AUDIO GUIDE ME, Next interactive Audio guide.

la statue san tete_ Samothrace

Zelda and Samothrace by François Groussard

Recently Lynessa, a friend of mine from South Africa, went to Italy for the first time. Since I’m Italian she asked me for advice. I suggested, above all others destinations, the Uffizi museum in Florence that keep an astonishing collection of our best visual heritage. After a moment I realised that the Uffizi is not at all the easiest entry point to understand the italian culture. I visited it years ago and it was complicated as hell. So, once she was back, she kindly told me: “It’s a nice museum, but since I don’t have your italian background, I didn’t fully enjoy it …and the audio-guide sucks”. Yes of course, I thought, the presence of the paintings is not enough to justify a museum, to building a narrative in the mind of the visitors, to be involved and to immerse yourself in the experience.

But what did draw my attention was the audio guide issue.

We all have an experience with audio guides, normally they are this funny design devices with touch or push buttoned systems. Visitors will enter the code assigned to the object exhibited and the related content will be provided in form of audio tracks. During recent years the system has evolved: some audio guides are provided with a GPS or NFC system, more complex screens and functionalities, sometimes the devices are completely substituted by cell phones or tablets, that usually are owned by the visitors or rent at the museum. I think that the idea of overlapping an audio layer on top of the visual experience is still an effective strategy to enrich visitors’ experience. Sound (1) is an immersive media and it isolates you from the surrounding chaos. Audio guides are originally paratext (2) that are not far from a film narration, a script. The main part is usually a voice-over which may contain data about artworks and it doesn’t interfere with their autonomy.

Some recent examples are going beyond this, showing more sophisticated and complete interactions.

I will briefly talk about two examples that are show new opportunities and possible directions for the future of audio guide in the museum environment.

Louvre-Nintendo 3DS XL™ Audio Guide

Yes, a Nintendo 3ds in the most famous museum of the World.

This audio guide uses the Nintendo device to offers more than 35 hours of audio content from a masterpiece tour to a free exploration of more than 700 items. It also has 3d reproductions of the most important artworks and a tracking system not to get lost in this labyrinthine museum. I would like to underline two aspects:

First the partnership between one of the most well known entertainment industry player, famous for its videogames, and Louvre. In a way this partnership desacralize the european serious conception of Museum, transforming it in an entertainment environment: the Louvre as an enormous game level. At the same time the cultural institution uses the technology of a cheap consumer’s device to deliver to visitors an high quality experience. This is great but they could push this hybridization of game and art even further, introducing elements of gamification (3) like collecting points and unlock areas or information.

The second aspect is merely related to interface: I think that the 3DS dual screens is a great feature for a museum guide, it opens a lot of new opportunities without the need to design a brand new device. For example you can have the museum’s map in one screen and the artwork’s information on the other.

The Louvre-Nintendo 3DS XL™ Audio Guide is just an experiment and I don’t know how successful it will be but it is an interesting steps in the evolution of audio guides.

ArtLens: iPad application, Gallery One, Cleveland Museum of Art

Gallery One is a new section of the Cleveland Museum of Art that blends art and technology and invites visitors to connect actively with art in various ways (4)

This project by Local Project has become a milestone and a benchmark in the contemporary attempts of the museums to transform the Art Museum’s experience” . The visitors are essential players, as well as or even more than the artworks.

The ArtLens iPad application was specifically developed for this gallery and it is a unique personal guide for museum visitors. Unlike most common guides, in ArtLens there is no sound associated with videos in Gallery one. The application has five main features: Near you know, Scanning, Tours; Today and Favourites that allow the visitors to enrich their experience. The last two are pretty obvious:with Today you can explore CMA’s daily schedule of events and exhibitions and with Favourites visitors can favourite their preferred artwork and share it via social media. Near you know needs a longer explanation. Visitors on site, using an indoor way finding technology based on wifi triangulation, are alerted of nearby artworks featured on ArtLens.

These “Featured Artworks” have interpretive media, like films comparative, images and texts. Also for some of them it allows you to scan ( Scanning feature) the artwork and provide an augmented reality experience with context-sensitive content about the work, directly on the iPad screen. Finally with Tours visitors can choose either the museum-curated  or visitor-created thematic tours.

ArtLens is really a complete application and it can be also used off-site and downloaded for free at Apple Store.

ArtLens – Visitor Created Tour – Cleveland Museum of Art from Local Projects on Vimeo.

ArtLens – Today Directors Tour – Cleveland Museum of Art from Local Projects on Vimeo.

ArtLens – Near You Now – Cleveland Museum of Art from Local Projects on Vimeo.

In the  future of the audio guides there will be more personal devices and more connected systems. An important steps toward what Nina Simon call the Participatory Museum (5), that seems to me the museum of the present, and of next generations.

Have you experienced other innovative audio guides?

Please share your findings with me.


(1)   Soundwalk has forged its experience in producing some twenty audio trails throughout international capitals

(2) Gérard Genette book Paratexts. Thresholds of Interpretation, 1997

(3) Gamification definition from Wikipedia

(4) For a complete overview of Gallery One: J. Alexander, J. Barton and C. Goeser, Transforming the Art Museum Experience: Gallery One. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 5, 2013.

(5) The Participatory Museum, a book by Nina Simon




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