3D Exhibit Design, UI/UX
The Museum of Anthropology is a large museum located in Vancouver, British Columbia that specializes in First Nations and Asian artifacts. It boasts over ten thousand artifacts collected from all over the world. Yet despite this, it is much better known for the display of large, First Nations totem poles that appear all throughout the interior and surrounding park land.
In the spring of 2015, staff at the museum was looking for a way to attract younger, more tech-savvy audiences to their institution. Our group of six digital media professionals decided to meet this challenge head on, and we approached the museum with a desire to develop a more enjoyable, interactive experience for younger visitors. After a great deal of deliberation and discussions with MOA’s curatorial staff, we decided to develop a software-based weaving exhibit in their Textiles Research Room. This room had a great deal of information to offer, but was overlooked by visitors who passed through MOA’s Multiversity Gallery.
To approach this problem, we researched different methods of teaching and digital media engagement, based on our skills in User Experience and rapid prototyping. We wanted to build a bridge between the old world and the new world, between the virtual and the real. Ultimately, we came up with a Virtual Loom: a hybrid installation that features real, physical strings alongside a computer screen. By using cutting edge technology to demonstrate ancient weaving practices, we hoped that visitors would become attracted to the art and craft of weaving.
3D Exhibit Design
My primary role in the team was to design and model the Virtual Loom installation. I initially started with sketching and drawing on a white board, to clarify my vision for the outer support structure of our loom. I experimented with many looks and cultural motifs, to help better communicate our installation to novice users. Alongside my work, my colleagues were busy prototyping very basic versions out of cardboard and scrap metal. We iterated off of each others’ ideas until we found a look that fit.
I then went into Blender, an open-source 3D modelling app, and began adding in more detail and design. Particularly challenging was leaving enough space for the host of electronics that would be jammed inside the enclosure. I had to keep areas open for ventilation to cool the Mac mini, as well as make space for the arduino board and speaker.
Despite being a high tech installation, the goal was to hide as many electronic parts from the user as possible. We didn’t want any of the technology to overshadow the fundamental purpose of the exhibit: learning how to weave. Once the design of the loom model was approved, I made sure that all the parts were scaled correctly using real world units.
These pieces were then exported in a series of cut sheets for MOA’s exhibit designer to manufacture.
Because this particular exhibit highlights the design of Kente (an African cloth pattern), I made sure to model certain features of the Loom after a real loom from Ghana. Particularly of note are the large wooden dowels, the angled nature of the side panels, and the ornamental support beams that hold the front dowel in place.
Another crucial part of this project was the creation of the physical user interface. What made this complete unique, was that we had to design several custom physical input devices that would “talk” to the internal computer. In addition, these inputs would have to be enveloped in the natural mechanisms of a traditional loom, so they didn’t stand out as modern computer sensors.
To accomplish this, our team broke the User Experience problems down into four categories: research, storyboarding, prototyping and testing.
We looked heavily into how visitors act in museums. We made sure to understand how basic ergonomics (e.g. the height, distance and size of the loom) would influence a typical visitor’s ability to interact effectively. We then found a middle ground between the cultural accuracy of the loom and the retrofitting that was necessary in order to make it appealing and enjoyable to use. Additionally, we discovered that we were making something completely new – similar installations are practically non-existent, so we couldn’t rely on the previous research of other projects.
My colleague Tim and I created a series of user flows and user journey maps to understand how our installation would fit in with the other experiences a typical museum visitor might expect. Using these maps as guides, we began storyboarding the ideal interaction over the course of a two or three minute experience. These boards were then pitched to MOA’s curators and staff.
Using these storyboards as a basis, I scripted the narrative and plotted out key interactions that the user would need to perform. A subsequent script was written, and it became critical to the developer during the actual building process. By starting the onboarding process immediately, our goal was to reduce the cognitive load placed on the user and get them physically interacting with the device as early as possible.
While recording the dialogue and creating basic wireframes for the interface, we developed numerous prototypes for the onscreen feedback. Other team members focused on the difficult task of finding electronics that would be reliable for the final installation. In the meantime, I worked with the developer and graphic designer to achieve the right look for the user’s thread pattern. Everything from an ultra low quality series of threads, to a high thread count pattern – our goal was to cover the complete range of complexity and see which style was optimal.
We tested with people both from our school as well as outside, to see how well they understood the weaving concepts we wanted to convey. We conducted informal surveys as well as took notes during testing to study our user’s behavior. Primarily, we learned how much complexity our users could tolerate before becoming bored or irritated. We found that three simultaneous actions were enough for them to perform at any one time. For example, we removed the foot pedal and heddle devices that are normally part of a real loom, so that we could reduce difficulty and focus on the pattern weaving.
A real turning point in the project came about when we first set up the Loom for one of MOA’s main exhibit designers, Skooker Broome. Seeing him interact with the loom was a very positive experience for us, because it indicated we were on the right track. He liked the interaction and helped sign off on the main user experience.
Overall, our group was able to deliver a final product that we felt met the needs of our client and created a truly unique “look up” experience that stands apart from the other artifacts in the museum. Through our three month process, I documented the work and effort of my teammates to rise to this challenge and produced a short three minute behind-the-scenes video that you can view below.