Interactive Exhibit Design: Reflections and Round Up

This is my longest, most comprehensive blog post ever. It’s divided into four sections. You can click on any of these links to jump down the page to the desired section. Enjoy!

1) Project: Complete

2) A Great Experience

3) The Creative Minds of Our Class

4) This is Only the Beginning

Project: Complete

Over the past few months we’ve been working with different materials to create interactive exhibits. We began with ideas, such as my “History Clock.” Then, we started working with digital tools such as Arduino and Processing. To familiarize myself with the tools I started doing some work with LEDs and Arduino.  I ended up making some LEDs blink to music, which I was awfully proud about. While trying to get used to Processing, which used a similar programming language to Arduino, I made a picture of an “exploding” Thomas Edison to represent the number of patents he had (inspired by Dave).

As the first month flew by, I realized I had to try to decide what to do for my final project. I wasn’t sure if I was going to use Arduino, Processing, a combination of the two, or one of the other tools we learned how to use (like Google SketchUp). While brainstorming I thought about somehow creating an interactive exhibit utilizing the power of Kinect.  While I wasn’t exactly sure how I would go about creating such an exhibit, especially since I’m not a programmer and wouldn’t be able to hack a Kinect, I thought it would be a great way to make it visually and physically interactive.

Then Dave Sikkema approached me to work together on a project.  Dave had been doing research for NiCHE and he brought up the idea of using some of his weather data research as the foundation for our project. This was great because we would be able to convert actual weather data and history into a sort exhibit. We thought this would be a great way to combine “boring” data, a ship’s log, into a fun way to present history. We were hoping that somehow we would be able to make history more appealing to people of all ages.

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll know that through the use of the HMS Glatton‘s ship’s log we’ve be figuring out new ways to display its travels around the world in 1802-1803. The first idea we had was to create a timeline that would be controlled via some sort of touch device, such as a potentionmeter.  I found a way to make a basic timeline in Processing, but it wasn’t as complex as we would have liked.

Professor Turkel then introduced us to SIMILE and suggest use it to make a timeline. I’ve already documented the creation process extensively, so if you’re interested in how to make your own simile timeline check out my past blog post. Ultimately what we ended up with was a timeline that had twelce points on it representing twelve days in the travel of the HMS Glatton. When the user scrolls along the timeline new locations will appear on the timeline and their approximate location is is tracked on the Google Map. When the user clicks on a point a pop-up box appears that has two types of data in it. The red text represents the weather conditions of the day, and the blue represents the story of what they had been doing. You can check out the timeline for yourself  and also see the evolution of the timeline.

The next step was to make it interactive. We found a hack for Kinect that allowed us to use our bodies as the mouse. I wrote a short blog about the process. Dave and I also recorded a video and uploaded it to YouTube for everyone to see the timeline working in action. Using the timeline with Kinect takes a bit of getting used to, and we’ve definitely improved since the video was recorded, but it gives a good idea of how it works.

While it is relatively easy to read our blogs about the process, it’s even easier to use Prezi to show the whole project, from Brainstorming to Reality. If you’ve never seen a Prezi, which I hadn’t until Dave introduced me to it, it’s a non-linear way to make a slideshow presentation. It’s fun, interactive, and it definitely keeps the attention of the viewer. Dave spent a ton of time making this Prezi to document our project, and I truly recommend you check it out. It’s an excellent way to pull it all together.

I’ve embedded the project in the blog, but it can also be found on Prezi’s website. How to use it: Click the ‘Play’ button, then go to ‘More’ at the bottom right of the window, click ‘Fullscreen’ in the pop-up, then use the right keyboard arrow to go forward, and the left one to go back.

A Great Experience

This course was probably the most unique course I’ve taken in my university career because it’s rather atypical for a historian to not be buried in readings, research, and writing. It really allowed us to ask different questions and to think about history in new ways. Below I’ve listed five of what I see as the important things we learned over the past few months.

Making mistakes, taking risks: This was perhaps one of the most important things we learned. Even if you’re final project isn’t a complete success or you bit off more than you could chew, at least you tried. It’s not very often in history that you would be able to receive grades for partial work for “just” putting in a lot of effort. This method allows the students to take big risks and think outside the box. Most of us are also not computer programmers, so we’re also learning the basics of new languages as we went along. I remember spending five hours on a Sunday afternoon with “nothing” physical to show afterwards, except everything I had learned in that time. I learned that the Phidget touch pad wouldn’t work with Processing/Arduino, I learned I was having trouble figuring out how to use my cellphone to control a timeline, and I learned that computer programming was very difficult. But most importantly, I learned to say “Oh well, no big deal. It’s back to the drawing board for us. We’ll figure out how to do this.”

Playing together: Remember what our parents taught us as kids? Sharing and playing together is good. This is another thing historians don’t seem to do too well. Academia in general is competitive, and sometimes it seems to be more about doing better than your colleague instead of helping your colleague do better. When Dave approached me to work together I was thrilled. He’s more artistic and creative than I am, and I’m more comfortable with computers and technology than him. I think combining our skills allowed us to create a couple unique projects that turned out very well. But on top of that, the project we created could be collaborated upon by people all over the world. Because the timeline pulls the information from this Google spreadsheet in real time, we could find a way to set it up so multiple ships could be logged on the timeline. People from around the world could input data and the timeline could represent the voyages of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of ships over centuries. It would take some tweaking of the code and spreadsheet, but it’s definitely a feasible project.

Boring to fun: As Dave was saying yesterday when we were demonstrating our project, most people wouldn’t want to read or write about a ship’s log, and they sure wouldn’t want to read the actual log itself. But by using digital tools we were able to take the data from the log and transpose it to an easy-to-use timeline that has a surprisingly large amount of information (weather, narratives, locations, dates, etc.). While, admittedly, the timeline is easier to control using an actual mouse, the Kinect allows for a more engaging and enjoyable experience as not only is the user moving, but the timeline  is large on a projector screen. This immerses the user and created a truly unique experience.

What? How?: These are two of the most important questions we asked ourselves when thinking about our project. First, what did we want to show and teach? Similar to choosing a topic for a paper, you think of an idea that not only interests you, but also those who are going to see it. For us, using research that Dave had already done (ship’s log) and creating a fun way to present the information. We began with brainstorming ideas on how to present weather data, but then we quickly realized that “hey, there’s a lot of information in this ship’s log. We can tell so much more.” Second, how did we want to present the information? After some playing around with different ideas and tools, Professor Turkel suggested using SIMILE Timeline.  After a rough start to learning how to use it, we rather quickly had a working timeline example that only got better with time.

The small things bring it together: The easiest way to see the addition of small things is to go through the different versions of the timeline. Whether it was syncing the timeline with Google Maps, re-sizing the timeline, or adding a header, the small things helped create a better overall project. And ultimately, what this project really amounted to was a lot of small things being put together. While it’s the type of project that can and should be planned in advance to a certain degree, it’s also allows for revisions, tweaks, and re-imaginations. It’s a puzzle that’s created as you go, but likely never be perfect nor finished.

The Creative Minds of Our Class

Below you’ll find pictures of the projects created by our classmates. They’re presented in no particular order. I don’t remember the proper names of the projects, but I’ll do my best to give them an accurate  name. Also, if you want to find out more about a specific project, click on the name of the student and it will send you to their blog (and if I forgot one, please send me a message and I’ll add it in).

Adriana and Lindsay’s The Immigrant’s Suitcase: By swiping one of the passports on the table, a YouTube video is brought up on the screen which details the voyage of the immigrant in the passport. The three different passports each bring up different videos.


Mohammed and Antonio’s The Tweeting Duck: When you send a tweet through Twitter to the duck it will either flap its wings, move its head, or open its beak. A message will also appear on the screen.


Heather’s Homerun Helmet: Unfortunately I don’t have a good picture of the back of it, but on the back of the helmet there’s an Arduino attached and on the front brim there is a sensor. When the user swings their hands like a bat, audio will come through the headphones wired in the helmet. The audio will play a recording from an announcer calling a homerun and there are five different audio tracks depending on the height of your hands when you swing (e.g. such as Joe Carter’s World Series winning homerun in 1993)


Douglas’s Cycling through London in 1921: Douglas made a concept video using Google SketchUp of using a stationary bike to travel through London, Ontario in 1921. It would allow the user to see the buildings, signs, and roads as they were ninety years ago.


Hilary’s The Adventures of…Ninja Historian: This is a story that follows the adventures of Ninja Historian who is stopping the Plagiarizing Octopus from stealing all the words from the books in Weldon library. You can check out the story for yourself!


Cynthia’s Peepshow: This Peepshow tells the story of the Great Exhibition and the London News printing press. As an audio track plays it tells the story of the printing press and as it goes to different descriptions new LEDs will light up the Peepshow to highlight what the audio track is describing.


Catherine and Shaun’s Tour of the White House: When you press down on the Democrat Donkey a video appears on the laptop that describes the four rooms in the white house (and the excellent model they made).


Javier and Roberto’s Baroque Game: The user presses into the mesh-like  screen on the right to choose a facial feature (eyes, mouth, nose, etc.) and then presses onto the corresponding feature on the painting. Using a Kinect sensor and complex facial recognition algorithms, they have been able to pinpoint specific features on a painting. The game also keeps scores.


Adrian’s Money Prime Ministers: By scanning the money via a sensor that picks up colour, a presentation will appear on the screen pertaining to the Prime Minister that is on the bill.


Sarah’s Homeward Bound Penguin and Starry Starry Night: This is two different projects. Using a digital compass and an Arduino, the penguin vibrates when it is pointed south. Using an Arduino, the felt rendition of Van Gogh’s painting has LED’s that blink in the stars.


Laura and Sushima’s Ye Olde History SquaresA take off of Hollywood Squares, this project is a true or false game where the user uses the Lego men to play tic-tac-toe. You input ‘t’ for true and ‘f’ for false into the computer and it respond with ‘Correct’ or ‘Wrong.’


This is Only the Beginning

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave a comment. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing next year (other than I need to find a job), but if anyone has a collaborative project they feel like working on with me in our spare time, let me know. This course has definitely made me want to learn more and present history in new ways. I will be maintaining this blog and posting about more diverse things in the coming months, so keep following if you wish.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thanks. And thank you for travelling with me and Dave through the journey that was Interactive Exhibit Design.

3 responses to “Interactive Exhibit Design: Reflections and Round Up

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