Curator, Amgeddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Earlier this year I was approached by the Keeper of Art regarding a recent acquisition of two oil paintings dating from 1700. The paintings in question - two large panoramic paintings of Margam House - were purchased with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund, and as the funding included some form of digital exploration, I was asked to produce an interactive to compliment the gallery display (that would also be available to tour with the paintings).

On closer inspection of the paintings, lot of small, intricate detail became noticeable.  As some details were very small - and would benefit from additional interpretation - some sort of zoomable image would offer the visitors with the best form of digital exploration.

In previous gallery interactive developments, the New Media Department have used the iPad2 platform, but as the newer iPad3 has a retina display - a screen resolution and pixel density so high that a person is unable to discern the individual pixels at a normal viewing distance - this platform seemed ideal to explore small detail in high resolution images. As for the software, we decided to use an adaptation of a previously developed interactive that allowed the user to move around a high-resolution image to predetermined hotspots (to explain certain details of the painting).

I then went about locating numerous details on the canvas that would be interesting and informative to the viewer. I was keen to pick things out that would not be contained on the gallery labels, thus ensuring no duplication and offering an enhanced visitor experience.

Resolution issues

After obtaining high-resolution images of the two paintings I was able to upload these to our Content Management System (amgeuddfacms), to allow them to be served from our website server. It was at this point that a strange technical inconsistency occurred....

Viewing 3800?pixel wide image on a standard Firefox browser on my desktop screen rendered the image sharp and clear. However, serving the exact same image into the iPad3 web browser rendered a fuzzy pixelated image. Given that the same image was being served to both screens it seemed that the different web browsers were handling the image in a different way.

A little bit of research on the internet revealed the possible problem: The default web browser on an iPad (Safari), runs WebKit which only seems to serve images up to a maximum size (somewhere around 1024 pixels wide). The iPad browser seemed to be downsampling the original 3800 wide image to 1024 wide, before then upscaling this 1024 wide image back up to 3800, causing the image to render at almost 400% it's downsampled 1024 pixel size.

The problem was how to get around this. After some researching on the internet for similar problems, it seemed that there was no conclusive solution. This was mainly due to the logical assumption that it’s bad practice to serve huge images to a website (especially on a mobile device such as an iPad, where web content was readily downloaded via mobile networks), so the advice was always to use small images. Of course we wanted very large images, so this didn’t help!

One solution that Chris Owen, our Web Manager came up with was to serve two halves of the image separately and automatically stitch them back together again after they loaded on the web page  - thus the page would load two smaller images. Technically this gave a good result, but cutting the image in half was not enough. We therefore generated a script that sliced the image into 500 by 500 pixels (totaling 64 separate images), and stitched them all back together again once they were loaded into the browser.

The outcome was a high-resolution image (made up of smaller individual images) that renders sharply even when zoomed right in. This gets around the issue of the Safari web browser on an iPad automatically scaling down large images.

Research suggests that this may be a first in application development of this sort, especially one developed wholly in HTML5.

Gesture enhanced interactive

Once this high resolution was served up onto the new iPad3, in high resolution quality, it became clear that it would make more sense to make this a ‘gesture enhanced’ (pinch to zoom) interactive in addition to interpreting predetermined parts of the painting.

This means that the user can now fully explore the entire image, zooming right into any part of the image, whilst being able to read interpretive labels embedded within the image.

Colour Accuracy

The next problem to solve was the one of colour accuracy. Due to the original paintings being very dark, most images that we had to play with were lightened in order to see the detail. This lightening caused the colours to be untrue to the original, something that would be noticeable once screen and canvas were next to each other in the gallery.

A quick phone call to our photography department affirmed that they had high-resolution master TIFF files available that were ‘colour correct’, i.e. the colours in the digital capture were exactly as they were in the painting.

These colour correct images turned out to be strikingly different to the ones that we had previously been playing with, the increased sharpness causing even more detail to become apparent, even figures appeared that weren’t noticeable on the previous images.

The application will be installed alongside the paintings of Margam House in the Art in Wales 1500-1700 gallery at National Museum Cardiff in October 2012.

Bringing it all together: Art in Wales 1550-1700 

A parallel development to this in-gallery interactive is a website interactive exploring a major portrait of the builder of Margam House – Sir Thomas Mansel with his wife, Jayne (hung alongside the Margam paintings in Art in Wales 1550-1700 gallery). Again, certain parts of the painting can be explored in high resolution through interpretive labels embedded in the image. This further compliments an existing interactive, exploring another major portrait in the gallery – Katheryn of Berain, the Mother of Wales.

It is hoped to extend this program to include all the items in the gallery, thus forming a holistic digital interpretation of Art in Wales from 1550-1700, available both within the gallery and through the website.

View of Margam House, Glamorgan, looking North
View of Margam House, Glamorgan, looking North
View of Margam House, Glamorgan, looking South
View of Margam House, Glamorgan, looking South
An example of the original 1800 wide image served to an iPad3
An example of the original 1800 wide image served to an iPad3
And the same 1800 pixel wide image viewed through my desktop browser (notice the sharper resolution)
And the same 1800 pixel wide image viewed through my desktop browser (notice the sharper resolution)
One of 64 tiles loaded into the web browser, before being stitched back together again to appear as one complete image

One of 64 tiles loaded into the web browser, before being stitched back together again to appear as one complete image.

Notice the difference in colour here to the top two images. This is the colour correct version digital capture.