2.4 New Technologies and Museums in the Future

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"The next generation of virtual museums was envisioned as a composite of three metaphors: an information-seeking space, a social gathering space and a new artefact, embodying social processes and projects".
- Bearman and Geber (), p. 386

When asked to speculate about new technologies and museums in the future, most interviewees discussed the opportunities presented by Web 2.0 technologies. A few interviewees also mentioned the challenges of migrating from one new information technology infrastructure to another. The interviews revealed a general optimism with regard to the transformative power of information technology in museums. Multimedia authoring tools, such as Flash and Pachyderm, have allowed museums to extend their reach to the personal computers and mobile phones of thousands of people, and to share their collections with those who would not otherwise have access. Other multimedia tools, such as Flicker, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, have emerged as innovative new communication tools to present information from museums to the public. The proliferation of mobile devices, such as cell phones and iPods, is now seen as an opportunity to both lighten the financial burden on museums because the public will now provide their own technologies for audio tours, and as a growing venue for marketing and further communication.

Collections managers and curators also benefit from technologies that make collections more accessible across geographic divides and among museums. Data- and information-sharing among institutions have fostered new interpretations and collaborative opportunities. In addition, Web 2.0 technologies, such as social bookmarking and tagging, engage the public and encourage participation in interpretive work. These technologies are also great marketing tools to entice the public to visit the physical institution.

Despite the prospective benefits of technology, there remains a considerable amount of anxiety among the interviewees about the anticipated challenges new information technologies can bring. Several interviewees commented that the public has different expectations now that mobile technologies and Web 2.0 technologies are commonplace. There is a perception that the public demands museum websites that are more and more entertaining. Anderson () predicts that museums "will have to develop protocols and mechanisms to cope with increasing expectations on the part of end users worldwide" (p. 295).

Museums, however, continue to struggle with a lack of funds and available expertise to compete with commercial websites to incorporate each and every new technology that is released. There is also significant frustration among interviewees that museums are leaping ahead with new technologies without proper evaluation. Furthermore, museums are now finding themselves tied to expensive or outmoded proprietary software, endangered software formats, or inappropriate technologies. Some museums have turned to open source software because it is less expensive to implement; however the continued maintenance of open source requires considerable expertise. Additionally, some interviewees bemoaned the increasing use of social tagging or folksonomies, worrying about the management of information without a common vocabulary. Other interviewees emphasized that standardized metadata is at the core of any good online resource, implying that controlled vocabulary is paramount. While this work is neither innovative nor 'sexy', it is the foundational infrastructure of all IT. Unfortunately, this type of scaffolding work requires time and money that institutions do not have, necessarily or immediately. Another challenge is that museums must negotiate a balance between an institution's responsibility to its physical collection, and the development of online resources for the public.

A few writers have looked further into the future and suggest that new technologies will transform our society and consequently the museum. Ambient intelligent software, advanced interface and display technology, multi-sensoriality, multi-modality virtual and augmented reality, semantic Web, telepresence, advanced knowledge management and data warehousing techniques, converging media and haptic techologies will all have a profound impact on the way society lives, works, studies, researches and spends its leisure. In , the DigiCULT Thematic Issue 7, "The Future Digital Heritage Space", investigated evolving research and technical developments over the next 10-15 years, and characterized future developments into five conceptual categories:

Intelligent and Contextual:
Allowing for technological and semantic interoperability of heritage resources, and their meaningful 'anywhere, anytime' use via context-aware services;
Natural and Enjoyable:
Accessing, navigating, and making use of digital heritage resources and environments in personalized, multimodal ways, also including collaborative and community activities;
Digital Creation and Re-creation:
Heritage structures (e.g. historic buildings, cultural sites), objects and characters for interactive exploration and use in 3D, augmented and virtual reality environments;
Large-scale and Distributed:
New generations of large-scale, distributed digital libraries and archives of heterogeneous heritage resources, containing increasingly complex and dynamic objects; and
Persistent and Perpetual:
Novel concepts, methodologies and techniques that allow for making digital heritage resources and environments persistent, and perpetually accessible and understandable over long periods of time (p. 12).

The report predicts that within 10-15 years, 'intelligence' will increasingly be embedded in all kinds of everyday objects, such as living environment (walls, clothing, toys, pens, etc.), and that this intelligence will enhance our everyday activities. "The objects will be net-worked wirelessly, dynamically configurable, and communicate with each other and the user by means of ad-hoc networking" (p. 25). Objects embedded with sensors, such as RFID tags, will be able to recognize their own environments and share that information with other objects. Developments in RFID technology will reduce the cost, while increasing the "power of smart tags".

DigiCULT goes on to predict important and dramatic changes

...every conceivable object could have a tag - for example, all objects on display in a gallery or somewhere on a larger heritage site. Consider that a host of devices will be able to read the tags, and connect to a database for retrieving information about the objects, their history, meaning, and relation to other objects on display or even in a library on another continent.

The visitor may select the information himself, or set his device in a 'pick-up mode' for capturing and storing the information on, or related to, the exhibition objects he is close to. For example, this could be the URLs of 3D copies of the objects, and other objects that for various reasons may not form part of the exhibition. It could also be the URL of parts of an electronic exhibition catalogue, scholarly articles, or any other information considered to be of value for different user groups. The visitor's device would capture and retain only the information or links he has defined as of particular interest (p. 27).

Phones, MP3 players, and cameras may be embedded in glasses or become part of the clothes that we wear.

Anderson () agrees. He writes,

As keyboards give way to voice recognition, finite screens give way to projections on any kind of flat service and Web pages will give way to more fluid learning environment through lightweight wearable gear including mobile phones (p. 297).

Systems will revolve around the user and will be aware of user context and preferences, which may come from a variety of sensors. These systems will actively support users as they carry out their activities.

Bearman and Gerber () predict a similar future. They suggest that individuals will carry or wear location aware technologies that will receive and send information "including still and motion images, global positional system (GPS) location signals, voice communications and data" (p. 393). Objects will sense and respond to individuals and these objects will explain themselves. Individuals will make things happen at a distance, and objects will respond to their environment and transform themselves. Museums will accept information from users, and provide information to users based on specific user profiles, rather than simply broadcasting information to masses of individuals. Anderson () concurs. He states that the future will bring a "transition from an input-output era to that of a porous and continuous authoring environment" (p. 294).

Bearman and Gerber () suggest that to envision the future "we need first to accept fully that the 'internet' (not today's, but the one we will know then) will be wireless, be ubiquitous, be always on, not require special interfaces and be fully integrated into our social lives." (p. 393) People will be in contact with the museum and knowledgeable objects whenever they wish to be. Physical spaces will also be aware of surroundings, who is near them, and will be able to convey information that relates to this physical space. They predict that

In the future, much information will seek its users- based on where they are, on their reported/expressed prior interests, on what they are doing in the real world (and even in virtual worlds). This paradigm shift places the burden for proactivity in information-seeking on the cultural institution rather than on its clients. It means that they will need to stay on top of technologies for linking information objects to each other and identifying the users who might benefit from having them (p. 396).

Developments in virtual reality and augmented realities will also have a profound effect on the ways in which museum interact with their visitors. While virtual reality will provide simulations that are completed computerized, augmented reality simulation combine real and virtual elements with which visitors interact. The DigiCULT report () notes that "interactive 3D objects and environments are regarded as a key area of research and development towards information-rich representations of heritage objects, buildings, sites, etc., and new forms of mediating cultural and historic knowledge." (p. 48).

Finally, developments in haptic technologies may enable visitors to not only view 3D digital objects, but also to feel them. As the DigiCULT Technology Watch Report 3 () points out, "It is now possible to transmit tactile sensations over the Internet allowing users to experience and enjoy simulation of physical contact when interacting three-dimensional art objects and digitized sculptures." (Ross p. 220) The report also notes that these technologies are not yet mature, but research in this area continues and holds great promise for the museum of the future.

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