The Rocks Discovery Museum, Australia

Hurrairah bin Sohail explores an interesting upgrade project at The Rocks Discovery Museum which shows how technology needs to adapt to its surroundings and the needs of the client.

Technology does not exist in a vacuum. Increasingly, across projects and installations of all shapes and sizes, technology is having to mesh with a multitude of components and factors. The upgrade project at The Rocks Discovery Museum is an excellent example of the aforementioned.

Located in Sydney, the exhibition was originally designed by 3D Projects with the multimedia design and development being handled by Art of Multimedia in collaboration with The Rocks heritage team, led by Dr Wayne Johnson. When the time to upgrade came, Art of Multimedia was brought back to manage and deliver the project.

Art of Multimedia is not your run of the mill integrator and Beata Kade, managing director at Art of Multimedia, elaborates: “We’re a digital agency and our sweet spot is the ‘GLAM’ sector; galleries, libraries, museums, and cultural spaces and sites. The Rocks Discovery Museum was one of our earlier projects, about 15 years ago, and our passion is to create multimedia with meaning. We believe technology should be in service to good storytelling.”

Jason Stevenson, creative director at Art of Multimedia, adds: “We do everything from the initial conceptual work through to the creative execution and production, to the actual implementation and software development. We work together with technology and integration partners to execute the technical and hardware side of things.”

Art of Multimedia’s expertise was particularly suited to the upgrade The Rocks Discovery Museum had in mind. Kade says: “Because this is a very small, heritage space and there are many constraints around heritage buildings, there was a limit to the hardware assets we could fit into the space. But this also made The Rocks Discovery Museum a very good candidate for multimedia storytelling. The project was made more interesting because the exhibition itself and the infrastructure, such as the joinery and cabling, were not being replaced. But the endpoints, the content and the multimedia, were being upgraded to bring them in line with modern museum experiences.”

To start, the multimedia content at The Rocks Discovery Museum had to be updated. Stevenson expands: “There was a thematic structure in place at The Rocks Discovery Museum and that was not changing. So, we already knew what colour palette and font system we were going with. We needed to be sympathetic to that and work within the existing framework.”

Stevenson continues: “Thankfully, we had the original source files for the content in our archives, so it was a good start. But they were in Flash, and Adobe has discontinued Flash, so we had to rebuild the content. This gave us an opportunity to look at what solutions we could offer the client in terms of maintainability, as well as making the museum exhibit more open, expandable, and multipurpose. We wanted to make sure that what we deployed today would be better down the track.”

With the content being upgraded, it was time to address the hardware. Kade says: “We brought back the old partners from the initial Rocks Discovery Museum project so that everyone working on the upgrade would already know the challenges and have a head start in working around them.”

The challenges from 15 years ago remained and were joined by new ones that had to be surmounted. Stevenson highlights: “There is limited space because Rocks Discovery Museum is a heritage building. The potential of adding new things was quite limited because you cannot really touch the fabric of the building itself. Matters were compounded because originally the exhibition had been designed with specific graphic elements which limited screen sizes but these had to be retained. The footprint didn’t change much. We kept the cabinets but upgraded the displays that were housed in them, added more interactivity, larger screens, and a touch table as well.”

Kade adds: “The cabinets had been originally designed to be modular, so that they could be transported across the three levels of the building and fit through small spaces. So, we had to figure out how to fit the biggest screens within the existing cabinetry rather than rebuilding everything from scratch. We worked with our hardware supplier, the same as the one we worked on the project 15 years ago, and we all came together for the upgrade. We understood the challenges of the project and we worked towards providing solutions that were contemporary but still fit within the space.”

In addition to physical constraints, Stevenson details additional considerations: “The content dictated how we tackled the visual design because we were not just upgrading the sizes of the screen, we were also shifting formats from 4:3 aspect ratio to widescreen. This also meant that the orientation of the screens changed, we had to switch to portrait in some cases. All the decisions were based on the content that was to be displayed and that dictated the user interface we designed, the screen size we selected and the orientation of the display.”

The Rocks Discovery Museum now features displays from 27-in to 55-in in size. The original cabling and video transmission infrastructure were retained. A 55-in multi-touch table was a new exhibit. Kade expands: “The multi-touch table was added in response to the client’s vision of using an illustrated map of the The Rocks precinct in Sydney to visualise over 120 heritage buildings managed by the client. They wanted to showcase the properties in relationship to others and highlight their history through photos, text and Conservation Management Plans. Interactivity allowed the visitor to discover the stories at their own pace and QR codes facilitated the sharing of that information. So, the multi-touch table was perfect for that.”

If the hardware component of the upgrade project was challenging, then the software side matched it in terms of difficulty. Art of Multimedia decided to go down a new route and Stevenson explains: “Intuiface has been on my radar for a number of years, and I’ve been keeping an eye on its development to see how it could play a part in our projects. When we were upgrading The Rocks Discovery Museum, I had another look at it, and I felt Intuiface had matured to a point where it was a good ecosystem and it would provide a number of tools right out of the box to allow us to do what we needed to do.”

He continues: “Each project is unique, and they all have their own set of challenges and a best way to approach them. One of the reasons I was looking at Intuiface was the fact that we have skills in building bespoke, custom software and Intuiface offered a new route of multimedia authoring which would save us time. It allowed us to not have to build every component from scratch which adds on to the time and cost. So, Intuiface really ticked a lot of boxes for us because there are not a lot of graphical tools out there for programming custom logic and authoring multimedia quickly.”

Art of Multimedia used Intuiface for approximately 80% of the interactive displays. For the others, Art of Multimedia turned to Touch Designer to build video playback and engaging real-time interactive displays which use more procedural based graphics. On working with the Intuiface platform, Stevenson comments: “There was definitely a learning curve. Intuiface borrows key concepts from the traditional digital signage realm and infuses them with more of a multimedia, authoring software system approach. It is definitely a hybrid. The real switch for us was to move from a ‘build it from the ground up’ coding approach and moving into a no-code environment. It was just the change in mindset and shift in gears that was the tricky part.”

Rounding out The Rocks Discovery Museum upgrade project is a custom-built website designed by Art of Multimedia. Kade says: “This is the first time that The Rocks Discovery Museum has had its own website, previously they had a page under the precinct’s website. Serving the cultural tourist and education markets, the museum had no online storytelling capabilities whatsoever.”

Kade concludes: “We proposed the website to the client because in today’s world, a cultural heritage institution cannot afford to not have an online presence with storytelling capability. It might have been acceptable 15 years ago, but it definitely is not today. We started with a discovery and UX design, and established what the museum needed, properly identifying who will be using the website and then meeting their needs.”

Dr Wayne Johnson, senior archaeologist, curator of The Rocks Discovery Museum, said “The website initiation and development has been excellent, and future-build provisions will make it easier to develop further. Access to analytical data will enable The Rocks Discovery Museum to assess our successes, and guide our future.”

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