In the last year or so, I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity through the work that we do to have talked with and explored a huge number of cultural and tourism institutions, including museums, art galleries, municipalities and tourism boards. My goal in these meetings has been to try and understand the challenges that institutions in the ‘wider’ cultural market face, particularly those challenges that have to do with how to effectively use technology to engage with visitors; but also, to be an evangelist for a paradigm that we like to call the ‘omni-channel Physical Web approach’ to visitor engagement.

Museum exhibition in traditional kitchenBefore proceeding, let me take a step back and try to define what I mean by the ‘wider’ cultural market. Quite simply, my main concern has been to explore those locations and institutions that AREN’T your national museums or galleries, with a huge budget to spend, and the ability to purchase and deploy the cutting edge of ultra-expensive, ultra-fancy digital technology. Instead, my focus has been on the numerous much smaller institutions around a country, staffed and managed by passionate and hard-working men and women who unfortunately often must work under the strains of much smaller budgets than their larger brothers.

Although my work has extended to contacts within municipality authorities and tourism boards that also manage outdoors attractions, in this post I’m more interested in the realities of locations such as small museums and galleries. Lack of resources, lack of time, and a scepticism around traditional hardware based electronic and audio guides, has been the consistent theme I have found with most of these contacts.

When discussing how they understood the role of technology to engage with visitors, and connect them with rich information and multimedia, the people I would talk with would stir the discussion towards two types of engagement opportunities. First, a hardware based approach that focused on technologies such as traditional audio guide devices, electronic guide devices, digital screens and the like. Secondly, in institutions that sought to be more forward-thinking and modern, the discussion would shift to an app-based approach, and the prospect of engaging with the visitor by having him download an app on their phone through which rich content, media, and interactivity could be communicated.

Audio guide museum exhibition

For smaller institutions, neither of these approaches is ideal. The vast majority of locations I would visit would not have the resources to invest in hardware based solutions, nor have the capacity to worry about issues such as repairs or upkeep; and similarly would also lack the resources to develop an app-based solution, which even if possible and affordable, would face the problem of convincing visitors to download and use on their phone.

In my second role as an evangelist therefore, I would often talk, as I do here, of the idea of the ‘omni-channel Physical Web’ as a core indispensable tool for visitor engagement, to be used as the basis for digital engagement, rather than as simply an afterthought. But let’s discuss first the obvious question, of what ‘is’ the ‘omni-channel Physical Web’.

The core idea behind a Physical-Web museum engagement solution, is that nearly all the fundamental ‘hardware’ needed to digitally engage with an individual is the already existing physical space of the museum itself and its exhibits. I mention ‘nearly’ because even in a such an engagement solution, there would still need to be some technology deployed, but its cost would be practically negligible compared to existing systems. In the ‘Physical web’ connected museum, we would be able to ‘surf’ the physical space of the institution for information, just as simply as we are able to ‘surf the web’. Our overall goal is threefold:

  • To radically reduce the costs of digital engagement with visitors
  • To maximize the number of individuals that we can engage with
  • And to do all of this using a solution that will not hurt the aesthetics of our space with prominently displayed technology

The ‘Physical web’ is a term that was initially Introduced by Google back in 2015 to introduce one of its latest core projects, whose aim was to allow physical objects in a location to communicate information to phones using an open source Low Energy Bluetooth beacon technology by Google called ‘Eddystone’. You can see the introductory video by google here although in the context of what we are talking about, we are expanding the term beyond this narrow definition by Google, to encompass any kind of technology that can allow a physical object to communicate information to a phone device.

Whereas Google is naturally interested in promoting its own ‘Eddystone’ technology, when I talk about an ‘omni-channel Physical Web approach’, I’m talking about a synchronised, coordinated use of multiple connectivity technologies that can be used within an indoor space to ‘connect’ with the phone of an individual. These can include the Wifi Network of the location, NFC touch points, Bluetooth beacons such as Eddystone, or even traditional printed codes to scan.

By utilizing all these technologies, we are introducing a wide range of methods with which an individual can interact with the physical space of the museum that they walk in – they can touch their phones on an interactive point, or scan a code, or connect to the Wifi network, or just walk near a beacon. The common threads between all these techniques are that they:

  • Utilize extremely inexpensive ‘hardware’ to work
  • Work directly with an individual’s phone, without the need for separate devices to hand out
  • Work with either the native capabilities of a phone, or through the use of apps already commonly installed on most smartphones, and thus don’t require the development and marketing of any bespoke apps.

Museum exhibition on the Physical WebThis Physical Web approach is a direct challenge to the app-centric, and app-focused paradigms of the last few years. As powerful as mobile apps can be, the key challenges remain that they are expensive to develop, and that unless you are Facebook, Youtube, or another one of the two dozen or so near ambiguous apps out there, most people simply will not download your app. And for the vast majority of smaller institutions that I’ve been talking with, spending a ton of money to develop a fancy app that maybe 1% or 2% of their visitors will ever use is simply not an option.

The choice of an omni-channel approach is not only to offer multiple interactivity options, but also to ensure that every single visitor, whatever the phone type they use, or the apps they have installed on it, will have at least one method of ‘immediately’ accessing the digital content we might want to communicate. Whenever trying to base a solution on a single technology in isolation, you will always face questions such as ‘What if a visitor has this type of incompatible phone, or has this option turned off on their phone’, etc. An omni-channel Physical Web museum offers a choice for all visitors, with the minimum of actions required from them. The key word ‘immediately’ is important here: a defining aspect of a Physical Web approach is to make information available as simply as possible, while reducing the steps a visitor needs to do prior to engagement.

Let me give a practical example. In a project I was involved with a few months ago, we wanted to build a digital engagement solution for an art gallery, for the purposes of a short-term exhibition that was going to run for 2 months only. What we did to help was develop a digital, web based guide, with information about the gallery and the various exhibits in it. This looked and functioned exactly the same as if we had developed and presented the same content and interactivity opportunities within a mobile app, but being a web based system we could develop it much faster and much cheaper than if we had to develop an app, which we’d then just have to release and hope that people would end up downloading.

Zampelas Gallery InfopointWhat we then did is implement an omni-channel Physical Web approach within the gallery itself, to direct visitors to content from this guide. First, we made it so that any individual connecting to the Wifi network of the gallery would be directed to the main page of the digital guide we created. We also installed a Bluetooth beacon that could do the same thing for people with Bluetooth enabled, whereas next to every single exhibit we deployed what we call an ‘Infopoint’ digital access point – essentially a small and discrete touch point that combined an NFC chip, and two types of scan able printed codes. Either touching the infopoint or scanning it, would immediately direct the visitor to the content about the specific exhibit that we wanted to communicate.

But then, because the system was not based on an app or any kind of hardware that the visitor had to pick up at reception, we took this omni-channel approach a step further, by integrating it with the traditional communication channels of the gallery. In doing so, we gave them a simple and easy to use backend that allowed them to link to any page or content from the same digital guide through their social media, or mailing lists, or even directly from their own website, allowing them to further maximize the engagement possibilities they could get out of that one system.

Truth be told, we did also install a single tablet at the entrance to the exhibition showcasing the same digital content, but otherwise avoided the use of any other expensive hardware. Physical Web connectivity became the core of the engagement solution, rather than an afterthought to a hardware and device heavy approach, which kept the costs for the gallery minimal, and the aesthetics of the exhibition as clean and tech-free as possible (after all, when we enter a museum or gallery, we do so with the intention of being immersed in its physical space, and not distracted by large screens or tablets all over the place). In summary, we managed to offer all the interactivity, digital content, and multimedia that we could have offered by developing a bespoke mobile app, or by purchasing an expensive audio guide solution, at a fraction of the cost, while ensuring that we made this immediately available to every single visitor.

The time for a paradigm shift is now, having reached the point where both the technology is ready, as well as the ability to access it from nearly all visitors. The omni-channel Physical Web museum fulfills the promise of technology to give even the smallest of institutions capabilities to digitally engage with customers that could otherwise only be afforded only by the very largest of locations.

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