Wednesday, July 23, 2008

iPhone, barcodes, and natural history museums

One of my pet peeves is how backward natural history museums are in grasping the possibilities the Internet raises. Most electronic displays in museums have low information content, and are doomed to obsolescence. Traditional media (plaques, labels) have limited space, and also date quickly. For example, the Natural History Museum in London has a skeleton of Diplodocus carnegiei (see photo below by EmLah). This is one of many replicas distributed around the world.

The plaque describing this fossil has fairly minimal information. Wikipedia, however, has a nice article on Diplodocus, which includes a public domain image of the replica skeleton being presented to the trustees of the British Museum of Natural History in 1905.

Given the limitations of physical media, museum labels and plaques will always be small, and will often be out of date. Wikipedia, of course, can be kept current, and anybody can contribute.

So, the trick is to link the physical object to the Internet. This is now trivial thanks to mobile tagging. By pointing a mobile phone with a camera at a 2D barcode, one can go from physical object to web site.

Here is a 2D barcode for the URL of the Wikipedia article on Diplodicus. Imagine taking your iPhone, pointing it at this barcode, and being taken to the Wikipedia page. If museums were clever, they could set out their own Wiki, and mobilise the combined skills of the museum staff, volunteers, and visitors to populate it.

Now that the iPhone has applications, imagine creating an application that read these barcodes. Kevin Chiu at Columbia has a made one, and there are others out there. Museums could build on this, brand it with their logo, and greatly enhance visitor experience.

Wonder if anyone is doing this...?


Brian O'Meara said...

Linking museum objects to deeper info elsewhere is a great idea. One thing to consider is that children form a major component of a museum's audience, and many of them probably don't have the latest Apple gadget. Perhaps museums could cheaply rent devices to school groups (like the audio tour devices available now), to allow kids access to this info (maybe they could all be $200 tablets).

Kevin Zelnio said...

Apple can at times be a pretty innovative company. If a famous natural history museum wanted to put in order in for 1000 iPod touches, for instance, to use with this barcode system I am sure there can be a way to come to agreement between the 2 parties for both advertising purposes and utilization by the museum.

The museum can then "check out" these devices stripped down to only the necessary functionality needed (i.e. internet, sound, maybe even translation services for audio tours?) where the client leaves a drivers license or 20 dollar deposit or whatever.

Also, why wikipedia? This is right up the alley of EOL! This is a perfect opportunity for them to become more relevant to the public and provide a useful service. If every museum links to EOL through mobile device, information is standardized and more authoritative than wikipedia. Plus several major museums already have a vested interest in EOL, so it just makes sense.

Rod Page said...

Kevin, as far as I know the iPod Touch lacks a camera, so it couldn't read the barcodes.

Re EOL, I agree this is an obvious connection, but frankly my money is on Wikipedia. EOL have yet to demonstrate that they have the savvy and drive to be a player.

Kevin Zelnio said...

*googles iPod touch* Yep, your right. Which is pretty dumb on their part. OK, so you still use the iPhone which is really expensive but Apple is willing to cut a deal by sponsorship of some kind (maybe). You could still use the Touch but instead of photographing a barcode, enter in a 3 digit code that takes you the EOL or Wikipedia entry.

Re: EOL, I agree and it will be a while before they get a significant amount of content online. But you could have a function that scans EOL for the species in question then goes to wikipedia if it is not there. Or a google search as a last resort. But that could prove dangerous to a museum given some of the "exotic" species names that exist out there.

Rod Page said...

I should point out that you don't need an iPhone to do this. Any phone with a camera, a web interface, and support for software could do it (of course, the iPhone is much nicer than its competitors). The idea of linking Wikipedia to objects via phones is outlined at

Susan Perkins said...

I think this is a really cool idea, Rod and would certainly help keep exhibits up to date with links to current research or other relevant information and would allow visitors to also better retrieve that info later at home when they want to recall the cool thing they just learned about, their recent visit. Sounds a bit more fun and interactive than podcast tours or other audio guides, too.

Rutger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rod Page said...

Oops! Freud would have a field day. Fixed now.

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