iBeacon technology is a relatively new but accessible form of proximity sensing technology that uses a low energy Bluetooth signal to trigger content on mobile devices within its signal range.
Having had previous experience of working with iBeacon technology, Cwmni Da - one of Wales’ leading independent media production companies – saw an opportunity to develop their experience by testing its potential for audience engagement within a cultural and artistic context.
Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw is situated in Llanbedrog on the Llyn Peninsula and recognised as Wales’ oldest art gallery. Working as technology partner with the Gallery as well as the Art and Design Foundation Course at Coleg Menai, Cwmni Da set out to develop a mobile app that used location-sensing iBeacon technology to deliver exhibition-related content to gallery visitors; to deepen their engagement with exhibited artwork.
As well as this they sought to explore how iBeacon technology could be used by artists, working with Coleg Menai Fine Art students to develop an app that could provide a creative extension to their work featured in their end of year exhibition.
Projects that experiment with new iBeacon technology are still relatively rare. As a result the team embarked on a progressive journey that explored the technology’s potential for enhancing audience engagement within a visual arts exhibition environment.
Together, the team developed an iterative approach using small iBeacon devices to explore their ideas over the course of two pilot events, with a final application created at the end of the process.
The first pilot took place at the Gallery, and placed iBeacons under individual works by artist Diane Metcalf. Each triggered specific content through an iOS and Android app, providing extra context and detail about the piece delivered by the artist and visual arts experts.
The second pilot gave Coleg Menai students free reign of the iBeacon devices to create multimedia enhancements to their visual artworks, from environmental soundscapes, to video art to dramatic readings delivered through a prototype iOS app.
The two pilot projects provided significant learning to shape the final application; the Oriel Plas Glyn-y-Weddw Visitor Guide. As well as using iBeacon devices to deliver content about specific exhibitions, the app also provides a guided tour of the building. By broadening the function of the app, it serves as an audience engagement tool for attracting and retaining visitors to the exhibitions, rather than just using the building facilities.
The app also allows users to browse content remotely without the requirement for iBeacon proximity. While iBeacons trigger specific content on-site, app content can also be viewed remotely by manual navigation.
Through the two pilots and the creation of a final application, the team significantly developed their understanding of iBeacon technology and its use in audience engagement.
The iBeacon devices’ performance proved to be challenging and inconsistent in the first two pilots,
with a range of technological problems needing detailed configuration to deliver a consistent user experience. This learning proved vital to shaping the final app which functioned well with no problems.
The project provided significant insight into the best types of content for this kind of application, with audio content clearly identified as the most valuable in an exhibition context.
The team observed that rather than enhancing an experience, video and graphic content served more as a distraction, with people looking at their phones instead of the artwork. Noise created by video also posed a problem, with headphones of no use for visitors coming as a pair or group, and unwilling to sacrifice the social aspect of their visit.
This learning was a difficult pill to swallow for the team who had always based the project on presenting audiences with high-production value video content. However, their original plans were sacrificed in the interest of quality user experience.
The audio-only solution that the final application provides, underpins the exhibit with useful content that can be played by lifting a device to the ear or played to multiple users discreetly through device speakers.
Despite the technical issues and adjustments required along the way the team unanimously agreed that iBeacon technology does show promise in enabling an engaging, live experience for audiences. The quality outcomes of the project were reflected in the success for Cwmni Da, who received an award for innovation for their role in the iBeacons project.
Key insights taken from the project are:
- Quality content should enhance, not distract from the art itself: High quality content should be delivered to underpin the artwork that the audience is engaging with, not out do it. It needs to be discreet and consistent so as to avoid acting as a barrier between audience and art.
- Access the artist: Users were interested in content delivered by the artist themselves, rather than from other people providing extra commentary on the work. Accessing the views of the artist proved most engaging in terms of content.
- Keep it simple: In a gallery context, most visitors will be first time users of the app, therefore the functionality needs to be clear, simple and intuitive, so as not to create negative off-putting experiences.
- Position is everything: when using iBeacons in a gallery setting, planning and positioning is vital in ensuring glitch-free functionality. iBeacons in close proximity can cause problems and will negatively impact user experience.