A Configurable Gamified Web Application for Museum Visitors
Jakub Swacha, University of Szczecin, Poland, Karolina Muszyńska, University of Szczecin, Poland, Artur Kulpa, University of Szczecin, Poland, Susanne Marx, Stralsund University of Applied Sciences, Germany
AbstractWe demonstrate a configurable web application that can be used by visitors with their mobile devices instantly, without prior installation. The application can be used by museums of any size. The key feature of the application is its support for gamification, allowing designing and applying various types of game-based rules to stimulate visitors' motivation and engagement, as well as reinforce educational effects of a visit. All the application content, including museum branding, route plans, exhibition-related content and the system of gamification rules, can be easily changed by museum staff alone using the provided cloud-based Content Management System (CMS). The demonstrated application is provided by a non-profit network of museums using it, which is open to be joined by new museums, provided they will commit to share the costs of maintaining the server-side infrastructure. The ownership of all the content developed by the staff of museums for the application and maintained with the CMS stays with the respective museums and is not transferred to any third party. The application has been developed within the framework of the BalticMuseums: Love IT! project co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund in the Interreg South Baltic Programme.
Keywords: mobile guides, e-guides, gamification in museums, ICT in museums, software for visitors
The idea of using small portable devices to guide visitors has been embraced by museums for many years; while its earliest form, the audioguide, has been in use for decades (Mann and Grace, 2015), it was the developments in mobile technology of the last quarter of century that created vast opportunities to enhance visitor experience using rich multimedia content, Internet-based communication, precise in-door navigation, as well as augmented and virtual reality.
The classic way of providing mobile guides to visitors is by renting them, which obviously stems from a period where only specialized devices were used to serve such a purpose, so no visitor could be expected to own them. While this remains a popular model, even providing a considerable source of income for some notable museums, e.g. the British Museum (Hudelson and Austin-Gonzalez, 2019), there is a number of difficulties and problems attached to it, such as the risk of losing the devices (due to theft or destruction), seasonality challenges (the number of rented devices can hardly match the changing demand) and the pure cost of providing the rental services (including the investment in the equipment and hiring the staff to operate it).
The alternative is the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) model, in which the visitor’s own mobile devices are used as guides. The first solutions of this kind in museums can be dated as early as 2005 (Sayre, 2015) when mobile devices still had very limited capabilities and were not as widespread as they are today. Over time, these two barriers have diminished, also the expectations of visitors have changed, with a growing interest in using their own mobile device in the museum, as noted by Hudelson and Austin-Gonzalez (2019).
This paper sets out to demonstrate a configurable web application supporting gamification for museum visitors. It results from the ongoing project “BalticMuseums: LoveIT!” implemented by a network of museums, universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Baltic Sea region. In the sections to follow, we describe selected existing systems for designing BYOD tours, briefly introduce the project “BalticMuseums: LoveIT!” and its reasons for developing an alternative configurable museum guide application. Then, the application with its configurable functions and gamification elements is described in further detail. Finally, sustainability issues of the system are discussed along with accessibility for other institutions.
Configurable museum guide applications
While in the rental-based model, the museum has to provide both the guide hardware and software, in the BYOD model, it only provides the latter. In fact, the role of the museum can be reduced even further, to providing only the content presented via the software, thus focusing on the area where the key competencies of the museum staff are. This is made possible by configurable museum guide applications which can be adapted to the needs of different museums by their configuration alone, obviously including the replacement of content, but without a need to make any changes to the source code. The separation of software and content has also the other benefit of reusing the existing content with future generations of mobile platforms (Stein and Proctor, 2009).
One of the oldest solutions of this kind is TAP, an open-source software originally developed by Indianapolis Museum of Art, comprising mobile applications for iOS and web browsers and authoring tools built on top of the Drupal web content management system (CMS) (Moad and Stein, 2009). One of its key features is the support for the TourML format for describing guided tours (Stein and Proctor, 2009). While the development of the original project was stalled around 2015, the work has found its continuation in the Guidepost project (Pugh, 2019).
There are also country or regional initiatives to develop shared mobile guide platforms for museums. Little is known about the current status of the one undertaken in Finland (Wang, 2013), however another such initiative, fabulAPP, providing not only the technical basis with a content management system but also the knowledge to design, set-up and operate a museum guide app, has been joined to date by 60 museums in the German federal state of Bavaria, which it is addressed to (Landesstelle für die nichtstaatlichen Museen in Bayern, 2020).
There are also analogous commercial solutions, one of which is My Tours (2020). It provides configurable mobile application for iOS and Android phones and tablets, as well as for web browsers and a web-based tour editor.
Currently, the most widely used solution of this kind, with over 10 thousand tours provided, is izi.TRAVEL (2020). Despite being operated by a commercial company, it provides free mobile apps for iOS and Android, a free cloud-based content management system and an open Application Programming Interface using which the content it hosts can be accessed by third-party software of any kind.
BalticMuseums: Love IT! project
BalticMuseums: Love IT! (2020) is an international project (full title: “New brand of gamified tourist products for sustainable development of natural and cultural heritage tourist destinations”) realized under the Interreg South Baltic Programme 2014-2020 and supported by the European Union from the European Regional Development Fund.
The project involves nine partners and eight associated partners, including nine museums and science centers: NMFRI Gdynia Aquarium (Poland), Lithuanian Sea Museum in Klaipeda (Lithuania), Malmö Museums (Sweden), NaturBornholm (Denmark), Experyment Science Centre in Gdynia (Poland), Museum of the World Ocean in Kaliningrad (Russia), Estonian Sea Museum in Tallinn (Estonia), Experimentarium in Copenhagen (Demark) and Lolland-Falster Museum (Denmark), three research partners: University of Szczecin (Poland), University of Applied Sciences in Stralsund (Germany) and Business Academy North in Greifswald (Germany), and five partners providing domain knowledge: Institute of City Culture in Gdańsk (Poland), Foundation of Internet Industry Development “Netcamp” (Poland), IT-Lagune (Germany), IZITEQ (Netherlands) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Tourism Council (Germany).
The main aim of the project is to develop multilingual BYOD mobile-guided tours providing an enhanced visitor experience, featuring multimedia content and gamification. The game elements integrated into the tours are supposed to make the visitor experience more involving, amusing and extend the single visit into a long-term relationship. In order to make the developed tours better suited to the target group, user-centric design and user-experience methods have been applied. Also, a series of hackathons were organized, to enable enthusiasts to share their creative ideas regarding the use of mobile technologies in museums.
While each of the existing solutions presented in the first section has merits of its own, when confronted with the needs and expectations of the museums involved in the “BalticMuseums: LoveIT!” project, none met them all. The paid platforms did not pass the requirement of keeping maintenance costs at minimum level. The otherwise excellent izi.TRAVEL app did not meet every museum’s needs for the allowed level of customization and available forms of gamification. The mentioned open-source projects did not support any gamification and adapting the legacy code to address this gap was deemed too cumbersome.
For the above reasons, the “BalticMuseums: LoveIT!” project partners decided to unite their expertise to develop a new configurable gamified museum guide app that could be freely used by both the project consortium members and other museums.
Choosing the target platform is a key decision in the development of museum apps (Cawston et al., 2017). While native apps have the possible advantage of running without Internet connection once they are installed and offer wider technical flexibility, which may be crucial in certain locations (see e.g. James et al., 2019), on the downside they have to be installed before use which creates a barrier, especially if the download time is long (see e.g. Stuber and Meyers Emery, 2019). Among the “BalticMuseums: LoveIT!” project partners, the latter exceeded the former, and the decision was made to implement a web app.
All the project partners participated in the requirements elicitation and design phases of the app development, whereas its source code was developed by a subcontractor, a Polish IT company specialized in web applications, supervised by University of Szczecin whose internal team developed the server-side components (the web service and the management platform). As for the content presented to visitors (including gamification rules) via the app, it is in responsibility of the respective museums using it.
The basic content organization component in the app is a view, which is what the visitor sees on his/her mobile device screen at any given time. Technically, it is a dynamic web page (even having an own URL), fetching its content from the server and displaying it in a form predefined by the view type. Various types of resources can be attached to a view (such as hypertext, audio, image and video), the way they are displayed depends on the view type. The resources can be provided in multiple languages, the version actually displayed depends on the visitor’s language setting.
The general assumption that the app should be usable by small museums with limited resources resulted in an idea of an extensible list of view types. Twelve configurable view types considered as useful for most museums were defined in the app:
- Avatar, used for presentation of an avatar or a virtual guide (with an image and description),
- Avatar selection, used for choosing one from the available avatars or virtual guides,
- Branch, used for presentation of a path available to choose (with an image and description),
- Branch choice, used for choosing one from the available paths,
- Card, used for presentation of a card or any other virtual item that can be obtained by a visitor (with an image and description),
- Default, usually consisting of text description, image, audio recording and video (see Figure 1),
- Game, an embedded mini-game that the visitor can win or lose (which could be any game, to be implemented as an extension of the app, not a particular game that would be provided in the app as such),
- Map of route, an image showing a map of the route (see Figure 2),
- Menu, a foldable menu or submenu,
- Panoramic view, an image showing a location that the user may scroll and zoom in and out, with the child views automatically marked on it that can be clicked by the user to open pop-ups or navigate to other views,
- Quiz, presenting a quiz question with the predefined answers (see Figure 1),
- Survey, presenting a survey question with the predefined answers.
The museums can extend the list with new types (e.g. augmented or virtual reality visualizations), but then they have also to extend the app source code to handle these new view types.
The views can be attached to locations, which denote physical places that can be visited. There is no limit on the number of views attached to a location, but each location can only have one default view to be displayed as the first one when the visitor gets to that location.
The locations are organized into routes, and the routes can be assigned to areas (these could be separate buildings, building levels, exhibitions etc.; small museums will usually have only one area defined). The areas are assigned to a site which is the highest-level content object, representing the museum as such (its name, logo, description, imagery).
For the sake of implementing linear routes, each view can have a next item specified, while in the case of museums where locations are visited in free order, the items should not be chained between locations (in that case, the map item becomes crucial – see Figure 2). There are two view types that lead to more than one subsequent views (Avatar choice and Branch choice) from which the visitor picks one. Also, one of the possible results of gamification rule is a view to which the visitor will be navigated.
The views, regardless of their type, can be edited using the dedicated CMS. While the CMS user interface consists mostly of typical forms composed primarily of text and selection boxes, there are some exceptions, such as the visitor path editor (to arrange views in proper order) and route map editor (to place markers denoting respective locations on the map and assign an ordering to them), the latter of which is presented in Figure 2.
The views can also be displayed as popups, which, when closed, navigate the visitor back to the parent view. The popups are especially useful for the Panoramic view type, but they can be embedded even in Default type views using links in the hypertext. There is no limit of child views (popups) connected to one parent view.
The gamification is implemented in accordance with guidelines presented by Swacha and Muszyńska (2018), as rules composed of conditions and results. The conditions define specific user-generated events whose happening may trigger a rule (e.g. solving a quiz at a specific location). Both individual and team-based conditions can be defined (thus allowing both competition and cooperation gamification scenarios). The results define what happens when the specific rule is triggered (e.g. increasing score, awarding a badge or a virtual item, displaying a special view). Defining the visitor level progress is simplified to specifying point thresholds, so that there is no need to declare a separate rule for passing every threshold.
Any HTML5-based mini-game can be inserted at any point of a tour using the Game view type. There are also two basic question and answer view types: quizzes and surveys. Technically, both are used to ask the visitor questions, though only the former checks the correctness of the answer.
Any route can feature an Avatar choice view. Despite its name, it can be used not only for setting the visitor’s avatar, but also for choosing a virtual guide (narrator). In both these cases, the chosen avatar or character becomes visible in the status bar at the top of the app user interface (and in the user profile), and may affect the content presented to the visitor in a route or gamification rules.
Apart from the configurable view types for displaying tour content, there are also predefined views for special purposes in the app. These include:
- views used for presenting specific data, e.g.: welcome screen, user profile and status,
- views used for retrieving specific data from the visitor, e.g.: language selection (see Figure 1), user authorization, and QR scanner,
- views performing both these functions at the same time, e.g.: area, route, location and team selection (see Figure 1).
Current app development status and future work
At the moment of writing these words, the “BalticMuseums: LoveIT!” project partners are working on their respective tours which will be published in Spring 2020 (so far, the app has only been used with test content). In parallel, there is ongoing work on the management platform aiming at enhancing its current form-based user interface typical for web content management systems to accommodate WYSIWYG capabilities, so that the content could be edited straight from the app preview. This work will also be finished soon, along with a tutorial to the management platform which is a prerequisite to offer the solution to other museums.
The future work, planned for late Spring 2020, when the tours will become available to the visitors, will be to evaluate the app from the points of view of both visitors and museum staff. The evaluation results will be reported in separate publication.
The example of TAP (Moad and Stein, 2009) shows that even good solutions need constant maintenance to keep up with the fast progress in mobile technology. In order to sustain the presented app in the long term, the “BalticMuseums: LoveIT!” project partners decided to form a cooperation network whose responsibility will be to maintain the servers hosting the app for the network partners, react to any technical issues with the app that may materialize in the future and make decisions regarding future upgrades of the app.
Being aware of the problem of low usage of many museum apps, often stemming from their poor promotion (for instance, most of the 71 museum apps examined by Economou & Meintani (2011) were not even mentioned at the respective museum’s homepage), the project intends to introduce a brand (emused.eu) to make the gamified tours better recognizable and marketable. Note that the brand is dedicated for promoting gamified tours in general, not only including those based on the app described here. The brand will also be managed by the network mentioned above.
The network is open for other museums that wish to make use of the app and/or the brand developed within the “BalticMuseums: Love IT!” project. Every network member commits itself to participate only in the server upkeep costs on yearly basis, and further development works can only be started if there is no veto from any network member and sufficient funding provided from willing network members or other sponsors.
In the world of increasing competition among tourist attractions, the museums need to constantly improve their offerings in order to deliver quality experiences to their visitors, so that their rising expectations could be satisfied. The widespread proliferation of smartphones allows the museums of the world to provide their visitors with mobile applications which offer a convenient and usually cost-effective alternative to traditional means of passing information to visitors. They also make feasible new forms of interaction with visitors, including concepts and techniques adopted from games of various kind to stimulate visitors’ motivation and engagement, as well as reinforce educational effects of a visit.
In this paper, we described a configurable gamification-supporting web application for museum visitors developed within the framework of the ongoing BalticMuseums: Love IT! international project, involving 17 institutions from the Baltic Sea area. The three-year project is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund in the Interreg South Baltic Programme.
The application, although designed for mobile devices of various formats, has been developed as web application (rather than native mobile app for iOS or Android) to avoid the need to install it on visitor’s phones, as visitors are often reluctant to do so. The application can be used by museums of any size.
In contrast to proprietary apps, it can be configured for the needs of any museum by its staff only with a dedicated cloud-based Content Management System (CMS), allowing an easy change of museum branding, offered routes and covered points-of-interest, presented content and the whole system of applied gamification rules. As the web application presents data obtained directly from the server, the moment a change is made in the CMS, it is reflected in what the visitors can see in their devices.
While the gamification component is its main distinguishing feature, the presented application has also the advantage of being provided by a non-profit network of museums using it, which can also be joined by new museums with the only commitment of sharing the costs of technical maintenance. Also, the ownership of all the content developed by the staff of museums using the application stays with the respective museums and is not transferred to any other party.
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