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Why MONA went mobile: The technology behind Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art

Rohan Pearce | Jan. 4, 2013
There are many things that make visiting Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art an unusual experience. The setting, in the Moorilla winery, the striking architecture of MONA itself, and the intense sensory overload that takes place within its walls, with the shocking (and wonderful) juxtaposition of antiquities and contemporary art.

Other solutions to replace wall labels were considered, such as an RFID-equipped wand that visitors could wave near an artwork, or QR codes that could be scanned. But neither those alternatives nor the traditional wall label would offer the unobtrusiveness of the O device, which is a vital part of the MONA experience: an aid to becoming completely lost in the works and the museum itself.

It was "quite a difficult problem to solve transparently," Holzner says.

"Obviously you could do things with RFID and wave things around the works and embed chips behind the works, [or use] QR codes; those sort of things. But they're all quite clunky. And the big issue with those is they get in the way of actually experiencing the artwork so they defeat the purpose."

"They're no better than a label," Holzner says, and "arguably worse because you have people having to interface with the work via an obtrusive digital mechanism that involves waving hardware around and that's a terrible idea. You're going backwards from the label in my opinion."

When you enter the underground museum, "there are no windows... [Walsh] wants you to get lost. He wants you to forget about the rest of the world. And our technology assists that, in that it's an aid to getting lost and [to] discovery as well. It's all about new thoughts and... extending, re-inventing how people associate and discover art."

Holzner says that much of the four years of R&D was trying to find the appropriate indoor location solution. "We did find one in the end and then there was a lot of time spent adapting that to our custom software system," he says.

The team built a content management system that's designed to incorporate spatial data. "We have a spatial mapping tool that we developed as part of that, and that allows you to very quickly and efficiently plot artworks on a 2D floor plan and assign them an x and y coordinate, along with all the associated interpretative material," Holzner says.

The content and spatial data is exported to a system located within MONA itself that services the 1340 O devices.

The sheer number of iPods MONA uses means that the team also developed what Holzner says are "the world's largest USB charging hubs".

Custom charging bays can connect to 240 USB devices at once, and six of them are chained together to charge the fleet. The museum also has one of the densest Wi-Fi environments in Australia, using Aerohive controllerless wireless architecture.

There is no manual updating of the content on the O devices: the iPods check with a server located inside MONA every time they are started up to check they have the latest content. Content is permanently cached on the iPods.


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