When the first visitors arrived at Atlantik Wall, an interactive World War Two exhibition in The Hague, they were presented with an unusual choice. Would they prefer to carry around a miniature beer mug, a box of sugar, a food coupon, or one of three other items?
These replicas were all based on real objects in the exhibition, and they did a consistently good job of arousing curiosity. But they weren’t just for show. In fact, they played a fundamental part in the visitor experience. Place a beer mug on a glowing panel and you might hear a story from a German soldier. Use a sugar box instead and you’d hear from a civilian.
Over the next seven months, there were almost 15,000 sessions of visitor interaction using these chip-carrying replicas. Driving it all was an innovative mix of sensors, software and custom-designed objects called meSch – the work of twelve partners across Europe, with coordination from design experts at Sheffield Hallam University.
‘MeSch is designed to cross the bridge that exists between physical heritage and the digital content that is generally stored in computers,’ explains Professor Daniela Petrelli, professor of interaction design at Sheffield Hallam.
‘It’s a toolkit,’ adds Nick Dulake, a senior industrial designer at the University’s Design Futures group. ‘It provides hardware and software that creators can use to dynamically prototype, test and deploy interactive installations.’
Since that first exhibition in The Hague, the toolkit has demonstrated its flexibility and creative potential time and again, at sites that range from indoor museum spaces to a World War I trench in the Italian Alps.
‘Beauty and craft’
While every meSch implementation is different, one of the constants is a commitment to high-quality design and craftsmanship.
At Hadrian’s Wall, a display of Roman altars inspired a ‘votive lamp’ – a flat cylinder with three lights to be used as offerings to the gods. Smooth and contoured, it sat comfortably in the palm, its tapered orange lights glowing softly. Each one slowly darkened when the visitor presented the lamp to a chosen altar. The object even gave off a little heat.