Friday, February 19, 2010

Playing with Shiny Objects: Tech Trends and Innovations

I’m sometimes reminded by readers of this blog that the future is not all about technology (despite the way futurism is depicted in the popular media.) But you have to admit, the tech realm offers bright shiny objects that stimulate our imagination about how the future may be different. Here are two emerging technologies that could have a profound impact on museums and their work. Both are on the cusp of effective performance and affordability, both could have transformative effects on museums’ work in the next decade.

Shiny Object #1: Gestural Interface. The movie Minority Report featured a cool display screen hovering in the air that Tom Cruise manipulated with his hands—moving photos and documents, enlarging or banishing items, turning him into a symphony conductor of digital content. (Here’s a clip about the movie featuring this special effect.) John Underkoffler, who dreamt up the interface for the movie, went on to co-found the company Oblong Industries to make the fictional invention real. Last Friday he gave a talk at the 2010 TED Conference about this invention, which he calls Gestural Interface.


As reported by the NYT, one incredible element of the demo was that Underkoffler “reaching into” different film clips to pluck out characters that he then combined on a table top. Think how this technology could open up digitized collections to visitors. How about an “open storage and exhibit design room” where people work together to select virtual objects from the collections and create a digital, table top maquette of their proposed exhibit? Watch the promotional video on the Oblong Industries website
and this won’t seem so far-fetched. Underkoffler claims this technology will be standard in personal computers in five years—that sounds like a stretch to me, but it might be accessible far sooner to organizations.

Shiny Object #2: 3-D Printers. These aren’t new—manufacturers have been using them for some time to turn coded instructions into a three-dimensional object by building up successive layers of
a given material (such as plastic or resin.) This process turned the creation of prototypes from a laborious, hand-driven skill into a one that is relatively fast and easy. But not cheap (the industrial models cost in the range of $100k.) Now Wired Magazine reports that HP is poised to launch 3-D printers priced at less than $15,000. Low-end models of home 3-D printers are already available for under $1000, but they are severely limited in their precision and functionality. High end 3-D printing can reproduce details at the scale in the 100 nanometer range, in multiple colors, with moving interlocking parts using materials ranging from paper to metal to polymerized gels. John Balistreri, a ceramic artist who heads the ceramic art program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, even came up with a 3-D printing system that he can use to create and fire artifacts built up using ceramic powders.

The potential museum applications are endless (and some are doubtless already being used) but I am particularly interested in how 3-D scanning and printing could help make museum collections accessible*. 3-D scanning data is of immense value to museums anyway. Such data can be a priceless form of risk management and conservation—preserving important information in case of loss and guiding restoration in case of damage. Why not maximize the benefits in other ways as well? What if, instead of browsing from a limited selection in your museum shop, a visitor could select and “print” a high quality reproduction from a much larger selection of objects scanned from your archaeology, paleontology or ceramics collection? As the costs of transportation and insurance rise inexorably, what if satellite museums (or schools, community centers, or passionate amateurs) could design exhibits based on objects drawn from collections around the globe, go to the 3-D printing lab at their local museum and download and print the artifacts?


Despite my flip remarks at the beginning of this post, I’m not drooling over this technology because it’s cool. I’m excited by its potential to drive a wedge into the dam that separates collections from the public. Gestural Interfaces could enable “hands on” interaction with “hands-off” objects and (literally) bring a whole new dimension to “open storage.” 3-D printing could facilitate loans and accessibility, minimizing cost and risk, as well as making high-quality reproductions available on demand to users that might not be able to provide environments suitable for original material. Nothing will ever supplant “the real thing,” but these emerging technologies have the potential to provide a pretty good second-best…


*Here’s a clip from CFM's Voices of the Future series in which Chris Norris, Senior Collections Manager in the division of vertebrate paleontology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, talks about the potential uses of 3-D printing and the effect of such technology on collecting (see time mark 3:16). This is a great interview overall—I highly recommend kicking back for a cup of coffee or tea for about eight minutes to listen to Chris exploring the future.

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