Why MONA went mobile: The technology behind Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art

The story of Mona's 'O device'

Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art.

Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art.

When you enter the underground museum, "there are no windows... [Walsh] wants you to get lost. He wants you to forget about the rest of the world. And our technology assists that, in that it's an aid to getting lost and [to] discovery as well. It's all about new thoughts and... extending, re-inventing how people associate and discover art."

Holzner says that much of the four years of R&D was trying to find the appropriate indoor location solution. "We did find one in the end and then there was a lot of time spent adapting that to our custom software system," he says.

The team built a content management system that's designed to incorporate spatial data. "We have a spatial mapping tool that we developed as part of that, and that allows you to very quickly and efficiently plot artworks on a 2D floor plan and assign them an x and y coordinate, along with all the associated interpretative material," Holzner says.

The content and spatial data is exported to a system located within MONA itself that services the 1340 O devices.

The sheer number of iPods MONA uses means that the team also developed what Holzner says are "the world's largest USB charging hubs".

Custom charging bays can connect to 240 USB devices at once, and six of them are chained together to charge the fleet. The museum also has one of the densest Wi-Fi environments in Australia, using Aerohive controllerless wireless architecture.

There is no manual updating of the content on the O devices: the iPods check with a server located inside MONA every time they are started up to check they have the latest content. Content is permanently cached on the iPods.

"That's really designed to minimise network traffic because with Wi-Fi you have limited bandwidth; no matter how good your Wi-Fi setup is, if you have 1000 wireless clients pulling down heavy multimedia files concurrently there's no wireless network around that will let you do that reliably."

Holzner says minimising network traffic was one of the challenges the team had to deal with when developing the system.

What did you just look at?

Although the system was originally designed to find a less intrusive alternative to wall labels, it has had additional benefits that were not originally envisaged when the project started. For example, the positioning system takes away a lot of the guesswork over which artworks visitors engage with and which routes visitors take through the museum.

It also means that a visitor's journey can be tracked and a record of their visit to MONA made available to them online afterwards. It's a way of the museum continuing to engage visitors by showing them which works they viewed — and which ones they missed.

In order to capitalise on the years of work done to create the MONA experience, Art Processors was incorporated in October last year, with Holzner as CEO, Walsh as director, Nic Whyte as creative director, Scott Brewer as CTO and Didier Elzinga functioning as a mentor to the business.

The system used at MONA has drawn interest from within Australia and internationally. Other museums are interested, though Holzner says there is "some trepidation in terms of what they see as a large spend on infrastructure and supporting systems, and also staff support in terms of maintaining a ubiquitous mobile guide."

Part of the company's focus is reducing costs, and they will be adding 'bring your own device' support so visitors can use their own iOS or Android-based mobile devices instead of an institution maintaining its own fleet. "We're really positioning ourselves as the go-to for next-generation, premium mobile tour guides," Holzner says.

Early in 2013 Art Processors is rolling out a project at the State Library of NSW, based on a BYOD model with support for iOS and Android. "It's the next generation of what we did at MONA in 2011," Holzner says.

The team has also worked at Melbourne Zoo on developing an interactive, premium audio guide system in collaboration with The Border Project theatre production group.

"In the short to mid-term, we're very much looking at showcase customers," Holzner says.

"It's a service and product offering. So a lot of customisation, a lot of consulting in terms of infrastructure requirements, and visitor engagement strategies within the mobile guide sphere. And then we have the existing software and intellectual property to rapidly roll-out those kinds of large scale projects.

"Longer term the plan is to have a number of different tiers. So there might be a basic tier, which is something that we can just shrink wrap and provide as an app in an app store. And then all the way up to the fully customised solution; like if you want to do something as bold as MONA has done, then we can do that as well. We are, at this early stage, really looking to do things more on the scale of what MONA has done, and we have some exciting projects in the pipeline that we will be announcing very soon."

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