Lumin at the Detroit Institute Of Arts: An Innovative Augmented Reality Mobile Tour

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) recently launched Lumin, an augmented reality experience using Google’s Tango technology and GuidiGO’s augmented reality platform. It is the world’s first art museum to integrate this 3-D mapping and smartphone augmented reality technology into a public mobile tour.

I had the opportunity to test Lumin with Andrea Montiel de Shuman, the DIA’s Digital Experience Designer and Project Manager for Lumin.

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

A STUNNING EXPERIENCE

I started the tour with doubts about the place of augmented reality in a museum interpretive tool (would it be too gimmicky?), but I was soon reduced to uttering ‘wow’ every other word. Lumin helped me to see an ancient stone sculpture in polychrome and to discover how an ancient water filter worked. I explored a 3D reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in Ancient Babylon and used Lumin’s screen to seemingly look inside a mummy to see the actual bones like an X-ray.

Lumin currently features seven initial stops, each with a combination of augmented reality overlays, videos, photos, sounds, touch-activated animations, and text. Some stops offer games that encourage observation of details. After each initial exploration of the object, additional information is available. Users can decide how much interaction and depth they want at each stop.

My favorite of the seven stops was a ceremonial wooden bowl in the African galleries. A virtual tree stump appears next to the vitrine, which is magically carved down into a reproduction of the intricate bowl. The virtual object then is animated to lift its lid (I hadn’t realized it was a vessel until this point!), and a carved head rolls around at the bottom of the bowl. This simplified virtual version of the object helped me see new details that my eye had missed. I kept looking from up my screen to explore the original object.

Lumin is made available on 6.4” Android smartphones (Lenovo Phab 2 Pro). This rather large screen was easy to carry, as it was placed in a holder with a solid grip. The screen became a natural extension of my body.

Wayfinding is also a major component of Lumin. The inside of the museum is mapped, so the app knows where users are without Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. On the screen, an easy-to-decipher map of the museum shows the placement of the seven stops, with the option of getting directions. A blue line appears on the floor of the museum through the augmented reality Lumin lens, leading the user between stops. It felt like magic.

OF SCREENS AND OBJECTS

I was concerned that this experience would be too screen-centric, and that the novelty of the augmented reality experience would eclipse the collection. I was happily proved wrong.

Because augmented reality is linked so closely to, well, reality, I felt a connection to the objects at each stop. I think this was because I was not a passive observer: Lumin demands interaction. I tapped the objects on my screen, and felt connected to them in reality. Even the sections where users can access more information about the objects take the form of texts linked to hotspots linked to the actual object.

The only time I was glued to my screen was during the wayfinding. I was so excited by the blue line on the museum floor directing me to the next stop that I didn’t look up to see the objects that I was passing. Andrea said that this was something her team had considered, but mentioned that this could be less of an issue as augmented reality becomes a more normal part of visitors’ digital vernacular.

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Photo courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

Andrea was very clear that Lumin is a tool, not a destination. The experience should help visitors interact with the collection, not replace it. Lumin is designed to be a part of an interpretation ecosystem: it does not aim to provide all the answers. Labels and in-situ interpretive technologies complement the experience. Like those tools, Lumin is, and will remain, free of cost. This additional content is thus financially accessible to all visitors.

When studying visitors who come to the DIA, the team learned that most come in groups. This led them to design Lumin to be used in community. The screens are big enough that you can share a device or peek at your friend’s screen.

As the technology is designed with sociability in mind, there are no headphones. This means that sound must be used very intentionally. Only two stops currently feature sound: one has a delicate drip, and the other has a cacophony of storm sounds that increase in effect when multiple devices are being used at the same time.

INTENTIONAL CONTENT DEVELOPMENT

Andrea stressed that the DIA was not merely concerned with Lumin’s technological aspects, but with providing relevant and quality content in the experience. Every step of the process was completed with visitor learning and experience in mind, with clear objectives for each stop.

The overall objectives for the experience? Put simply, the team isn’t aiming to hear visitors say: “Wow, this is so cool!”. They would prefer: “Now I get it!”. They are aiming for moments of illumination. (The name, Lumin, is derived from the Latin word for light, and refers to the spark and magic when people have an enlightening experience with a work of art.) The content aims to help visitors look at the original objects, understand their original contexts, and learn about the life of the museum: encouraging observation and new perspectives.

The content was not developed in a bubble. While the Lumin team selected the objects to be featured, they worked very closely with the curatorial team to make sure the digital content was accurate. They also worked with Native American communities to ensure that the content for the Native American objects were treated in a culturally appropriate manner.

Evaluation plays an important role in the process. The team intentionally piloted only seven stops, so that they could take the time to evaluate the experience—what works and what doesn’t—before expanding to more objects and floors in the museum. The team is utilizing three types of evaluation: observation, interviews, and written responses. They are looking forward sharing their findings and best practices with the larger museum community.

LAST THOUGHTS

When I think back to my Lumin experience, the images that float through my memory are of the objects themselves. I remember the feeling of discovering their secrets—the moments of illumination—more than the novelty of the images on my screen. Lumin, rather than being the highlight, was the tool that helped me connect with the collection.