What is Immersive Storytelling (and Why Should You Do It)?

Immersive storytelling will unlock the true potential of your museum or attraction. But what is it precisely? And how can it increase visitor satisfaction and attract new audiences?

what_is_immersive_storytelling

“Stepping forward, you feel a slight shiver of trepidation as your eyes struggle to penetrate the gloom. The first thing you sense is the noise – the distant howling of an Antarctic wind outside and, more loudly and worryingly, a series of ominous, sometimes downright alarming, creaks all round you.

You can feel the wooden planks of a ship’s deck under your feet and the smell of pitch fills your nose. As your eyes adjust, you realise the dim light is cast by oil lamps, gently flickering. Suddenly, the lamps sputter out and you’re pitched into utter darkness. Your breath quickens and your heart thuds loudly in your chest as, frantically, you wonder what will happen next.”

Those aren’t the first few lines of Patrick’s Cornwall’s latest naval blockbuster but the first few seconds of our Shackleton Immersive Cinema experience at the Fram Museum in Oslo. The experience of those first few moments demonstrates the power of immersive storytelling and highlights its two key aspects.

Shackleton Immersive Cinema at the Fram Museum, Oslo.

What is Immersive Storytelling (and Why Should You Do It)?

Firstly, this is all about placing your audience at the heart of the story. They’re there – in this case, stepping back 100 years into the gloomy hold of Shackleton’s Endurance as the life is slowly crushed out of it by the asphyxiating sea ice. They may be able to influence events, or they may be mere bystanders, but they’re going to experience the same events, the same emotions, as the people who were actually there.

Secondly, all of their senses are engaged. The distant howl of the Antarctic wind, the dim glow of the oil lamps, the feel of the wooden deck underfoot, the strong smell of pitch assailing their nostrils and snaking through their mouth on to their tongues.

So if that’s answered the question “what is immersion?”, what about the “why immersion?” query. Well, there are multiple reasons.

I’ve worked in marketing for over 20 years and the holy grail for marketers is word of mouth. That’s because people telling other people about your product or service is free. Of course, the theory’s the easy bit – in practice it’s much harder. But there are 2 key principals principles to generating word of mouth. The first is “unexpectedness“. The second is “emotion“.

It’s still the case that, the expectation of a museum experience involves lots of glass cases and lots of reading. Pitching people into the heart of an Antarctic ship as the sea ice squeezes it so hard it shoots out of the water, well, that’s unexpected – even in the most high profile of attractions.

Words can stir the emotions no doubt but nothing can top the emotional impact of being there – of seeing what those involved would have seen, hearing what they would have heard, feeling what they would have felt. Each emotion stimulated creates a little hook in the memory – making it more likely they’ll recall your story long after any written account would have been forgotten. The sheer impact of stirring all those emotions will mean they’ll be desperate to share their experience with their friends and family.

So immersion can help your stories live longer with your visitors, and compel them to tell their friends. Not bad. But I also think it can do more. It can not only can it bring you new visitors but, it can bring in a different type of visitor.

Two groups are key to audience development – they’re Out and Abouters and Explorer Families (as defined by our friends at the National Trust – you can read more about their audience segments here.)

For these two groups, museums and heritage attractions are just one of a number of leisure time options. They have the desire to learn but it’s balanced with the desire to have fun – either with their partner or with their kids (or both). The traditional museum experience holds limited appeal but the chance to have fun while adding to their knowledge – well, that’s very attractive. Immersive storytelling ticks all their boxes

But there’s one final reason for this approach, and it has nothing to do with your visitors. When I was young, I used to run around castles and yearn to be a knight – to experience the pomp and chivalry of the joust, or the adrenalin-pumping adventure of battle. I’m sure you had similar childhood fantasies, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing what you do.  With immersive storytelling, you can fulfill your own fantasies, and those of your visitors, even if they’ve been buried for decades. What could be more rewarding than that?

Immersive storytelling is groundbreaking, a little risky and may take you out of your comfort zone (although people like us are here to help.) But looking at your visitors ‘ wide-eyed stares of wonder and hearing their cries gasps of excitement makes all that effort worthwhile.

That’s why we do it, and why we think you should do it too.

Hallucinations and Why They're Key to Effective Immersion

Hallucinations and Why They’re Key to Effective Immersion

Hallucinations are both much more common and benign than you may expect. And the art of engendering them in your audience is the key to effective immersion.

Hallucinations and Why They're Key to Effective Immersion

Hallucinations are both more common and benign than you might expect,

Let me tell you about some weird things that have happened when I’ve been listening to binaural (3D) audio.

Some years back, I was listening to the first cut of our ‘Walk with Lady Mary’ audio trail for Conwy Council and the Forestry Commission. One sequence involved us journeying back to the 16th century to meet Lady Mary’s Tudor ancestor, who comes barrelling out of the woods on his trusty steed. On the soundtrack, a horse neighed and, from the corner of my eye out of my office window, right on the edge of my peripheral vision, I saw a horse trotting along the road outside. When I turned, it wasn’t a horse at all but a car. But I was sure I’d seen a horse…

Another time, I was listening to an underwater track for a piece of scuba diving VR. Now, I haven’t spent much under the sea but I did do some scuba diving when I was a backpacking around Australia in the early 90s. That track alone created a strange sensory reaction – my skin went cold and goosebumps started to rise on my arms. The track had clearly surfaced that 30-year-old memory of diving off the Great Barrier Reef – but not the visual part of it, just the feeling of being under the sea.

I had a similar sensory reaction when I was sitting in my office listening to a soundtrack recorded on a tropical lake in South America. It was a cold, winter’s day and I didn’t have the heating on (it was the early days of PastPorte and I had to mind the pennies…) Even though I was wearing two pairs of socks, my toes were getting a little stiff with cold. But I was listening to this sound track and the strangest thing happened – my toes began to warm up, as if my brain believed I was really in the tropics.

How do you explain all of this? Well a recent article in The Atlantic on the nature of hallucinations may go some way to doing so.

As soon as I say ‘hallucinations’ that will make you think of people seeing things that aren’t there. That’s a partially correct definition of the word but a hallucination is actually any sensory perception of something that isn’t there. Ever felt your mobile vibrate in your pocket, taken it out and found there’s no reason why it would have done so? Or felt a phantom rain drop on a cloudy day when it wasn’t raining? Or thought you heard someone in your house calling your name, checked and found that nobody had? Well, all of those occurrences are forms of hallucinations. And before you question your sanity (or I question mine) you should know that hallucinations are remarkably common things and for the most part, entirely benign and not the result of any deep seated psychosis.

So what causes us to perceive things that aren’t actually there? Well, the experts think it may be down to how our brain perceives the world around us.

Corlett and Powers, both from Yale School of Medicine, have advanced the theory of ‘predictive coding.’ “When we go about the world, we’re not just passively perceiving sensory inputs through our eyes and ears,” Corlett says. “We actually build a model in our minds of what we expect to be present.”
It’s Corlett and Powers theory that the brain doesn’t always get this model right – it has the capacity of overpredict – to be fooled, in essence. I can expect something to be there which isn’t, and this expectation can be so strong that the brain creates something that isn’t there. A hallucination.

I should say at this stage that the predictive modelling theory is speculative and isn’t yet accepted psychological fact but it goes some way to explain the false sensory reactions that I, and others that have listened to binaural audio have experienced. Those hyper realistic three dimensional sounds have made our bodies build a false model of our surroundings and elicited some quite remarkable sensory hallucinations.

Why particularly does sound have the power to do this? We think it’s something to do with our sensory hierarchy. We’re so visually dominant – so programmed, from our earliest days of roaming the Africa plains, to look out for danger – that it’s easier to fool those other senses that are well down the pecking order. And clearly, this ability to fool the brain aurally can create these sorts of false sensory reactions – benign hallucinations which have the ability transport people, immerse them further in our imagined-worlds and create truly deep-seated and memorable multi-sensory experiences.

We think we’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential of audio – and other, second tier senses such as smell – in cultural attractions, particularly inside heritage attractions where there’s already an authentic visual backdrop to work with. The secret to effectively to transporting people to new times and places isn’t necessarily through their eyes – where they’ll likely see the flaws in your illusion – but through those other, secondary senses that are easier to fool. And the theory of predictive modelling would suggest that you only have to create part of the illusion – then you can rely on their imagination to do the rest…

How Will Virtual Reality Move into the Mainstream?

Will VR ever move into the mainstream? We think it will, and this is how it will probably happen.

Copyright: martinan / 123RF Stock Photo.

We’re at the very early stages of VR and its possibilities. This we know. Although gamers have been exploring the technology for several decades. And computer scientists (some via games) have been squirreled away in labs, coding and creating fantastic other-worldly experience – whether they’re art, educational tools or simply darned cool toys for re-imagining anything you can think of.

At an awe-inspiring evening of VR exhibits at Goldsmith’s College the other week, we were trying to work out who, amongst the gathering of VR gurus and geeks, could claim they were there at the birth of VR – and when was that? *

In his keynote, Dream Reality Interactive’s Dave Ranyard recalled Nintendo’s Virtual Boy – a very red piece of kit, released in the 1990s. But despite Nintendo’s seeming midas touch at the time, Virtual Boy, was never a commercial hit.

Beyond gaming, VR was then, and still is a niche product. Yes, VR headsets are everywhere, even on offer at the petrol pump, but mainstream adoption beyond gaming is a dream that seems a long way off.

Will VR ever really move into the mainstream – and if so, how?

Here’s a theory.

Simulators have long been essential in some industries, airline pilot training for instance. But they’re very expensive. There are other situations where a simulator type experience would be hugely useful, but so far, too expensive, lugubrious or inappropriate to consider. VR could be the solution.

When I was working on Amsterdam’s VR Days conference last autumn, I had a fascinating conversation with Arnout van Raaij at Dutch construction company, BAM. A year on from their first encounter with VR in 2015, BAM has integrated the technology into their workflow. It means that every person involved on a build can visit the building – virtually. The sparks can see where the sockets would be, the plumber can check the piping and the architect can try out some light effects. And the client gets to walk around their new building before a single foundation has been dug. BAM reckons their approach would benefit the entire construction industry.

Where real-life training is a matter of life and death, VR is an invaluable tool: training surgeons to carry out minute, detailed operations, with no risk to a human. Or war zone preparation where charity workers, journalists or the military no longer need to deal in paper-based or imagined hypothetical situations, now they can be there – virtually.

For now, these kinds of VR uses are still only taking baby steps. The opportunities are there – but they’re limited.

The game-changer will be when the huge potential for VR training and simulator applications is realized. Then VR headsets become common in the workplace – maybe even in every workplace. And once that happens, VR headsets will come home in backpacks and briefcases. They become normalized – integrated into our lives at home, like smartphones or ipads. We’ll use them to check in with friends, do homework or join a meeting.

Imagine limbering up with your favourite football team instead of your usual workout routine at the gym.  Or dropping in on a cookery class with a top celebrity chef as you start to plan dinner.  Or reaching for your headset, instead of painkillers, to take away the pain when you feel a headache coming on. Or popping into your virtual spa, for a ten minute relaxation when you need a quick break…

For now, the ultimate goal of VR developers is to allow you to go somewhere cool, do something amazing and take your friends with you. But, I believe, it’ll only bed into our lives – at work and home – once we start using it for the everyday stuff.

Then the (endless) opportunities become really interesting.

 

*For the record, there were several claims to the title: ‘the first UK produced VR game’. To avoid legal suits, we’re not going to list the contenders here.  Suffice it to say, they date from the dark ages of gaming, when every developer was a forever-teenager with a translucent skin from too many hours glued to a computer screen in a dim, dingy bedroom…

How Your Museum’s Past Can Influence Your Visitors’ Futures.

In this post, we discuss how the concepts of ‘retrospective memory’ and ‘prospective memory’ can influence a museum’s approach to the presentation of its content.

Copyright: delcreations / 123RF Stock Photo.

Why do humans have a memory?

Reminiscing about the past can be very pleasant, but it doesn’t confer us any evolutionary advantages. In fact, for our distant ancestors, such behaviour could have been a distinct disadvantage – perhaps re-living the enjoyment of last night’s meal as a predator sneaks up intent on making our forebear tonight’s meal.

No, we have a memory because it helps us to plan for the future.

As a nomadic hunter gatherer, you can see many practical advantages of having a memory. You’ve come across a water hole in the height of a searing Summer – you need to remember where it is, and the fact that it was there when other waterholes had dried up. Someone in your tribe has eaten a berry that’s made them sick – best remember what that berry looked like and create an association between it and your sick clansman so no-one eats it again.

And it doesn’t just make sense from a theoretical point of view either. If I put you under an MRI scanner and asked you to think about the past, and then to think about what you’re going to doing in the future, I’d see activity in the same neural networks in your brain. That’s because we have a ‘retrospective memory’ (remembering the past) which is linked to our ‘prospective memory’ (planning for the future.)

When you think about it, those are two excellent metaphors for museums and heritage attractions. If you think of your museum as a repository for collective memories, you can either position your attraction ‘retrospectively’, that is as a means of purely learning about the past, or ‘prospectively’ – using the past to influence and inform the future behaviours of your audience. Both approaches have their merits.

The ‘retrospective’ approach can deliver pure escapism – telling a rollicking good story because it entertains your visitors, makes them realize that their own lot isn’t so bad and transports them away from their cares and stresses for a few hours.

The ‘prospective’ approach is important too because we have a habit of making the same mistakes. Remember Gordon Brown’s famous references to ‘no more boom and bust’ before the Great Recession of 2008? He was never going to break a cycle that had been in operation since at least since Ancient Egypt, probably since Mesopotamia. And how many times have we seen a repeat of the famous ‘South Sea Bubble’ stock market crash since the beginning of the 18th century? Museums and their curators no doubt have an important part to play in helping people in all walks of life to make smarter decisions in the future by learning from their ancestors’ successes and failures.

And at a time when people increasingly live in their own bubbles, only consuming information from sources that affirm their existing views, the universal appeal of many museums puts them in a unique position to challenge people’s thinking in a way no other media can.

The lesson here is that, when you’re designing your museum, exhibition or heritage experience, you need to think about what you’re trying to achieve.

For both ‘retrospective’ and ‘prospective’ approaches, you’ll want to make your experience memorable – so that people can recall it and tell their friends about it. But in the latter case, you need to think very carefully about what ‘prospective memories’ you’re aiming to create – what do you want people to think, say and do as a result of visiting your exhibition. Then you can plan your content around it.

Particularly in this latter case, you need to understand the role of cues – as they’re one of the ways you can turn current intentions into future action – and that’s a subject we’ll cover in the next post in this series.

Our Guide to Immersive Storytelling in Museums

Immersive storytelling is an exciting and memorable way to bring history to life but it can be a daunting challenge. We share some tips for getting it right.

Bringing the past to life is one of the most memorable and exciting ways of interpreting history. And with all the immersive tech now available, helping visitors to feel, smell and breathe the air of historical events is more and more possible.

Binaural audio – with the right concept, script and actors – can trick the brain into believing you have time travelled and are experiencing a new reality – even though the sights around you haven’t changed. Virtual reality can take you anywhere, to be anything, moving through time and space. Haptics bring an extra sensory dimension, smells can be hugely evocative and all of it can be combined to create spine-chillingly powerful effects.

It’s a very exciting prospect. But perhaps a little overwhelming.

There are so many possibilities and so much choice of kit it’s easy to be blinded by the tech and lose sight of what it is you want to achieve and what suits your space.

There are four key mantras that we at PastPorte tend to work by – and live by. They work for us. And we think they’ll work for you too.

1. Keep it simple.

Rarely is the success of your immersive experience going to depend on how much you’ve spent on the kit, how many microphones you’ve used, how many speakers you’ve plugged up or how many projectors you’ve got going.

It can be hard to stick to keeping it simple. Especially when seduced by constant tech innovations.

One of Pastporte’s most successful installations used just two simple resonant speakers, purchased in a domestic high street store, loaded with a pared-back atmospheric soundscape.

Also we try and use silence. Lots of it. The brain gets overstimulated with a constant assault from sophisticated, exciting sounds and starts to regard them as normal. Binaural audio works best if it’s a constant surprise. But to achieve that, the brain almost needs to have forgotten what it sounds like. So, in any story, we build in sections that are silent or low key to create contrast and keep up the surprises. We think that makes an experience more immersive.

2. If there’s something to see, keep your visitors eyes up.

Encouraging visitors to look at a screen and use a multi-media guide is great if there’s nothing to see at your attraction.

But most museums and attractions are all about feasting your eyes on what’s around you – aren’t they? So why would you want to distract from that by asking your visitors to look away from your visual treats and instead, get their eye candy from a screen (especially for kids when their parents are likely to feel they’re too screen-dependent already) ?

If there’s something to look at, let them look at it but augment their experience in other ways. Here too binaural audio can build your experience into a full immersive, time-travelling wonder. Especially if it’s the right audio.

3. Build on your strengths.

Make your artefacts the centre of your immersive story. Turning an artefact into an interactive, immersive exhibit is a neat trick – one we’ve regularly used at PastPorte. Using a gorgeous, if knackered, bellows camera, installed headphones and an AV screen, we transported viewers to Antarctica, 1915. The leather bellows (with associated musty smell), mahogany and brass housing all started to do our work for us – before the viewer had even begun our immersive time travel experience.

A visual, tangible object that can tee up the brain for what is to come adds extra impact. And the added bonus of using an artefact that already feels part of the period and is appropriate in the setting means the whole experience is more integrated yet also more surprising.

4. Content is king.

Whatever approach you choose, and however you choose to deliver it, it’s the content that will make your experience stand out. However great the tech set-up, if the content doesn’t tell the story well, no-one will remember your experience.

Spend time devising the right story and the right approach to telling that story, and constantly review both as you develop the experience. It can be easy to lose sight of the most important thing in amongst the glitz of all that fabulous, shiny kit.

But it’s the content that will live on when the latest tech fashions have come and gone.

Ten Ways to Give Your VR Installation More Impact

Last year, we were lucky enough to get immersed in the world of virtual reality, working on a couple of projects with BBC R&D.

The process of planning, creating and watching the public reaction to our work has proven one thing – successful VR installations are about much more than the content and the technology to deliver it. Audiences need to be intrigued, feel safe and be able to share.

So we decided to share our top tips.

1. Don’t forget about the ‘before’ experience. A sense of anticipation adds to the adventure, just like that time when you were in the queue for the rollercoaster.

2. So….create a scene-setter to help build the before-experience excitement. It doesn’t need to be big or expensive. Something that can work as a tangible tease.

3. Let your viewer sit down. They’re less likely to fall over.

4. Let them have their feet on the floor. It’ll reduce the likelihood of motion sickness.

5. Give them a seat that has a full 360 swivel so they can fully explore your beautifully crafted 360 virtual world.

6. Give them some leg room. That way they’re unlikely to have that awkward moment of bumping knees with a stranger.

7. Create a safe space for them to enjoy the VR. A cubicle/enclosed area that is setup for VR viewing means they can be comfortable reacting and fully immersing themselves without feeling like they’re looking like an idiot.

8. Find somewhere to stash their bags/belongings safely so they’re not distracted from their adventure by worries about having their stuff nicked.

9. Consider introducing smells, haptic (vibrating backpacks, temperature changes) to add extra sensory dimensions.

10. Have a great backdrop or scene for your VR that will be a great selfie/tweet opportunity and get people spreading the word.

If you’re looking for some practical examples of what we mean, have a read of our Turning Forest @Tribeca case study.

 

The Museum & Heritage Attraction Guide to Immersive Tech: Binaural Sound

We use a number of technologies and techniques to immerse visitors in our clients’ stories. Binaural sound is one of the simplest, but most effective.

Binaural sound is so immersive, your visitors will be agape.

Binaural sound is so immersive, your visitors will be agape.

I’m walking through the most English of English gardens – all manicured lawns and artistically sculpted hedges. What I’m hearing, though, isn’t quite so quintessentially English – it’s the distinctly tropical sound of humming cicadas. But despite the fact I know that this is clearly the ‘wrong soundtrack’, my brain is telling me that this distinctive hum must be coming from the garden around me. Such is the power of binaural sound.

Binaural sound is an immersive sound technology delivered via headphones. If you know how to use it properly, you can trick the user’s brain into hearing sounds all around them – to the left, right, behind, in front, above, at different distances and any combination of those directions!

I had the experience described above when testing our audio guide for the National Trust’s Hidcote Manor Garden. The audio brings the garden’s creator, Lawrence Johnston, back to life – binaurally – to take you on a tour of his garden and his life. One sequence takes the listener back to one of Johnston’s 1920s plant hunting expeditions on the South African veldt. My ears were telling me I was in Johnston’s beautiful arts and craft garden. My ears were telling me that I could hear cicadas. And, because of the nature of binaural, my brains was telling me that those cicadas must be in Johnston’s garden.

Our 'Walk with Lawrence Johnston' experience, created for Hidcote Manor Garden.

Binaural sound is so immersive, your visitors will be agape.

Binaural is so effective because, unlike stereo, it’s recorded in exactly the same way the brain hears. Think about how you hear a sound – a sound to your right will be heard by your right ear fractionally before your left ear, and the sound you hear in your left ear will be distorted a little by the fact that the sound is passing through your head en route. You only have two ears (a safe assumption I hope) so your brain can’t properly triangulate. Therefore, it has to work out from these fractional differences, and other contextual clues, exactly where the sound is coming from. If you understand how the brain works, you can ‘trick’ it into hearing sounds in all sorts of places.

For example, one of the common misconceptions about binaural is you can’t make the listener hear sounds in front of them. This is because your sight is a large part of your hearing (bear with me). The brain can’t locate a sound properly with only two sound sources, so your first instinct is to look for the thing that could be making that sound. Once the likely culprit is spotted – for example, a mobile phone when you can hear a ringing – your brain will allocate the sound to this object.

You can use this knowledge to make binaural even more effective if you understand the location your listener is standing in when they listen to it. In our ‘Walk with Lawrence Johnston’, the distant bleating of sheep on the soundtrack coincides with the listener overlooking a distant field of sheep. When I was testing the experience, I couldn’t tell if the bleating was ‘real’ or was part of the soundtrack. Certainly my brain was telling me it must be coming from the sheep – and I was ‘hearing’ that sound coming from a field slap bang in front of me.

Another clue your brain looks for is context. If, by experience, the brain knows a sound comes from a certain place, then this element in a binaural soundtrack will be heard in this place. So the sound of a plane will be heard high above your head, the close yapping of little dogs will be heard down low by your feet, the tweeting of birds will be heard in any tree that is in vision.

The final thing to note about binaural is to do with the nature of sound vs. visuals in our sense hierarchy. Dinah and I have found many virtual reality experiences disappointing partly because we’re so visually dominant, our brains often ‘see through’ the trickery. Because sound is a ‘secondary sense’, it’s easier to fool the brain. We like to say that sound is ‘hardwired’ into the imagination – get it right and it really can be transportative. It’s one of the reasons that binaural sound is so effective. When I first heard those cicadas, my brain said ‘wrong’ but after a matter of seconds it had switched back to focusing on what I was seeing, rather than what I was hearing, and the cicadas became the ‘actual’ soundtrack to the garden.

How can you use binaural sound? Well, you can use it to transport your visitors to wherever and whenever you fancy. We’ve used it to transport listeners from a 21st century shopping centre to a 19th century factory floor, back 300 years in a Methodist chapel to eavesdrop in on the conversations of two of the movement’s founding fathers, and to pitch them into the midst of a medieval battle. But the possibilities are endless.

Imagine for a few moments how binaural sound could enhance a visit to a castle. Other senses are stimulated – visitors can see the walls, towers, moat and courtyard, smell the distinct damp limey odour of the interiors and touch the cold stone walls. Binaural sound – the babble of the tradesman in courtyard, the crackling fire and bawdy banter of the great hall, the low moans from the dungeons – would be all that you’d need to transport your visitors back 1000 years.

Or what about creating a binaural audio tour of one of your experts taking visitors around your gallery? Not only would the commentary be natural – a stark contrast to the stilted scripted audio guides that curse many attractions – but the binaural would make the listener feel they were actually part of that group and that the expert was with them, guiding them around and sharing his knowledge in ‘real time’. How much richer an experience for your visitors would that be?

Whetted your appetite to try some binaural for yourself? Well, fish out your headphones and try one of the sample below and let us know what you think via the comments below.

And if you’d like to know how binaural, or any of the other immersive techniques we’ve described in this blog, could enhance your museum, gallery or attraction, just drop us a line.

Why Multimedia Guides are Often Not the Answer

Multimedia guides are all the rage.  But that doesn’t mean they’re the right interpretation solution. In fact, in most cases we think they’re the wrong choice. Here’s why.

Don't we spend enough of our day staring at tiny screens?

Don’t we spend enough of our day staring at tiny screens?

You’re about to visit a castle, explore a gallery or investigate a museum. You’re going to scale mighty stone towers, delve into dark and dank dungeons, admire exquisite works of art, marvel at the ingenious artefacts of our ancestors. And, of course, you’ll want to spend a large amount of your time peering at a tiny video screen too.

Sounds odd when you put it like that, doesn’t it? Why would you want to spend time staring at a tiny video screen when you’re surrounded by all that wonderful heritage and culture? But you must want to do it – that can be the only explanation for the plethora of multimedia guides out there.

Look, I have no doubt the multimedia guides are popular – we’re primarily visual creatures and we’re mesmerised by moving images – but that doesn’t make them right. I’ve got 2 children and when I take them to the park, I see plenty of parents mesmerised by the screens on their smartphones when, frankly, they’d be much better off playing with their kids.

I’m not saying multimedia guides are wrong per se, I just think they’re often introduced when they’re not needed – a ‘so and so has got one, so we’ll have one’ phenomenon that doesn’t deliver the best experience for visitors. Besides, museums and heritage attractions have barely scraped the surface when it comes to the potential of audio to enhance their visitor experience.

When we approach each project, we have 2 guiding principles – ‘eyes up’ and ‘augmenting reality’. Let me explain.

‘Eyes up’ is a description of how we want visitors to explore a museum, gallery or heritage attraction – keeping their eyes up taking in the visual feast that surrounds them, rather than down, locked onto a 5 inch screen.

Augmenting reality’ is the job of interpretation – using media to enhance the sights, sounds and smells of the environment the visitor is exploring, not to replace them. Let me give you an example.

When we were approached by the National Trust’s Hidcote Manor Garden, our challenge was to help visitors to understand the history of the garden and its creator, Lawrence Johnston.

Of course, a multimedia guide would have been an option, but do we really want people to be squinting at a tiny screen when they’re exploring one of the world’s most beautiful arts and crafts gardens? That’s an emphatic ‘no’.

Lawrence Johnston, who we brought back to life via binaural audio.

Lawrence Johnston, who we brought back to life via binaural audio.

So we created a pure audio experience. In fact, better than that, we created a 3D audio experience using a little known audio technique called binaural sound. Because it’s recorded in the same way the brain hears, audio recorded in binaural isn’t just heard to left and right like stereo, but all around the listener. It’s an immersive, and often quite spooky, experience.

Using this technique, we brought Lawrence Johnston back to life to take visitors on a tour of his gardens and his life. Visitors felt like Johnston (played by an actor) was with them – sometimes encouraging them to follow him further into the garden, sometimes whispering conspiratorially into their ear. We also used this technique to transport visitors to different times and places – the garden in its 1930s heyday and packed with socialites, or the South African veldt on one of Johnston’s plant-hunting expeditions.

Were there visuals ? Yes – a map to guide visitors around the garden and one static archive photograph to accompany each of the six stories. But our main aim was to ensure that we were augmenting the reality – the beauty of the garden – creating an eyes up experience where Johnston’s enthusiastic descriptions enhanced what they were seeing.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for ‘replacing reality’ sometimes too. We’ve created audio visual experiences that have been designed to stand alone – not working with their environment – because that environment was a gallery offering no other stimulus other than blank white walls and plain wooden floors. Then you have to conjure up something from nothing.

And we’ve created mobile games too – but games that encourage people to interact with the space around them, and to minimise time interacting with the screen.

But the temptation when you have a screen available is to fill it with something – and it’s then you could fall into the trap of creating content that distracts rather than enhances.

Our advice would be to think augment rather than replace. Like you and me, your visitors probably spend too much of their time looking at tiny screens. Free them up to look at something genuinely inspiring for a change.

What Families Want from Museums and Heritage Attractions

With the Summer holidays approaching, your mind will be turning to what you can do to attract more families. But first, you need to understand what they want. And that’s simpler to understand than you might think.

What do families want? Fun, family time and me time.

What do families want? Fun, family time and me time.

I’ve done some pretty challenging jobs in my time but nothing as tough as being a parent.

You want to nurture the innate talent in your child so they become a happy, productive and well regarded member of society. And sometimes, you genuinely think you’re achieving that. And at other times – usually after a blazing row over the removal of some electronic gadget – the only future you can imagine is one based around the visiting hours of whatever state institution they happen to locked up in.

Of course, there’s an opportunity for museums and heritage attractions here to help make the life of parents a little easier. But first, you have to know what families want. Lots of ‘experts’ in the field will tell you that’s terribly complicated, but actually it’s quite simple.

There are two sides to this ‘happy family’ equation – parent and child – so let’s focus on the child’s side first. And I have to admit that despite racking my brains for some considerable time, I could only come up with one ‘want’ which applied to my two boys – Fun (with a capital ‘F’!) Whether playing games on the Playstation, kicking a football around the garden, watching YouTube on their tablets or transforming the front room into a Ninja Warrior course, they just want to have fun. And let’s be frank – unencumbered by responsibility, that’s what we’d want too.

For parents, things are a little more complicated – but only a little more. They want two things rather than one – a little quality time with their kids, and a little ‘me time’ without their kids.

Quality time with your kids happens when they’re having fun and you’re having fun at the same time, whilst doing something together. Purely having fun is enough some of the time but it’s even better if that fun has an additional benefit – like getting some exercise or, and this is where museums and heritage attractions come in, learning something useful.

To give you can example, I took my kids to Jumptastic the other week. We had great fun leaping into foam pits and throwing soft balls at each other whilst bouncing on trampolines. But I had the added satisfaction of knowing both I, and my kids, where getting one of our two recommended weekly doses of strenuous exercise.

Quality family time at Jumptastic.

Quality family time at Jumptastic.

What ‘quality time with your kids’ isn’t is what’s billed as ‘family interpretation’ at some museums and heritage attractions. Let me give you an example.

Take my visit to a high profile castle recently. Audio guides were offered – one billed as the ‘adult’ version and one billed as the ‘child’ version. My 9 year old and I stood listening to our respective guides. We had no idea what the other was listening too and no prompts to interact with each other. We weren’t having a shared experience – we were having two parallel experiences. There wasn’t even an attempt to dovetail the length of commentary between guides – sometimes, my son would be standing there, bored rigid, for 2 minutes waiting for my commentary to finish. It was as if the designers of that tour had envisaged children visiting the castle by themselves.

Contrast that with going to the cinema to see a well written children’s movie like Minions. There’s plenty of slapstick to get the kids laughing like drains and lots of clever irony aimed at the adults. We can all enjoy the same movie even though we each get something different out of it. Surely that same approach can be easily extended to family interpretation in museums?

Let’s move on from that to the concept of child-free ‘me time’. This is the time that parents crave to have by themselves (and I challenge you to spend time with the same person 24/7 and not crave a little me-time) but frankly, feel a little guilty about. That guilt is lifted if you know your kids are engaged in doing something that’s both fun and good for them whilst you’ve got your feet up – in contrast to activities perceived to rot their brains like shooting zombies on their PS4 or being transfixed by a talking cat app on their tablet.

The museum cafe is the prime place for a little ‘me-time’ over a cuppa, but museums and attractions rarely take advantage of this opportunity to give parents a bit of a break. Adults and kids attitudes to the cafe are very different – adults want to take their time and have a little mental and physical break whilst children want to consume what’s in front of them as fast as they can and then bomb off to have some more fun. The logical thing to do is to offer the kids something to do in the vicinity to give the parents a bit more of break.

At a recent exhibtion I came across a company that offered interactive floor projection games. Their biggest clients? Family orientated cafes. If more museums and visitor attractions offered things like this to give parents an extra few minutes of ‘me-time’ while the kids have some educational fun, then families would be singing their praises.

Parents genuinely love their kids but keeping them entertained can be a challenge. Museums and heritage attractions can help by offering things that enable them to have fun together, and a little guilt free ‘me time’ apart. And your reward won’t just be the warm feeling that comes from creating happy memories of good times together – although that’s reward enough in itself – but by more families beating a path to your door.

Transporting Visitors to Tribeca into the Heart of the Turning Forest

How do you stand out amongst 50 virtual reality experiences jostling for attention in a crowded, noisy, shiny modern gallery? This was our challenge when we showcased a BBC R & D/VRTOV Virtual Reality experience at Storyscapes, the Tribeca Film Festival’s VR fest. 

Immersed in the Turning Forest

Immersed in the Turning Forest.

No-one likes queuing but it’s an unavoidable reality when it comes to visiting theme parks. Even the most innovative, modern venues haven’t solved this problem.

But maybe there’s a good reason not to. When you’re standing in line, drumming your fingers, trying to stop the kids from sending you slightly mad, you are already part of the Ride experience. You may not have stepped on to the rollercoaster yet, but your mind and body are anticipating the thrill to come. As you get closer to the front, you’re primed, ready to throw yourself over the brink, to fully submit to adrenalin heaven.

So how do you create that same mindset when presenting a VR experience? This was our challenge when we showcased a BBC R and D/VRTOV Virtual Reality experience at Storyscapes, the Tribeca Film Festival’s VR fest in April. The installation was one of 50 Virtual Reality experiences jostling for attention in a crowded , noisy, shiny modern gallery. Our task was to – almost instanteously – transport visitors to a world of fantasy forests that would trigger memories of childhood adventure. And to create a near sound-proofed space in which they could let their imaginations fly and become fully immersed in our VR story.

For this was one thrilling VR story. Written by Shelley Silas with binaural sound design from Eloise Whitmore and Chris Pike and VR from internationally-renowned VR artist, Oscar Raby, the Turning Forest took the audience on a journey through a magical wood – home to a friendly monster, with musical teeth, that you play by reaching out and plucking them.

The story deserved the most effective, evocative sound-proofed scene-setter we could dream up. Within (a small, BBC-sized) budget. Built in New York but procured from a UK backwater with minimal broadband. And in less than a month. No pressure then.

After several iterations and phone and internet bashing to wring out the best deals, we ended up with a beautiful bivouac-style tent. On to a strong domestic pergola (from China via Kmart) we draped acoustic blankets (think very thick duvets) and topped them with yards of autumnal camouflage netting with red, ochre and brown leaves intertwined. Inside there was a carpet of fake grass and small grassy swivel stools to sit on. With smells of the forest – created by the BBC’s Zillah Watson’s children – it was an almost fully sensory experience. Vibrating backpacks tuned to the pitch of the monster’s movements took the audience one step closer to total sensory immersion (perhaps we should include a Heston Blumenthal contribution next time?)

Grander plans had come and gone: Spiraling cones, leading to dark sound-proofed centres, mirrors and odd-shaped rooms to create the sense of the space getting smaller while the visitor gets bigger and igloo-style structures made of rolled acoustic blankets.

But it worked. And the audience left with that wide-eyed stare of awe we’d hoped for.

And I’m looking forward to the next opportunity, when we can pull out those big plans and create the most immersive experience ever imagined.