Categotry Archives: Nonpersonal Interpretation

Yeah, Pokemon Go Is A Real Virtual Thing


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A photo of a gravel street in Old Sacramento with a cartoon figure superimposed on it.

Rhydon has been seen near the Eagle Theatre in Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Beware!

A screenshot showing the Pokemon character "graveler" in front of a steam locomotive

Graveler in front of a steam locomotive at the California State Railroad Museum.


The social media landscape changes so quickly that it’s been difficult for the Media Platypus-ers to keep up with the rapid pace of things. Mostly it’s incremental– changes to Facebook algorithms, reading the extra ninety six pages of the latest ITunes Terms of Service Agreement, and wondering whatever happened to the first part of 2016.

But then comes Pokemon Go, and this seems to be a game changer. A silly game app with ridiculous characters that for many of us harken back to early childhood (or early parenthood) has come back, not to haunt us with memories of bad animation, but to get us out of our chairs and into the real world while searching for a virtual one. What a concept!

For the two or three people who have not heard all of the babble, Pokemon Go is an app for Androids and the iOS platform that puts you in a virtual reality platform on your device. Using your camera and the device’s GPS capabilities, you hunt for various creatures from Pokemon (Sand Shrew, anyone?) and in the right place you’ll find them and have various interactions, battles, and all sorts of nonsense that to the people around you who aren’t playing, will look really, really weird.

This really isn’t the first app that puts virtual reality aspects into historic areas. My historian friend

screenshot of the Ingress app, showing green and blue abstract polygons over a streetmap of a portion of downtown Sacramento California.

Ingress activity in downtown Sacramento. Who knew that there was such turmoil in our State Capital?

Kyle is addicted to Ingress, from the same developer, and in fact the Poke Stops in Pokemon Go are really the same thing that portals are in Ingress. I’ve actually used Ingress and as a result I understand even less of it (and it drains my phone battery,) but it involves portals and power sources that are constantly being seized by either the green or blue guys, and it just depends on what side you’d like to be on. The “adults” who are into Ingress can be also seen exploring historic areas and places they might not have otherwise explored, but rather than chasing silly cartoon characters, they are much more intelligently looking for portals and power centers to seize from the other entity.

I’m officially old these days, so it makes no sense to me, but with age comes perspective (I made this part up) and as an observer and a person who specializes in communication and enlightening people’s worlds, I’m delighted to see these things, even if I think they’re stupid. Why? Because they corollate with a theory I developed about geocaching in the early 2000s, about using technology to get geeky people away from their screens and into the outdoor environment that I think that everyone should be intimately acquainted with.

Without going into detail, I have tech-obsessed relatives who began geocaching, accidentally went outdoors, and without even knowing it, developed walking muscles, got tans, and learned about the natural and cultural environment while finding caches. Today I have a brother-in-law who is a world-class cacher, with thousands of caches to his credit, but he’s still very much a geek, and proudly so.

Pokemon Go is doing the same thing in a much more socially engaging way, or at least it’s really caught critical mass in a way that geocaching just hasn’t. It’s both funny (go to to read people’s complaints about sore legs from too much walking while playing Pokemon Go) to experiences that are directly useful for interpreters ( in that Pokemon Go (and Ingress, and even another app called “Tour Guide” can help you learn about the cultural environment you’re in.) It seems to me that the opportunity to link Pokemon Go and other players with our parks and historic sites is just an opportunity begging to be exploited.

This isn’t to say that these are appropriate everywhere, and indeed, the administrators of Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. have asked people to respect the character and purpose of their sites by not engaging, and honestly I think that it was really stupid for Niantic and Nintendo to populate those sites with Pokemon characters (plus I wish that there was an opt-in/opt-out choice for businesses and landowners) but I’d prefer to dwell on the positive.

On the Facebook Group #diginterp, I asked the question of whether Pokemon Go was a problem for interpretive sites. Overwhelmingly, the answer has been NO! I think that a lot of interpreters and social media types are embracing the opportunity to engage with a new audience segment, sometimes even when they bump into you while staring at their device.

As always, I don’t know what will come of all this, but it’s a great new avenue into engagement. I just hope that we can come up with something that’s a bit more attractive than gravelers, sand shrews, and rattata!

Selfie-help – can selfies make a meaningful contribution to an interpretation toolbox?


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I’m looking for some selfie-help.

During a recent briefing for a new interpretative project I started thinking about selfies.  It’s not such a jump – the project is a new walking trail with a target audience of youth, families and first-time hikers. The trail has cell coverage for most of its length. My client briefing me pointed out a natural feature that was a popular spot for photos and when she said; “I don’t like the idea of people with their cell-phones out in the natural environment;” my response was, “but they’ll be doing it anyway so why not use it to our advantage?”

Selfies used to be considered bad taste; the exclusive domain of self-centred narcissistic teens on Myspace. But a social media culture shift has occurred, and everyone is doing it. Higher quality shots are possible, helped along by the advances in the photographic capabilities of cell phones; with specific selfie apps soon following.

Even I must confess that both my current Facebook and LinkedIn profile pics are selfies.

Even I must confess that both my current Facebook and LinkedIn profile pics are selfies.

Selfies at their core are self-portraits. People have been painting, drawing, photographing themselves since we used to live in caves. Selfies say “I was here”. They are people-focused and not much of a step away from what tourists have been doing for years – taking photos of themselves at places they have visited to ‘capture memories’.

According to Wikipedia the Oxford English Dictionary declared selfie ‘word of the year’ in November 2013. According to Google 93 million selfies are taken every day on Android devices. And in March 2014 a selfie broke the internet when a selfie taken by Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres was retweeted over 1.8 million times in the first hour of posting (yes we hear about this stuff, even in the antipodes).

We have seen their power used for evil; that bad taste still rises in your throat when people take selfies that seem to be at odds with the place, events and environment.  

New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa freely admits that sculptures and paintings are being damaged by people backing into them for selfie shots. But that hasn’t stopped them from allowing – and in some places encouraging – their use.

“We want visitors to be able to take pictures and share their experience with friends,” says a spokesperson in this media article.

Shantytown long-drop photo opp...

Shantytown long-drop photo opp…

So how do we harness the selfie phenomenon to help facilitate interpretation? Or should we even try? A quick search and brainstorm came up with the following examples of selfies in interpretation, and some thoughts:

Interpretive sites have often encouraged photographs as a way for visitors to interact with their exhibits – see the Shantytown example above. Te Papa has gone so far as installed a mirrored selfie wall.

Encouraging visitors to share their own selfies on a social media platform is a common marketing tool and creates a community of common experience. Could this be done while on the trail perhaps at one of the huts?

This life-sized ranger sign at the glacier below has unwittingly become the co-pilot in many a tourist selfie. So perhaps the same idea could be used to introduce an historic figure at one of the huts or shelters along our trail?

This life-size ranger was intended to draw attention to safety warnings.

This life-size ranger was intended to draw attention to safety warnings but is now featured in many selfies

Check out this instagram – if Laura Ingles Wilder took selfies

What about an app that reveals a ghost figure from the past if you take a selfie at a certain spot? Or some other information at pre-designated, beacon-marked spots?

I’d love to hear from anyone who has attempted these or any other selfie ideas and are willing to share their experiences. Selfie-help – all shares welcome!

Which platform to use to display your selfie community?

Which platform to use to display your selfie community?

Facebook Isn’t Dead, And Ethan Rotman Should Not Be Coroner


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Last month, Ethan Rotman delivered the Saturday keynote for NAI’s Region 9 workshop in Chico, California. Ethan is the principal of iSpeakeasy, a communication consulting firm. He spoke about the need to embrace innovation in Interpretation, and how if we are to succeed and remain relevant, we need to understand and take advantage of innovation and new technology, to meet our audiences where they live in a communications sense. During this really great and fascinating talk, Ethan casually mentioned “besides, Facebook is dead…” and then continued on.

I really like Ethan, and in fact, I treated him to lunch the day before, partly so I could pick his brain for free or at least for only the cost of a BBQ chicken. Ethan is whip smart, he’s quick, capable, and I suppose he makes a decent living by helping to teach both interpreters and non-interpreters how to communicate well. He’s also very confident and has the certainty of knowing things, when I would probably not be nearly as certain. Doubt is a very important part of my life and my worldview. For instance, although I firmly believe that the Cubs will win their division, grab the NL pennant and go on to a well-deserved World Series sweep in four games, I’m plagued with doubt. This is also true with Ethan’s pronouncement of death on the world’s dominant social media platform.

We’ve alluded to constant change being a given in social media and technology here on Media Platypus many times, and even for old-timey technology such as Facebook, a lot of things have changed in its ten-year history. Targeted ads, selective posts, a seemingly slow but inevitable march toward ‘pay for prominence’ in posts, apparent disregard for user privacy, the stupid layout changes, all of these things seem to tick people off. A Princeton study claims that Facebook will lose 80% of its users in the next four years. They compared the growth curve of Facebook with that of an infectious disease, and that based on their methodology, Facebook peaked in December 2012 and has been declining ever since. This makes logical sense– after you’ve captured nearly everyone in a very short time, your growth potential is severely limited. So, maybe Ethan’s more of an epidemiologist than a coroner. Hmm.

The Deadspin blog is a lot more certain and bombastic. In their piece, Facebook is Dead, Drew Magary is just as certain as Ethan, but I discount a lot of this because Deadspin is one of those smarmy trends-blogs where writers seem to confuse being clever with being insightful. Saying “I don’t use Facebook anymore because anyone with a brain knows that Facebook is terrible” really doesn’t help me understand anything except why I don’t read Deadspin very often.

A much better article is available at (sure hope I spelled it correctly,) The End of Facebook, that discusses FB’s most nefarious problem, the truly weird relationship between ‘likes’ and actual engagement. It’s been pretty well established that for many pages, many of the ‘likes’ are phony, particularly for paid promotion. This is why on some of my agency pages we often see that we have 35 likes when only 26 people have seen a post. Over time, whether you know it or not, your posts are going to fewer and fewer of your friends, on purpose. I won’t take your time here to try and explain it, but take a look at the videos on the blog page. If Facebook is dying, this seems like a type of suicide. It’s also a poor model of communication.

I’m trying to insist that Facebook isn’t dead, because I think that it’s reached the functional equivalent of a public utility—an awful lot of us use FB not only to keep up with our friends and let them know what we’re up to, but also to learn about news and current events, make shopping and lifestyle decisions, and plant our own feet in a virtual public square. Still, I’ve got that nagging doubt that Ethan is blissfully deficient of. If I want and need Facebook to help me understand the world around me, yet it’s filtering what I see based on what I already like, am I putting myself in an echo chamber?

I have several friends who have consciously stopped using Facebook, mostly because it takes up too much of their time. I’ve had relatively long periods when I’ve consciously stopped posting just to see if the world ended (hint: it does not,) but still, FB overall is a convenient place for me to see a bunch of stuff, most of which is unimportant. As I’ve mentioned before, I really don’t care what you’ve had for dinner, and I generally don’t care how your doctor’s appointment went unless you coughed on me last night. I really do care what those rascally politicians are lying to me about, I’m very interested in a clever and droll turn of phrase (which, oddly enough reminds me of the wag who dogged the tale,) I love seeing really great examples of the wonders of science, and I greatly appreciate seeing a lot of life’s minor miracles and truly generous things done by everyday people. I’m also incredibly interested in the season’s first sighting of a red flicker at Sutter Buttes, or a short video of spring melt in Yosemite Falls, and finding out a wonderfully superlative yet unknown historic tidbit at an historic site. For me, Facebook and other social media help make my life more complete because of these things.

A list of things that people want Facebook to do, and not do

A griping Facebook meme found on the KMPH 26 Facebook page.

Ethan concentrated his talk on innovation and embracing change. Facebook is definitely NOT innovative these days, and it lost it’s edge years ago. We know this because we see t-shirts with the thumbs-up logo on them and sitcoms often have Facebook jokes. Plus, our moms have accounts, and every doggone business you’ve ever seen has a Facebook page, most of which are useless. It’s this ubiquitous nature of Facebook that I think means it’s still relevant to us in the communications business. It’s a lot easier for me to send someone a Facebook message than to open my email program, sort through all of the spam and then find my friend I need to contact, and I’m pretty sure that he or she will see FB before they’ll see my email.

If I’m doing these things, it’s likely that many of my park visitors are doing the same thing too. This is the public utility function of Facebook. Like it or not, FB is still the most obvious place to engage and reach out to our visitors for the time being, and that’s why it’s still important, as least for me and my employer. There are many other amazing platforms that do amazing things—Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Kik. Google + (yes Paul!) and on and on. All of them have advantages, plus all of them have the same obsolescence factor going on. To remain relevant, to remain interesting, and to retain users, social media platforms need to continuously innovate and change, but the very change that’s required to attract users and “enhance” our experience is also alienating to many users. Chicken, meet egg.

Each one of these tools can and will become obsolete. Ethan is right—we need to understand, search out and embrace innovation, and at least some of this is technology related. We still need to be intelligent and skeptical and back out once in awhile just to see if we’re still in the forest or just looking at a lone tree.

Oh, and just in case you’ve heard the hype about YouTube being the second most-used search engine in the world, try not to suffer through this:

Musings on Amazing Technology


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Edited Jan 23 to fix broken link

If there’s one thing that we like to emphasize with Media Platypus, it’s that technology is just a tool for interpretation. Technology is never a substitute for good subject matter and development, and it isn’t a substitute for using good principles—being thematic, being factual, connecting with the visitor, and being relatable to people’s lives and experiences.

Having said that, learning about and playing with technology excites my inner geek. Publicly I love to work on my little farm and eat the fruit that we grow, to mill lumber from the trees I fall. I love to make sawdust in my shop, and both delicate mechanisms (such as pocket watches) and brute force engineering (such as steam locomotives) seem to fit my desired ethos by being both visually interesting and a form of problem solving—to tell the time, build a mechanism that counts regular intervals that you can understand. To travel several hundred miles, create a contraption that uses the expansion of boiling water to make steel wheels rotate on strips of steel. Very kinetic, very direct, very understandable, even if both are awe-inspiring in their physical ingenuity.

Technology seems, in contrast, to be a bit like junk food. It’s fun and intriguing, but ultimately to what end? Just how many interpretive sites have you visited where the “high-tech” stuff is mostly broken, or seems to have been jammed in whether or not it seems appropriate? I’m guilty of this myself. I really like using QR codes for “added value” interpretation, but generally I’m light on adding the value. In a current exhibit that I have something to do with, we have a so-called interactive where a visitor pushes a button to show a graphic tracking the development of railroads in the 19th century, but we used an old junky laptop that doesn’t allow the display to work in quite the way it was quite intended. We are, in effect, using technology for technology’s sake, rather than using is to properly communicate what we would like to say. It does the job, but not as well as we would like.

With all that as prologue, I recently ran across several genuinely astounding examples of technology being used in advertising to captivate, provoke and amaze. I have to credit Robert Krulwich, who writes the NPR science blog Krulwich Wonders, for writing about these ideas. Mr. Krulwich is a science writer, not an interpreter, but what he discusses here are advertising ideas that use technology to reach four interpretive goals:
• Provoke the viewer’s interest
• Using drama, uses wonder, uses the viewer’s imagination in artistic ways to captivate and enthrall them
• Using fantastic, virtual experiences to relate to the viewer’s everyday life and experience, or perhaps their dreams for the future.
• Goes way beyond mere information, but conveys valuable information in compelling and thought-provoking ways.

Take a look at the three videos that Krulwich highlights. I’m not surprised that they are all British—there are many astonishing examples of brilliant British advertising. They are amazingly creative, often edgy, and nearly always fun. As communicators, the creative people who developed these campaigns are simply brilliant.

However, closer to home, I was blown away a few years ago when I traveled through the Hartford Connecticut airport on the way to the NAI National Workshop. Those of you who flew in just have to remember the wonderful interactive video display for Traveler’s Insurance. It has no point except to reinforce their brand name, but it does so brilliantly. Take a look at the engagement of passers by:

At the time, I just filed this away as a cool moment, but just a few years later, interactives such as this, or this really interesting (and again, British) McDonald’s interactive

get me excited about logical possibilities because they are are getting simpler and less expensive to create for interpretive sites.

Things like these specific examples may be still a bit more sophisticated and involved than many of us might want to conceive of or implement, but the same technology that I still think is sort of mental junk food is often astonishingly inexpensive and rapidly advancing, and this will benefit many interpreters and institutions that need to stay relevant and vital to successfully communicate with our visitors. What used to cost a fortune now is within everyone’s reach, and the trend will continue. Just consider what your smartphone can do today compared to the cost and complexity to do the same things in 1991:

We’re Heading Towards A Jetsons World, And I’m Worried About It.


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image of the robot C-3PO from Star Wars

I have a package for you!

In the past week, there have been several technology announcements that you may or may not have heard of; with one exception, they don’t seem to have gotten the exposure that it seems to me that they should have.

On the December 1 broadcast of 60 Minutes on CBS, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about a prototype delivery system where packages weighing five pounds or less could be delivered by an Amazon drone, right to a customer’s doorstop. According to Mr. Bezos, delivery could happen within 30 minutes of placing an order. On December 4, Google let the world know about a project where Googlians are playing with the concept of robots delivering packages using self-driving cars.

Neither of these things are possible today; there are huge practical and regulatory hurdles to overcome; for instance, I’m sure that the FAA would have a fit with drones flying all over Washington DC or Los Angeles, and I can’t even visualize the double takes people might have at having a driverless car with a robot in it pull up to their grandmother’s curb to drop off a fruitcake.

Human-robot interactions have been conceptualized and explored for over a century. Writers such as Isaac Asimov (I Robot,) Ray Bradbury (I Sing the Body Electric! The Pedestrian and others,) Television and film writers such as Rod Serling (Twilight Zone,) Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek Next Generation,) Michael Crichton (Westworld,) William Goldman (Stepford Wives,) even Hannah-Barbera with The Jetsons have postulated fictional human environments where we interact with robots in daily life, generally with unintended consequences. In most cases (even the Jetsons,) the result is dystopia. The phrase “unintended consequences” is, to me, inadequate for most of these examples.

After I saw the Google robot story, I did a search for  ‘Robots in Museum’ on Google. Thank goodness that most of what I found involved exhibits ABOUT robots and robotics, but I did run across a paper available at describing the results of an experiment involving a robot guide at the Smithsonian. “Minerva” is actually a second-generation robot used for a limited trial as a guide in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for American History way back in 1998. The paper primarily describes the mechanics and theory that guided how Minerva was built to navigate and interact with people and its space, with nothing substantial about how the bot communicated or shared information with humans.

More importantly, how does this tie into interpretation and technology? Hopefully not very much at all, but one never knows. As I’ve pondered this idea, it occurs to me that we’re already interacting with artificial intelligence, and most of us hate it.

Have you ever spoken with ‘Julie’ at Amtrak? Try calling 1-800-AMTRAK and you have to speak with ‘Julie’ no matter what your issue is. ‘She’ will ask leading questions and then try to interpret your response using speech recognition algorithms. There’s really no way to directly call an actual human at Amtrak; ‘Julie’ is the gatekeeper. ‘She’ is particularly annoying to me when I’m trying to get train status info, because no matter how late a train may be, ‘she’ will cheerfully remind me that “late trains can and do make up time!” Such trains may exist, but none that I have ever ridden.

In addition to ‘Julie,’ there are many companies where your interaction is limited to a silicon chip somewhere, and it’s difficult or impossible to speak to a human. As a species, we hate them all, yet they continue to proliferate. Our other common option for these common business interactions is probably through an app on a phone or tablet device.

And this is where we’re getting into the interpretive realm. We have apps for travel, for banking, for dealing with our utility company. We also have apps that will guide us through Museums, along historic byways, and help us understand history and nature. The success of both business and interpretive apps ultimately depends on public acceptance, which is partly based on what I call “user ergonomics,” i.e. how easy and intuitive and logical these are to use, as well as the usefulness of the content. A couple of years ago, I worked on evaluating some tour guide apps for a professional group. Some of them were great, and I was really pleased to learn about them, but a couple of them were about as useful to me as the tourism books I find in hotels; full of ads for crap I would never be interested in and high cost attractions that I couldn’t care less about. Once again, my maxim that content is far more important than technique (in this case, technology) was proven true.

The third tech news announcement in the past few days that interpreters really should be more aware of involves iBeacon from Apple. A “beacon” is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) transmitter that can send information to your phone and act as a sort of micro-GPS signal to pinpoint your location relative to itself, feeding you sales (or other) information. Though it’s being promoted primarily for commerce, what about using this to trigger interpretive content? This might sound similar to NFC (Near Field Communication) technology that’s used in some Android devices, but it has some important differences.

NFC technology uses a chip in an object that is sensed by your device when you’re close to it, with a maximum range of about eight inches. By contrast, BLE transmitters transmit data up to about 150 feet. In use NFC technology involves passing your device near a sign or object containing the chip to receive the information. With BLE technology, you could be “greeted” by your device and it could direct you to the object or feature in question when you’re within about to 150 feet of it. In an airport or a baseball stadium or other large indoor space, beacons could help you navigate an unfamiliar setting much more accurately than a standard GPS, because it can pinpoint the location of your device (and presumably you) in relation to itself. The downside to all this is that, without a good and complete understanding of what information is being exchanged between the BLE server and your device, you might not have any idea of what information you’re providing to the provider, and who knows where the information goes from there? By the way, these beacons were apparently activated in all Apple stores last week, but they’ve already been in use in other locations, such as Citi Field, home of the NY Mets.

So what does this all mean? I’m generally a fan of Google culture. I’ve been able to work with some Googlians regarding mapping and geospatial issues. Google Earth is a wonderful research tool for history, nature, geography and culture. Google maps are my go-to navigation technology. Yahoo and Bing are poor relations in the search engine realm. The Chrome browser is so much slicker to use than Firefox or Safari. I have a more nuanced relationship with Amazon. My personal ethos is to purchase things locally from physical vendors, even at a slightly higher price, because it helps make a healthy economy, but Amazon is my go-to for basically anything that I cannot find locally. That’s becoming more and more common for me these days. I also appreciate and value technological innovation.

But the drone and robot ideas make me more than a little nervous. I can’t help but compare Amazon drones with military drones. I can’t help but wonder about how they could be hacked, or shot down by unhappy people being buzzed. I can’t help but be creeped out by the thought of having C-3PO ring my doorbell and ask me to sign for a package (worse yet, do a fingerprint or retinal scan!)

Honestly, I think that these are colossally stupid ideas. I’m a bit more sanguine with the thought though, that these are merely PR puff pieces. It’s not lost on me that the 60 Minutes story aired on the night before cyber Monday, and that the Google story was just a few days later. These two notoriously closed-mouth companies never, ever really talk about upcoming innovation that they’re working on.

Apple’s iBeacon idea is something I think I need to digest some more. I always worry about my privacy online, and I do check privacy policies for social media sites I use. I’d like to know more about what a beacon gleans from my device. On the other hand, as a content provider, I really like the idea of having my visitors have the opportunity to get enhanced interpretive multi-media information simply by coming into proximity to the feature I want to interpret. Done properly, again concentrating on content and a simple interface, the possibilities really intrigue me.

But what will ideas like these lead to for interpreters? Have we lost ground professionally by adding more apps and technology to the list of interpretive tools? Will we, or could we eventually be replaced with robotic interpreters? Content and talent is always more important than tools. Regardless of whether we are interacting with a visitor one-on-one or whether they are viewing an exhibit on-line or listening to a phone tour, themes and well thought out material will always enlighten, inform and enthrall in a much better way than any flash or fancy technology can do on its own.

Still, this all just makes me a bit nervous.

Lesson at the Library


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Well, kids, gather round. It’s time to tell a story again.

The other day, I was visiting my friendly neighbourhood library, when I saw something of great interest.

I was standing in line, waiting to use one of the computer terminals for the library catalogue (for those of you who don’t use the library, it can be like browsing Amazon but everything is free!). The two terminals each had a computer screen, keyboard, and mouse.

It’s not often that there is a line-up, but the delay seemed to be from the presence of two children, each about 9-10 years old, at one of the terminals. I didn’t pay much attention, but instead stood, patiently waited, and looked at the wicked Tintin adventures I had already picked up (nope, I don’t have kids. I am a kid).

Seriously, you need to read Tintin.

Seriously, you need to read Tintin. Image from

But, after a while, I couldn’t help watching the two children.  They seemed to be having a somewhat animated discussion. The older boy was jabbing the screen with his finger. At first, I figured he was angry that Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 was checked out. But, as I listened in to their conversation, I realized they were arguing about how to use the computer. Whaaaaaat?

You see, the older boy was adamant that the computer screen was a touchscreen. He kept poking and swiping, but it wasn’t responding. “It’s frozen,” he said.  The younger boy didn’t believe it was a touchscreen, but didn’t quite know how to prove it to his friend. So, there I stood, wanting to help, but in too much shock to actually tell them the reality. The older boy would rather think that it was broken than to accept that it isn’t a touchscreen.

So, what is the moral of the story? That it is indeed possible for me to be speechless? That Breaking Dawn Part 2 is difficult to get from the library? Nope, the moral is that we often have no idea of how rapidly visitor’s expectations change – especially when it comes to technology. At our sites, we may think to ourselves, “My target audience for this program/activity/exhibit component is 9-10 year olds.” But, what was true of this target audience 5 years ago may be completely different today. Knowedge, beliefs, education, expectations – they all change. The more we understand  our audiences, the more effective we will be at meeting their expectations.

I wonder how many 10 year olds are standing in our museums or visitor centres and jabbing their fingers at screens that don’t respond?

Historypin Is Not A Wrestling Move For Old People!


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For whatever reason, I seem to have morphed into the guy here at Media Platypus who comments on new ideas and technology (at least to me) in social media that relate to interpretive communication. Sure, you can comment and demonstrate your memes, or work baseball metaphors into everything you write, perhaps clone yourself with a 3-d printer, and sometimes I wish that I had those talents. But I’m still looking for the holy grail of interpretive social media. I want something that

  • communicates visually and/or aurally
  • something that packs a punch
  • something that’s easy to use and understand
  • something that involves my audience, invites participation, and is genuinely interpretive.

Yeah, I put three items into the last bullet. The list was getting too long. Anyway, as I was saying, I’m always looking for something that’s perfect, free and will catch on. So far, my batting average is somewhere north of nothing, south of everything, but I’ll keep trying.

Yesterday I was introduced to a website called historypin ( which is a wonderfully simple idea; just pin images, or audio, or video files onto a map. People can then look for photos by clicking on them using a Google map interface. Better yet, you can also pin them to Google Street View to overlay an historic photo on today’s street view.

composite photo of an small iron crane used for lifting freight off and onto railcars. The lefthand view is circa 1917. The righthand view is from February 2011

Ex-SPRR freight crane compared circa 1917 and 2011, in Old Sacramento State Historic Park

So what? Who cares? In some ways, this is kind of similar to the use of Panoramio photos on Google Earth. Panoramio is kind of the death of Google Earth for research, and those stupid squares everywhere on the landforms are just annoying (unless of course you turn the layer off.) It seems like any jackanape can post their idiotic photos on Google Earth, and many of them are mis-located and mis-identified. I hope that doesn’t happen with historypin.

“HP,” which definitely does NOT refer to Hewlett-Packard in this use, was created by a nifty non-profit called called We Are What We Do. “WAWWD” is a London-based group who works to change public attitudes about things. From their mission statement, they “work with and for 100s of companies and charities to help them engage more people and do more good.” Historypin is one of their ideas–a way to engage people with the land, with the past, and with society, wonderfully simple and wonderfully brilliant.

Here’s where it connects with interpreters, communications, and social media. Look again at the snippet of their mission statement. Isn’t it true in the larger sense that interpreters want to “help engage more people and do more good”? Doesn’t this get right to the heart of Tilden’s principle of interpretation provoking people?

Our society is morphing at a pace that is tremendous and awful in speed. I work in historic interpretation, and though I’m not really afraid of the future, and I genuinely enjoy my creature comforts and modern technology, I find context, comfort and fulfillment in the past. I joke about it when people ask me why I enjoy history so much. I tell them that it’s nice to know that Hitler will lose, but people who engage with history understand not only this ‘comfort food’ view, but also know that, by understanding our past, we may avoid some mistakes in the future.

By understanding where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we can provide a direction for the future and help us to understand the present. I haven’t yet had time to dig much into historypin yet, but I can tell you that it can help us do these things. For those who work with more natural history than I do, historypin can also help you spread outreach about natural resources. As an aside, by the way, I really don’t see a divide between cultural and natural history. Our culture is a reaction to and dependent on natural resources (or scarcity thereof) and our environment is a result of the interactions between society and nature, but that’s another story entirely.

For those of us who work in public agencies or non-profits, who desperately want to share our resources with everyone, but are stymied by budgets, timeframes, resource and staff shortages, this can be a wonderful opportunity to expand our reach. We can share images, video, and audio. Just imagine the possibilities!

I talk about this stuff all the time, which really annoys my cat and my wife, occasionally interrupting their sleep. One of the complaints I get is that if I focus on these non-personal ways of communication, then I must not care about face-to-face contact. Nonsense! Nothing about digital or non-personal interpretive media can ever replace in-person contacts. Nothing I can write in a description or record in a video can anticipate or react to body language or subtle nuance, or take advantage of interpretive moments. Digital technology shouldn’t be thought of as replacing humans interacting with one another (though we know it happens all the time.) Rather, these technologies are opportunities to expand our audience, to show things that we may not be able to show or demonstrate in person, or to visit vast areas that would not be logically possible in a physical sense.

Methinks that I doth protest too much sometimes. Maybe this video will help some to understand why I’m so excited by this. Now, if I can just find the time to comb our archives for interesting photos and information to share. Lack of time is the ultimate barrier to getting everything done that I’d like to work on; how about you?


Google Floorplan: That’s A Name, Not A Search Term


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photograph of the google indoor camera equipment

One of the interpretive sites I work at is pretty large compared to many interpretive sites—the primary campus for the California State Railroad Museum is over 200,000 square feet. Of course, this is nothing compared to, say, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg Russia, the Louvre in Paris, or any of the units of the Smithsonian, but it’s large enough.

We are also well-known, so there are entities who want to partner with us for increasing their visibility. Politicians, historians, railroad companies, even bands often come to us wanting to use the venue to make a visual and emotional connection. Google is not one of those entities who need us.

After all, Google pretty much rules the search engine business. Google owns YouTube, the most widely used video platform. Google maps pretty much rule the roost. Heck, “google” is both a trade name and a verb, and it achieved that status much more quickly than, say ‘Kleenex’ or ‘Xerox’ did. In fact, just as I’m writing this today, Google has released a new Google maps app for the iphone to replace Apple’s really poor substitute, and Google rose 1.3% while Apple dropped another percent.

So imagine my surprise when I received not one, but two emails from actual, verified Googlians. They are suddenly very interested in coming to the California State Railroad Museum. And get this– they wanna map the inside of the facility!

This is actually pretty cool, and there are two things going on. First of all, Google wants to map the interior of our public spaces, and we’ve already given them our floorplan maps so they can show the interior of the building. For us, this will work because, like I said, the main campus is HUGE. As we continue to use and possess more and more smart devices– phones, tablets, perhaps ankle bracelets for some of my “friends” (ahem,) then you might be actually able to find, say a child who’s wandered off inside a museum or art gallery or shopping mall. You could arrange to meet your friends at the Mona Lisa, or even specify which table they can find you at in a restaurant. Google indoor views have already been added to some of the large casinos on the Vegas strip. Compare the view of New York New York between the satellite view and indoor map view. Imagine that you’ve never been there before. Which makes more sense?

Satellite view

Map view

Full disclosure– I’ve increased the saturation of the Google map portion in Photoshop to make it easier to read. The contrast is actually pretty low in the actual map view. Setting that aside though, which one do you think would be more useful for a newbie to navigate with?

I thought so.

Of course, compared with a casino, whose floorplans are widely thought to be consciously designed to prevent you from ever seeing daylight again, our facility is much, much simpler.

Basically, to provide a floorplan, all you have to do is to upload it, and match three anchor points over a map view of the facility. We’ve done this. The next step, of course, is the paperwork. We have to certify to Google that we are the owners, we are responsible for the content, and that the content is accurate. We also need to work with Google to ensure than non-public areas are not shown. Google will then send out some Googlians to collect some data points with GPS units so that they are sure of the accuracy, and they will redraw what we provided in a manner that’s consistent with their standards.All of this makes sense. I hope that we get this done soon, but I work for a governmental agency, and deliberation and delay are part of the decision process. I’m pretty sure that we’ll get there though.

Photograph of a car with Google Street view cameras on the roof

Google Streetview car receiving a ticket.

photograph of the google indoor view camera

The Google ice cream cart/indoor camera.

The second thing that’s going on is that another portion of Google maps has contacted us about doing street view inside the museum. Have you ever seen the Google vehicles shooting streetview images? The indoor streetview does essentially the same thing, but with an ice cream cart.

We have a few more hurdles for this one. Logistically, we’ll have to arrange probably several evenings after we close so that visitors aren’t in the images. This will make the dataset cleaner, plus eliminate any privacy issues that might pop up. The second issue that I foresee is to have our curators check on any copyright issues for visual media that we have. We display historic signs, paintings, photographs, trade labels, company trademarks, and original visual media that we need to check on, just in case we don’t have the rights to show them in this new way. If there are any issues, Google will simply blur the object to make it unrecognizable, just like they do for me when I keep jumping in front of their cameras as they cruise town.

I’m not exactly sure when we’ll get to this step- I’m still working on coordinating our staff and the Google reps, and then they’ll have to make one or more trips here with their equipment, but I’m thinking that this will be pretty cool. I’m not a shill for Google, and I’ve had my own difficulties with them, but this is pretty cool.

Or it’s another horrible example of losing privacy, of reducing the joy-inducing unknowns that I and many others have when we come to new places, or it’s part of the homogenization of the world. I suppose that it’s whatever you want it to be, like most new media that we talk about here. Part of me has that lingering dread of cheapening and dumbing down of our society, but hey, these are all just tools. They can be used for good or bad purposes. I prefer to see the exciting possiblities, and yet another new way of connecting with our audiences.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, then read about it on Mashable at , try for some general help and an overview, or take a look at some of the places where there are floorplans available, at . Since Google is the owner of the Android operating system, the technology so far seems to be skewed toward Android users, but there’s a desktop app, and I’m pretty sure that an iphone app will appear eventually.

And in the meantime, happy holidays everyone!




Be Your Own Souvenir


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This game was not only revolutionary – the wood panels also matched the station wagon!

I remember when my father brought home our first Atari Video Pinball console. This lifechanging event in my household amazed me in two ways. One, this huge lap-sized device with one large knob and five buttons the size of my childhood palm could entertain us endlessly – I mean for hours upon hours, days upon days – with its seven classic games. Two, I was amazed that my Dad was foolish enough to purchase it for my mom for Christmas. While my brothers and I excitedly fought over who would play next, my parents had a serious discussion on Christmas morning:

My Mom said through gritted teeth, “I can’t believe you only bought me this for Christmas.”

My Dad responded, “But, you said ‘Wouldn’t that be great for Christmas!'”

“I meant for the children – not for me.”

“You never specified that.”

*seething glare*

Anyway, through the years I grew up with each major advancement in computers and gaming: PacMan on our Atari computer, Lemonade on our Apple IIe, and on and on. But, I never really progressed past the joystick. To me, it was perfection – one hand on the stick, the other on the button. It worked from Donkey Kong to Pole Position to Joust. Once Nintendo came out with their stickless controller, I was lost. Well, not lost in the way our fourth writer Shea Lewis has disappeared from the virtual world, but in the way that technology seemed to get ahead of me.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and you can see how I was totally amazed with the hand-held controllers with the wii. Suddenly, people had to physically move their bodies to play, and it changed everything. It revolutionized how people interact with games. Now, people purchase games to get in shape. Say what? I know!

As if that wasn’t enough to completely blow our minds, then came the Xbox Kinect. Now, you don’t even need to hold any controller. There’s no cord connecting you to the device. You simply move your body, and it registers.

This amazing leap forward in technology will change our world in ways we don’t even realize. And, as with all new technology, there will be the usual struggles between good and evil, until those in control realize that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Thought that Kinect is only used for video games? Think again, and prepare to have your mind blown. This article describes 8 ways Kinect is used besides gaming – from controlling a quadrocopter to smart shopping carts to gesture-based Minority Report style computer interactions.

But, the most useful and mind-blowing to me is a little art installation in Barcelona in 2011, called “Be Your Own Souvenir.” Barcelona based blablabLAB created the interactive installation using 3 Kinect devices. In a nutshell, a person plugs a dollar into a machine, then stikes a pose. The three Kinect devices create a 360 degree 3D image of the person and sends it to a 3D printer known as a RepRap. Within minutes, the machine creates an “toy army soldier” version of the person. And, voila! The person has their very own souvenir of themselves. Here are some photos of the process:

Strike a Pose!

Creating the Souvenir

Voila! Memorable Experience and Souvenir!

The trick is to find a way to use this technology in a way where it isn’t just a novelty, but rather a way to meaningfully connect people with places and resources. Art galleries? Museums? Nature Centres? Can you think of a way to apply this at your site? If you can, then I’ll come and visit and take home an incredible souvenir of.. me!!

Finding Your Way With Google Map Maker


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I’m a guy who really loves maps. I guess this is a symptom of being a visual person, and it reminds me of one of my favorite jokes, about not getting a job as a cartographer in Arizona because I had no sense of Yuma. Still, maps and understanding of landforms are important to many interpreters. Human culture, emigration, development, agriculture, and on and on and on are all dictated by topography. The routes we travel on today in many cases are defined by what people did hundreds or thousands of years ago. Maps, whether planimetric, topographic or “artfully” constructed, help us understand nature, humanity, geology, botany, agriculture, and the evolution of our plant and many species of life.

I’m not a cartographer of course, certainly not in the formal sense. I have drawn a few maps, though, and I’ve plotted GPS waypoints and I’ve downloaded survey data onto basemaps, spent more time dreaming with Google Earth than any one person should be allowed to do, and I stumbled my way through a GIS course but still can’t use ArcView very well. I keep thinking that I would if I could, but probably not. Maybe I’m a wannabe cartographer.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve historically been frustrated with Google maps, though for my money, they’re better than the other alternatives. I get frustrated with them because, for all of their strengths, they’re still full of crap. Some of this is intentional, to trap companies or individuals who may steal or reverse engineer their map data. Google (and Bing and Yahoo and others) introduce intentional errors into their maps. In the trade, these are referred to as “trap streets.” Wikipedia has a generic article about this at . Other errors are based on old data, incomplete source information, and things like that.


A satellite view of the South Auburn (California) area for illustration only

Hmmm. How many errors can I find in my neighborhood, that is, outside of my noisy neighbor?

View Larger Map

But I digress. If you’re tired of looking at Google maps of your park or site and grinding teeth over the errors, you can now fix them. It’s little known, but you can now edit Google maps! is a new site to me, but it’s been around since 2008. Unlike my own Google maps, which allow me to put placemarks, routes and descriptions on maps that I can then post or send to people, mapmaker allows users to modify the data on maps that everyone will see. This is yet another type of crowdsourcing, or as Paul might think of it, having too many players on the field. In one sense, I can ensure that things I care about are accurately reflected, but in another sense, why isn’t Google paying me to fix their errors or stuff that they’re just too lazy to do right the first time? Oh Google! You let me ask you the most ridiculous questions many times each day in my quest for knowledge and entertainment! I suppose that the least I can do is give something back! So much for my rationalization.

Basically, when you go to the mapmaker site, you can find and choose a feature and submit your changes. Some of this is form based, some are radio buttons, and there is an opportunity to write an explanation or justification. Sounds pretty easy, but it’s not as intuitive as I’d like. Maybe that’s again because I’m a visually oriented person and I want to see the changes immediately. Fortunately or unfortunately, Google doesn’t work that way. Changes are moderated, and what Google calls “experienced users” review changes before they go live. The timeframes for changes to be effective can vary quite a bit. Also, the sequencing for making changes/edits can be a little confusing. When I select a placemark or icon to edit, it’s sometimes not obvious to me what I need to do to create a change or delete a duplicate landmark (and boy are there lots of duplicates in the area I’m working on right now!) The good thing, however, is that you can become a reviewer, which I’ve done. Boy, I just can’t wait to get me the power to create and/or delete features from the earth! Oh wait? my reviews are then reviewed? Oh man…..

If you’ve stuck with me this far, GOOD FOR YOU, but what does this all mean and why should you care? I hoped that we wouldn’t come to this question; you should intrinsically care. Those of us who are interpreters are, I hope, interested in everything that goes on around us, we’re interested in showing, telling and helping people learn about the world around them, and we’re interested in accuracy. Sure, c’mon, admit it! Don’t you feel better now?

So go on, take a look at Google mapmaker. You can dip your toes in, or you can jump headfirst and share even more of your knowledge than you did previously, and perhaps, just perhaps, you’ll remove one of those intentional map errors that caused me to end up on what seemed like a one-way dead-end street in Los Angeles a few years ago.


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