Monday, April 09, 2007

American Museum of Natural History

My Sensor Workshop class went by the American Museum of Natural History last week, and got to take a look at their newest permanent exhibit, the Hall of Human Origins. We also got a special behind-the-scenes peek at the workshops where they construct the dioramas on display in the museum.

I was particularly interested in seeing this exhibit, since my old academic roots lie in human evolution and primate sociobiology. Yes, I was a physical anthropology major as an undergrad before switching to design + art, and I still have a strong interest in the going-ons of this field.

Anyways, our task for the day was to think about improvements that could be made to the exhibit, as far as interaction design go. In other words, how could we make the exhibit more engaging, inviting, and clearer to understand for the visitors, all of whom come from many age groups, cultural backgrounds, and levels of education.

There was one display in particular which I thought was on the right track, but just didn't quite make it to the finish line, in terms of being easy to use and understand. It was a large back-lit illustrated map of the world, mounted against one wall, with a second display set in front of it, divided into segments corresponding to different regions of the world. Each of these segments had a description of the region it represented, complete with a touch sensitive, die-cut button that activated the faint tracing of a line on the mounted map, representing immigration into those regions. Each region's line had its own color to help it stand out from the others. This, however, was not enough to get everything across clearly.

The immediate problems with this display were the following:

- After touching a region's button (operative word is 'touching', not 'pushing'... something like a qprox touch sensor was used here), a colored line of very diffuse light would begin to slowly lurch its way from one point on the map to another. The light was in fact so diffuse, it was nearly impossible to spot for all but one region.

- The line tracing took place very slowly, with a significant delay after touching a region's button. It felt as though it was broken at times, like nothing was going to ever happen.

- The button itself was problematic. There was really no good reason to have a touch button in place of a traditional push button. There is something very satisfying and final about actually getting to push a button down, and hear it click back up. It affirms for you that an action has taken place, and will (hopefully) result in some kind of action. When I tried to push the buttons installed for this display, it felt incomplete, and very unsatisfying to have this huge cut-out shape unable to be pushed down.

So right away, it'd be great if at least the lines were much brighter and clearer, and if the buttons had a little more tactile feedback for the user. Also, obviously, the time between activating the button and actually seeing something happen on the map, should be shortened.

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