Motivation – Beacon-Enabled Museum Guides

When you enter a museum, your phone starts the guide app of the museum automatically. When you look at an exhibit in the museum, the app starts playing the audio commentary of this exhibit. The app provides additional information like web links, videos, photos and texts. When you take photos, the app adds the photos as additional information to the exhibit you are looking at. When you finally reach home, you have your personalised museum guide and you can relive your tour through the museum whenever you want. This is the kind of experience you should expect in 2016.

A Dire Present

Contrast this to the reality. When you enter a museum, you must rent an audio guide, which costs an extra 10 euros on top of the ticket. You get a device looking like the Gordon-Gekko phones from the 1980s. When you enter a room with exhibits, you go hunting for an information plate with the number for an exhibit. You probably have to squeeze through other visitors to find this number. Then, you punch the number into the audio guide, hold the audio guide to your ear (typically no headphones) and start listening to the audio commentary for this exhibit. This is a pretty poor user experience and certainly not what smartphone-savvy visitors expect.

Let us now look at the situation through the eyes of the museum. The museum pays a lot of money for the audio guide devices, because they are produced in very low volumes (thousands) – especially when compared to phones (millions). If an audio guide were an app on a phone, the museum does not have to pay for the audio guide device – the visitor’s phone – at all.

But it comes even worse for the museums. Whenever they change their displays or have a special exhibition (a pretty frequent event), the proprietary software of the audio guides needs being changed. The only one who can do these changes is the manufacturer of the audio guides. And – the manufacturer will charge heavily for this. Ideally, the museum should be able to change the contents of the audio guides on their own and simply load the new contents into the audio guide app. This would reduce the costs as well.

Beacons Guiding the Way

The problem of expensive bespoke hardware is easy to solve: Replace the hardware by software. The audio guide device simply becomes an app on a phone. The visitor brings the hardware (phone) to the museum instead of the museum buying and providing hardware (audio guide device) for visitors to rent. Visitors have a familiar and high-quality user experience with the guide app. They could listen to the audio commentaries for the exhibits through their headphones while leaving the phones in their pockets or handbags. Even if visitors still had to enter the numbers of the exhibits on their phones, the user experience would already be much better. And equally important, such an app solution would be much cheaper for museums.

Entering beacons. Beacons are Bluetooth Smart senders (formerly known as Bluetooth Low Energy or Bluetooth LE) that emit a small data packet in regular time intervals – like lighthouses used to emit light rays or beacons in regular time intervals to all directions. That’s where the name beacon comes from. The data packets contain a beacon ID and some attributes like signal strength and distance from the receiver of the packet (the visitor’s phone).

Left: front side. Middle: circuit board with battery, easy to open and to replace battery. Right: Back side with QR code "FGBr" as ID, hole to screw beacon to wall.

Left: front side of beacon. Middle: beacon interior – circuit board with battery, back and front side; very easy to open and to replace battery. Right: Back side with QR code “FGBr” as ID, hole to screw beacon to wall.

Beacons are small (50x50x17mm) battery-powered devices. Depending on the time interval and the signal power, beacon batteries can hold up to three years. One beacon costs roughly 20-25 US dollars when bought in a quantity of 10 units. It should be possible to negotiate discounts for higher volumes. Kontakt.io, one of the beacon manufacturers, runs a programme “Beacons for Good”, where charities get a steep discount or get the beacons even for free. Most museums are organised as charities.

It is important to understand that beacons have no clue about what phones do with the information received from the beacons. Beacons do not even know which phones are in the vicinity. So, it is the app using the beacon information that must take care of privacy concerns.

Now that we have an idea how beacons work, we must address the crucial question. How do beacons improve the user experience of a museum guide app?

Typically, several beacons are in range of the visitor’s phone, that is, the phone sees several beacons at any time. Using some “clever” algorithms, the app can figure out which beacon is most likely the closest one to the phone. Then, the app starts playing the audio commentary of the exhibit associated with the closest beacon. Beacons save visitors from taking the phone out of their pockets, bring the app to the foreground and punch in the number for the exhibit of interest. All this happens automagically with the phone in the pocket – much more convenient and much more fun than traditional audio guides.

Many More Possibilities…

Once the museum guide is an app on an Internet-connected phone and the app knows at which exhibits a visitor looks when, many more things become possible.

The app can send information messages over the Internet to the museum’s servers about which exhibits visitors look at, how long they look at each exhibit and in which order they visit exhibits. This is priceless information for museums. Museums know exactly what visitors like and don’t like. This information helps museums to decide which exhibitions to display in the future and which exhibits to buy – and to save good money with informed decisions.

The museum guide app can offer different tours through the museum. One tour could be for visitors with little time – guiding visitors to the most coveted exhibits only. Another tour could guide visitors, for example, only to the impressionist paintings in the Louvre in Pairs (well, no Mona Lisa then). Yet another tour could be for a temporary exhibition like the terracotta warriors from China in the British Museum. Treasure hunts or indoor geo-caching for kids are easy to realise with a beacon-enabled app.

With beacons deployed in a museum, the app could provide “turn-by-turn navigation” for the tour through the museum. From my own experience, I know that it is pretty easy to get lost in huge museums like the Louvre, the Uffizi or the Topkapı or to miss some interesting exhibits. So, turn-by-turn navigation or just seeing our current location on a floorplan are incredibly useful features for a museum app.

The engagement with a visitor does not end once the visitor leaves the museum. Museums can send notifications to visitors about new exhibitions or special events like the “Long Night of Museums” in Munich, where people can visit most museums in Munich at night for only 15 Euros. The best customers are those who return. And, they may even buy yearly tickets for their favourite museums.

Stay Tuned for More

I hope that I got you interested in a beacon-enabled museum guide realised as a phone app. I have actually built a prototype guide app for the iPhone over the last three months. My focus was on good location accuracy and an easy setup. I will share my learnings in a series of posts and the source code on github.

I plan the following posts. If there is a link to a post, it’s not a plan any more 😉

  • The current post “Motivation – Beacon-Enabled Museum Guides” argues that beacon-enabled museum guide apps provide a much better user experience and cost much less than their traditional counterparts.
  • The post “Solution Overview – Beacon-Enabled Museum Guides” shows how instance-based classification – implemented by a k nearest-neighbour algorithm – can be used to locate one out of many exhibits in a room. It also argues why the obvious algorithm of choosing the beacon/exhibit with the minimum distance to the phone isn’t good enough.
  • The post “Beacon Ranging in the Background” shows how to enable beacon ranging for an iPhone app both in the foreground (easy) and in the background (not so easy).
  • The post “Training Phase – Beacon-Enabled Museum Guides” explains how to provide the content for a tour through a museum, how to associate beacons to exhibits and how to record reference fingerprints for the location algorithm.
  • The post “Prediction Phase – Beacon-Enabled Museum Guides” describes the actual location algorithm – a k nearest-neighbour search algorithm commonly used for classification tasks in machine learning.

Stories about Beacons in Museums

  • Kirk Bowe – Museum exhibitions as dynamic storytelling experiences using the latest technology (srcoll down until you see the heading “Museum exhibitions…”). Great article about basic and advanced uses of beacon technology. Motion profiles of visitors can be used for traffic flow management to avoid traffic jams and to guide visitors to other exhibits that they may like based on their past behaviour.
  • John-Paul Little – A year in the life of an iBeacon project for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Wakehurst Place (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). Detailed report about an outdoor beacon deployment in the Royal Botanical Gardens – from the idea of using beacons, a small prototype to test beacons and convince internal stakeholders, to a pilote app used by visitors. A report about the first six weeks of using the app can be found here.