Why MONA went mobile: The technology behind Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art

There are many things that make visiting Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art an unusual experience. The setting, in the Moorilla winery, the striking architecture of MONA itself, and the intense sensory overload that takes place within its walls, with the shocking (and wonderful) juxtaposition of antiquities and contemporary art.

But beyond this, MONA also does much to change how the artworks on display are experienced by visitors. And the roots of this are simple: David Walsh, the creator of MONA, has a lot to say.

And although the collection itself and the way in which it's exhibited may do a lot of the talking, it was never going to be quite enough for Walsh. In MONA's predecessor, the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, the explanatory wall labels were sometimes larger than the artworks they related to.

Walsh was frustrated with this standard wall label approach of museums and he also wanted MONA's visitors to be able to rate artworks — to 'love' or 'hate' them.

The O

Enter 'The O': a device that functions as a sophisticated electronic guide to MONA, complete with Walsh's, sometimes lengthy, thoughts about different works and what they mean to him.

When visitors enter MONA they are each equipped with an O device: an iPod Touch running custom software and housed in a specially designed case. Touching the 'O' (the iPod Touch's button) brings up a list of nearby artworks.

Selecting an artwork offers details about the artist and the work, access to essays or interviews with the artist, and musings on the work by Walsh or his cohorts. Multimedia content can also be accessed through the system; for example artist interviews or the audio track of MONA's video-based works. And, fulfilling part of Walsh's original vision, visitors can 'love' or 'hate' a particular work.

Although the technology used for the internal location solution was purchased from a third party, it took four years of research and development to develop the full software ecosystem that drives The O at Mona says Tony Holzner, who worked on the O device. Holzner is now CEO and a co-founder of Art Processors, a company backed by Walsh that seeks to commercialise the systems developed for MONA.

The O device enclosure includes an active RFID tag, and uses wireless sensors in the museum's ceiling and a combination of received signal strength and time-of-flight analysis to fix the location of a visitor and produce a proximity ordered list of nearby artworks.

Holzner says that although there are a range of internal positioning systems on the market, it was tricky finding one that would work throughout a space that is as large as and complex, in terms of internal geography and the mix of materials used in construction, as MONA.

Other solutions to replace wall labels were considered, such as an RFID-equipped wand that visitors could wave near an artwork, or QR codes that could be scanned. But neither those alternatives nor the traditional wall label would offer the unobtrusiveness of the O device, which is a vital part of the MONA experience: an aid to becoming completely lost in the works and the museum itself.

It was "quite a difficult problem to solve transparently," Holzner says.

"Obviously you could do things with RFID and wave things around the works and embed chips behind the works, [or use] QR codes; those sort of things. But they're all quite clunky. And the big issue with those is they get in the way of actually experiencing the artwork so they defeat the purpose."

"They're no better than a label," Holzner says, and "arguably worse because you have people having to interface with the work via an obtrusive digital mechanism that involves waving hardware around and that's a terrible idea. You're going backwards from the label in my opinion."

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When you enter the underground museum, "there are no windows... [Walsh] wants you to get lost. He wants you to forget about the rest of the world. And our technology assists that, in that it's an aid to getting lost and [to] discovery as well. It's all about new thoughts and... extending, re-inventing how people associate and discover art."

Holzner says that much of the four years of RD was trying to find the appropriate indoor location solution. "We did find one in the end and then there was a lot of time spent adapting that to our custom software system," he says.

The team built a content management system that's designed to incorporate spatial data. "We have a spatial mapping tool that we developed as part of that, and that allows you to very quickly and efficiently plot artworks on a 2D floor plan and assign them an x and y coordinate, along with all the associated interpretative material," Holzner says.

The content and spatial data is exported to a system located within MONA itself that services the 1340 O devices.

The sheer number of iPods MONA uses means that the team also developed what Holzner says are "the world's largest USB charging hubs".

Custom charging bays can connect to 240 USB devices at once, and six of them are chained together to charge the fleet. The museum also has one of the densest Wi-Fi environments in Australia, using Aerohive controllerless wireless architecture.

There is no manual updating of the content on the O devices: the iPods check with a server located inside MONA every time they are started up to check they have the latest content. Content is permanently cached on the iPods.

"That's really designed to minimise network traffic because with Wi-Fi you have limited bandwidth; no matter how good your Wi-Fi setup is, if you have 1000 wireless clients pulling down heavy multimedia files concurrently there's no wireless network around that will let you do that reliably."

Holzner says minimising network traffic was one of the challenges the team had to deal with when developing the system.

What did you just look at?

Although the system was originally designed to find a less intrusive alternative to wall labels, it has had additional benefits that were not originally envisaged when the project started. For example, the positioning system takes away a lot of the guesswork over which artworks visitors engage with and which routes visitors take through the museum.

It also means that a visitor's journey can be tracked and a record of their visit to MONA made available to them online afterwards. It's a way of the museum continuing to engage visitors by showing them which works they viewed — and which ones they missed.

In order to capitalise on the years of work done to create the MONA experience, Art Processors was incorporated in October last year, with Holzner as CEO, Walsh as director, Nic Whyte as creative director, Scott Brewer as CTO and Didier Elzinga functioning as a mentor to the business.

The system used at MONA has drawn interest from within Australia and internationally. Other museums are interested, though Holzner says there is "some trepidation in terms of what they see as a large spend on infrastructure and supporting systems, and also staff support in terms of maintaining a ubiquitous mobile guide."

Part of the company's focus is reducing costs, and they will be adding 'bring your own device' support so visitors can use their own iOS or Android-based mobile devices instead of an institution maintaining its own fleet. "We're really positioning ourselves as the go-to for next-generation, premium mobile tour guides," Holzner says.

Early in 2013 Art Processors is rolling out a project at the State Library of NSW, based on a BYOD model with support for iOS and Android. "It's the next generation of what we did at MONA in 2011," Holzner says.

The team has also worked at Melbourne Zoo on developing an interactive, premium audio guide system in collaboration with The Border Project theatre production group.

"In the short to mid-term, we're very much looking at showcase customers," Holzner says.

"It's a service and product offering. So a lot of customisation, a lot of consulting in terms of infrastructure requirements, and visitor engagement strategies within the mobile guide sphere. And then we have the existing software and intellectual property to rapidly roll-out those kinds of large scale projects.

"Longer term the plan is to have a number of different tiers. So there might be a basic tier, which is something that we can just shrink wrap and provide as an app in an app store. And then all the way up to the fully customised solution; like if you want to do something as bold as MONA has done, then we can do that as well. We are, at this early stage, really looking to do things more on the scale of what MONA has done, and we have some exciting projects in the pipeline that we will be announcing very soon."

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Taking MONA to the world

In April, the Art Processors team visited the US as part of the Museums and the Web conference and Holzner says there was a lot of interest in what MONA had done.

"MONA as a whole has completely redefined the cultural landscape in this country; you can take it one step further and say across the world," Holzner says.

"There are no parallels in terms of a museum that so beautifully [integrates] the entire digital experience with the way you arrive [at the museum], with the level of support that the staff give you there, the way they interact with the visitors, the artwork itself, the way it's displayed, and the architecture as well. They all come together very beautifully at MONA and they're all in harmony."

"[In the US] We talked to MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art in New York City], the Met [The Metropolitan Museum of Art, also in NYC], we talked to SFMOMA [the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art], the Getty [in California], [and the] the Hirshhorn in Washington DC," Holzner says.

"It was more a market research and fact-finding mission than a sales tour," he says.

"It was too early for us to be in a sales position. But that did inform a lot of the development we've done in the last six months in terms of refining the product and informing where we go with the functionality and features." There's been a lot of interest in the Asia Pacific region as well, Holzner says.

"I think the current approach is — we want to be the leader in non-linear tours, as per MONA with The O, and we also want to be the leaders in next-generation audio tours that have high levels of interaction and go very far beyond the fairly stagnant playlist approach that everyone's been doing since the Walkman was invented."

Holzner believes that traditional interpretive approaches to works in museums are outmoded. They shouldn't be replaced for the sake of using technology, but for the sake of improving the experience.

"There is too much token use of hi-tech these days," he says. "Just because you have all these tools at your disposal, especially in the mobile world, which is taking off, it doesn't mean that you have to use them. You don't just want to use them for the sake of it."

He likens it to the dotcom boom, with people pursuing a model not because it makes sense but because everybody else was doing it. "'Well we've got to have an app' is the cry we hear all the time. Well, do you? What are you going to do with that? Is it just a marketing enterprise? These token exercises where you have an app because the Joneses have an app and everyone else has an app — that's a waste of money a missed opportunity in terms of investment in technology.

"You really need to look at what you can do with that technology to enhance how visitors engage with your institution. I think that's the key, and there are going to be a lot of opportunities as mobile becomes more ubiquitous, as things like the speeds that we can access data increase.

"All those things are enablers to do things in a much more impressive and exciting way and the challenge for companies like Art Processors is to really leverage that, and to constantly look for better ways of doing things."

Holzner says that MONA has achieved a greater level of public engagement in a shorter amount of time than many major institutions. "You have to ask: why is that?" he says. He believes that part of the reason is the way that MONA makes it easier to engage with what's on display. "And more so than make it easy, [it] makes it enjoyable and empowering to the visitor," he says.

"I think that in five to 10 years' time, there will be many more approaches that are similar to what we pioneered at MONA," he says. "At least, I hope so."

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia and Computerworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at idg.com.au.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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