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The use of digital layers has transformed the museum visitor experience - what are the lessons (if any) for architecture, design and development?

June 6, 2022

Digital layers. Why do I need to care?

The most remarkable places in our cities are memorable because they tell stories, be they historical or contemporary, entertaining or moving. Our cities offer endless options, but we seek something captivating and unexpected, a dash of special sauce, to entice us further and keep us returning.

For the last 100 years our pantry of place-making ingredients, the elements we use to tell stories about spaces, has remained roughly the same. However there is now a new kid on the block – digital. Digital experiences or digital layers have the potential to imbue place with stories in a much deeper way – no longer do we have to make do with decoration, or caption cards, mosaics or murals. We can now use sound and moving image and we can change what’s experienced from day to day or moment to moment. We can communicate the myriad brilliance (and the opposite) that occurs in our great places. 

However, there’s not much of a consensus yet on how best to make use of this new flavour. Does it taste good? What other real-world ingredients does it blend well with? Aren’t buildings purely about physical space, so digital is just a costly distraction? Isn’t it best limited to functional things like booking meeting rooms or parking spaces? And anyway, technology changes every two seconds, so won’t it already be out of date before your development is even completed? 

We all know when digital is bad; touchscreens that don’t work, VR that causes acute nausea, and 50-foot outdoor screens that bombard you with light and noise making you want to run away. But we also know that there isn’t much getting away from the fact that digital is here to stay, and even more, another wave of change is about to break – web 3.0, the glasses, the metaverse. 

So, what is the smart, additive approach that can pull people in? When does the digital layer add to an experience as opposed to ruin it? Most importantly, how can we use digital to tell the story of a place, to make it visible and powerful? Below is a partial and incomplete guide to what we think the digital layer (currently) is, what works, and how to go about it.

What is a digital layer? 

First things first, a digital layer isn’t a digital twin. A digital twin is a virtual copy of a physical structure or process or place, whereas a digital layer is something that creates interactions integrating the tangible world with a visitor’s experience of it. Unlike digital twins, a digital layer is not a copy but an interpretation.  

The digital layer might come to life in these examples:

  • Digital displays and artworks
  • Apps that manage visitor experiences (an exhibition companion app, or workplace management app)
  • Installations (indoor i.e. arrival experience and outdoor i.e. landscape feature)
  • Gadgets, objects or computers that you talk to (like Google, Alexa, Siri) 
  • Exhibits and kiosks
  • Wayfinding and signage
  • Exhibitions, briefing centres and innovation labs
  • Ambient experiences and soundscapes
  • Media architecture and media façades

A digital layer is designed by an experience designer. They work alongside architects, interior designers and exhibition designers to create environments where the digital involvement is intuitive and natural – blurring the line between the digital and the physical. This requires a mixture of competencies in physical design, as well as digital media. 

Of course we want these interactions to deliver awe, delight, wonder and fun. But we also want them to function seamlessly. Where they succeed is to combine blue sky thinking and all the amazing possibilities with the cold reality of turning it off and on again if it's not working.  

Ideally the digital layer should produce a deeper understanding of the space around each visitor and the things in it - and do it in a way that’s not a one-off gimmick. 

Who’s doing it well?

Most real estate developments are in the shallow end of implementing digital layers already, but one group already stretching ahead is visitor attractions and museums - over the past decade, many have re-imagined their physical spaces to be more engaging, interactive and instructive. It’s not just a few grubby touch screens and faulty headsets anymore. Big players in the cultural sector are repositioning themselves as tech-enabled experiences to return to. And the format is bursting out of museums, taking the art with it. New offers like the Van Gogh Experience go further by putting visitors inside famous paintings. Some of it works, some less so, but experiences that do it well are reaping the rewards in attracting and retaining visitors.

The Digital Layer in Action: Chungnam Art Museum

Once complete, the Chungnam Art Museum in South Korea will use a sophisticated digital layer to strengthen the museum's connection with visitors by creating an environment that invites participation from the entire community. We worked closely with lead architects UNStudio to integrate this layer into the museum’s design.

Designs for the museum’s atrium feature electronic totems displaying virtual trees. They serve as a platform for interactive digital art curation. Visitors can digitally pin their favourite art pieces to a totem, changing it permanently. An augmented reality layer will allow them to see their contribution alongside those from previous visitors. Viewed through a smartphone, a visual presentation of a growing tree exits the physical totem and joins virtual space. 

Visitors will be able to use the totems to create their own digital collections, save them and take them home on their phone. These immersive experiences help them explore and better understand the collections. The museum itself will change with every visitor and every digital interaction, reflecting the influence of the community that exists outside its walls.

How do we design a digital layer?

Digital experience design begins with defining and getting to know two things – first, the story of the place itself, and second, the visitors or audience, and how they communicate and absorb information. 

Once we have a solid idea of the story and the type of experience we’re aiming to create, we begin to bring the vision to life. How does the digital interact with the physical, and what will the experience feel like for our visitors? We storyboard the experience, clearly defining the ‘wow’ moments as well as the functional moments. We mock-up the environment in VR and test it with our clients and audience.

Combining processes from architecture, filmmaking, and software development, we produce an experience and space that seamlessly marries a robust digital layer with the physical characteristics of the environment. Our aim is to create a compelling overall narrative punctuated by moments that our visitors will feel compelled to repeat and share. 

Conclusion:

The way we see the digital layer is about making the best possible human experience. It’s not about putting screens everywhere or distracting from the real world. Yes, the digital layer is functional and part of a good experience is for it to be easy, but its real power lies in its potential to bring a place to life, to make the invisible visible, and to tell great stories.

In our work with museums and visitor attractions we’ve seen so much that can be applied to other types of large-scale real estate and infrastructure projects; a digital layer can create places that reflect brand values, build community, inspire collaboration, and communicate sustainability credentials in more meaningful ways.

And our process of experience-led design within VR allows us to test ideas in the virtual world, so the digital layer can be explored with minimum risk.

The digital layer is in its earliest stages of adoption by the industry, but within a couple of years, the tech will be much further developed, and those projects that have built this in from the start will have a competitive advantage. It’s time to start thinking about this now.