Space, Time, and the Stories in Between

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Space, Time, and the Stories in Between

If you’ve ever muttered “get a move on” under your breath to a fellow visitor at a museum who won’t stop hogging an interpretive touchscreen, you’re not alone. Screen space is a hot commodity in the museum world and sometimes there’s just not enough to go around when you arrive. That’s why using a large, expansive canvas to tell an interactive story can be beneficial to everyone: it creates a world where Screen Hogs become Screen Buds.

Most of our work at NGX involves designing programs for touchscreens or touch tables that are typically in the range of 42” to 55” across, but sometimes we get the opportunity to create something on a larger canvas. We recently completed an interactive Alumni Story exhibit for the UBC Sauder School of Business that consists of a four-panel touchscreen approximately 16.5 feet long and 22 inches high (screen space for all!) with dynamic layering of content seamlessly integrated across all four panels. Designed as a timeline stretching from the school’s formation in 1929 to the present day (with the option of adding content in the future), it tells the story of Sauder through historic images, cultural and academic milestones, biographies, and class composite photos. In terms of screen space, it’s one of our most ambitious projects to date.

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Each screen in this exhibit spans a given section of time such that visitors are encouraged to physically move along all four screens to experience the Sauder story in its entirety. We also used this get-moving-along-a-timeline approach for Ice Core Detectives, one of the exhibits in the Environment Gallery at the TELUS World of Science Edmonton. In this exhibit, visitors use a rail-mounted monitor as a virtual magnifying glass to explore an ice core model that, much like the rings of a tree, tells a 10,000+ year story of the local climate. At various nodes, the visitor can stop to view the magnified image of the ice core model and read detailed panels on screen that tell the story of a specific element observed in the ice core. In this case the screen used is not particularly large, but because it’s physically moved through “time” over the ice core and the content changes in response, the canvas feels larger than the dimensions of the screen.

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Ice Core Detectives exhibit at Telus World of Science Edmonton

The beauty of these approaches is that you can navigate the whole thing from start to finish, or you can enter the story at any point and your experience won’t feel incomplete. There’s more than enough engaging content to glean at each independent entry point.

Another example of an interactive timeline story told on a large scale is the World Travels Touchscreen at the Saint John Paull II National Shrine in Washington, DC. This 6-screen interactive wall from the folks at Bluecadet highlights the world travels of Saint John Paul II during his papacy and is punctuated by photos, videos, audio, and brief descriptions about each trip, spread across a canvas large enough for many visitors to join in at once. A really cool feature of this exhibit is the proximity sensors that act in tandem with the attract screens – as visitors walk the length of the exhibit, quotes from the Pope at each era animate to greet them, inviting them to explore further.

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World Travels Touchscreen at Saint John Paul II National Shrine; Image: bluecadet.com

For me, what I like most about these large canvases is that they give the story room to breathe.  Fitting 85 years of school history onto a standard 42” touchscreen, for example, isn’t impossible – I’m confident it can be done in a creative and innovative way that doesn’t feel crammed – but this content is at its best when it’s physically spaced out. An 85-year school legacy is not something to be taken lightly, and a 16.5 foot long canvas just adds to the weight of the story by creating a sense of scale for the visitor: the screen distance between 1929 and 2014 underscores the sheer length of time that has passed. I never thought I’d be discussing space-time continuums on this blog, but here we are.

It’s not always possible to use a large canvas when creating interactive timeline stories, but when the opportunity arises it’s important to fight the instinct to cram it with as much information as possible. Instead, think about how the extra space can best be utilized to get the most impact out of your story and then shape your content around that goal. With great space comes great responsibility. I’ll show myself out.

– Jason Clarke, Content Strategist

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