Reality Check

On a few occasions we have had guest bloggers on IBD. We have done our best to keep it from happening since these “guests” just make us look stupid. Today is one of those days. We have a guest blog from IBD readers Colin MacArthur and Fabio Fraticelli. They were members of the 2010 Acadia National Park Youth Technology Team, a Friends of Acadia sponsored effort to envision the technological future of Acadia. Today Colin and Fabio are also principals at Almond Consultants.

So, by employing a tactic that I learned in high school, I will do my best to neutralize this perceived threat by undermining their presence by making comments under my breath or in today’s case in parenthesis and blue. It has worked well for me in past keeping me from being beat up 7 out of 10 attempts (two times I ran, and one time I got hurt). See how that works, it’s easy.

Seriously we are glad to share their expertise and experience here (plus it keeps you from having to read another one my irrelevant posts). I like this article because I think it will get some of you personal interpretive purists worked up.

Augmented Reality: Necessary Science Fiction?

When I first introduced the idea of augmented reality (also known as AR, not to be confused with the State of AR where Shea lives in a perpetual state of AR) to one of my older interpreter colleagues, she furrowed her brow and replied: “Augmenting reality, isn’t that what we already do every day?” She pressed on, “All these booklets we write, all this signage we design, all these exhibits we compile. Aren’t they augmenting reality? What’s the point of augmenting reality with a cell phone?” The techno-interpreter in me fumbled as I realized I couldn’t justify using a multi-thousand dollar cell phone app to identify the plants a 50 cent booklet could. (As with most of my conversations with women, I would have said because it is really cool and I like it, and run away cackling. Don’t knock it until you try it.)

To hear some, augmented reality enabled visitors will soon replace my uniformed colleagues, their signs and classic plastic tubs of interpretive props. (Why is it that most everything I do, like, or use today considered “classic” or “vintage”?) Smartphone armed visitors will train their phones on everything along the path to be greeted with interactive explanations, video clips and related social network postings. The National Mall’s new app. previews AR’s capabilities. When visitors point their iPad or iPhone cameras at monuments and buildings, they are annotated with their name and links to relevant information. (My mom taught me that it isn’t nice to point.) And apps like Peak Finder match illustrations and diagrams with the surrounding landscape.

But why spend hours creating AR tools? Interpreters spend hours planning and creating experiences for visitors. AR is one of a growing number of technological tools that helps visitors create experiences for themselves. Instead of following the guided booklet descriptions or reading a wayside sign, visitors using augmented reality find out more about whatever piques their interest. The media itself rewards curiosity and adventurousness. In short, AR creates opportunities for visitors to investigate what interests them instead of what interests us.

Augmented reality tools can also lower the cost to delivering personalized visitor experiences. For example, an AR app for Acadia National Park could let visitors pick which spots they learn more about. Some visitors could opt to explore cultural history, others geology. (By the way, that geology guy is a hoot to party with.)

How could you augment reality in parks to mold experiences to visitor preferences? We’ve thought about creating augmented reality tools that show:

● info about flora, fauna and culture resources of a specific landscape with detailed images and videos;

● past pictures of buildings for example history pin; (not to be confused with Pinterest which is great for the craft challenged.)

● pictures of landscapes in different period of the year which is good for phrenology;

● comments of other visitors about a specific resource which is good for social interaction;

These opportunities come at a cost. Not only a cost to parks, but to the visitor. (Okay, personal interpretive purist, here’s your chance.) Augmented reality enabled phones constantly use both internet and GPS signals ickly lose battery life. And until someone comes out with a set of useful “developer toolkits,” that the cake mix developers use to speed up their time developing complicated applications, augmented reality will remain extremely expensive.

But you can still try it at home! An increasing number of low-to-no cost services allow you to experiment with augmented reality. All you need is your smart phone and an internet connection.

The list of “off the shelf” augmented reality tools is long and increasing. We tried Layar, “an industry pioneer, which hosts the world’s leading mobile augmented reality platform with thousands of developers and content layers, and over 10 million installs of the Layar Reality Browser.” Layar ships with many Android OS devices, so it’s got a built-in, large audience.

Layar lets you view augmented reality information from many different sources. Each source is a “layer.” Here’s the good news: because Layar is so popular, many third party tools can help you creating information layers compatible with Layar. For example, Poistr provides an easy to use editor for adding points of interest to a map that appear as augmented reality spots in the reader. You can attach descriptions, images and relevant websites and even have animations or videos automatically appear when users encounter certain places. (I knew dancing baby was going to make a comeback.) Once your layer is created, you can export it and all the Layar’s users will be able to integrate it into their browsers using just a link.

Layar’s undeniably cool, but still limited by the battery life and connectivity of devices. How likely is it that new developments will overcome these limitations? Quite likely. Devices will continue to use power more efficiently and have longer lasting batteries. And many companies are working hard to offer AR browsers that requires no connectivity (cell phone connection or wi-fi): Layar says they’re very interested in this kind of feature. Some open source AR browsers can create apps that use data stored locally instead of remotely (and thus, require no internet). AR will be available everywhere and all the time. (Thanks for the contribution guys. I’ve got to make it to Acadia one day. But I’ll probably leave my phone in my pocket.)

Odds and Ends: Good, Bad, and Ugly

So this is one of those posts where I’m cleaning out my email inbox filled with ideas from readers to share on IBD. This week’s collection of odds and ends deals with one of my favorite things and one of my least favorite things and something simply ugly.

Let’s start with the good. The email was from Adrianne Johnson an interpreter at Niobrara National Scenic River in Nebraska. Warning to the birders: If you don’t have any free time step away from this link.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is working on a project known as Merlin. According to the website:

Merlin will be a new kind of bird identification tool—one that combines artificial intelligence with input from real-life bird watchers to produce an online “wizard” that helps people ID birds quickly and connects them to more information.

To build Merlin, we need to know how thousands of people remember and describe birds. You can help us by playing games that gather the information to help Merlin understand what bird watchers see. The more you play, the more you’ll help Merlin become a true bird ID wizard.

The website generates a random image of a bird. Like this one of a Sanderling.

The challenge is to see what three principle colors you see in that bird, and report it to Merlin. It is loads of fun, more or less the Wheel of Fortune for birders (minus all of those complicated conversations about consonants and vowels). You are also helping build a database of information. I completed 10 birds when I should have been concentrating on this blog.

Oh yeah, by the way, I love Cornell Lab’s logo.

Now for the bad from Phil Broder, as you would expect. His email plea of “Please, oh please, for the love of god, write an IBD about these!” sounded desperate, so I decided to include it. Also, based on an established history of turtle-related text messages from Phil, I was nervous about the ramifications of not sharing the story.

Several weeks ago I wrote about the new uniforms of the University of Maryland Terrapins. Keep in mind this post was about college football uniforms and not baseball, displaying our “fair and balanced” approach on IBD. For those who didn’t read the post (the majority of the free world), I can sum it up in one thematic statement: The Terps went all spandex on the state’s flag and that’s simply wrong.

Each week Maryland continues to unveil new versions of their uniforms. This week brought the latest helmet. Though creative, the helmet is embarrassing to all real terrapins out there.

Now for some ugly.

This is ugly for two reasons. One because I’m in it and second since I’m taking this opportunity to rub in my lunch with the Philadelphia Phillies’ starting pitcher Cliff Lee, at Paul. He had pork chops, turnip greens, pinto beans, cornbread and milk to drink, just in case you were wondering. He still hasn’t responded to my friend request on FB, but I know he’s busy.

Interpreting Unwritten Rules of Baseball: Part 2

In Monday’s post, Paul began a discussion of how graphic designers can make use of some of the unwritten rules of baseball. Based on the overwhelming response, it is possible that we managed to divide an already partly interested audience, yet again? Today I’m going to tackle some of the unwritten rules that address how interpreters can do the same. Here goes:

Don’t steal the catcher’s signs using means outside of the diamond. It is okay to be on second base and steal signs from the catcher. It is the responsibility of the pitcher and catcher to conceal those calls through various signs.

Interpreters should not conceal their messages. Otherwise they take the chance that they will get lost in translation, stolen, or misinterpreted. If the theme is a single complete thought, it should be easily repeated by the interpreter and conveyed by the visitor at the end of presentation. Having someone in your audience tipping your pitches is a totally different story.

Intentionally throwing at hitters will be reciprocated by the other team. Turnabout is fair play. In the event that a pitcher throws to hit a player (while not aiming at the head, see Monday’s post) you can expect revenge will be taken within the next couple of innings. This goes for intentional body shots but can happen on unintentional tosses as well. This can continue back and forth until the umpire starts tossing players out of the game. (Paul, I had an image of Pedro in Red Sox gear but I thought you would enjoy this one more.)

As interpreters, if we are found preaching or proselytizing at visitors you are going to get a returned negative reaction. Visitors to interpretive sites, in most cases, are intelligent people. No one wants to be preached at even if you are right. You will garner more support through carefully crafted messages that relate to your audience. You can expect a similar reaction if you are simply fact vomiting as well (minus the vomit…you know what I mean…I hope).

Base runners should not shout or distract a fielder getting under an infield fly. Imagine this, you are rounding the bases and the shortstop is about to catch an infield fly ball for the out. Just before he makes the catch you yell, “HA!” making the shortstop drop the ball. This is considered “bush league” (a term used to describe amateurish play below the professional level) in Major League Baseball.

For interpretation, extraneous information not related to the theme will detract from your presentation. Chasing tangents or being distracted from your thematic message will lose visitors. Not to say that you shouldn’t take advantage of those impromptu moments that may command your attention. For instance while leading a geology hike you hear the rare and elusive A-Rod call “HA!” You have to take that opportunity to interpret it, but somehow relate that distraction back to your theme to keep you efforts intact.

Don’t discuss a no-hitter in progress. Much like professional baseball players, Paul and I are extremely superstitious. (We are also similar in body types, bank accounts, and our affinity for tight pants.) If the pitcher for your team is in the process of throwing a no-hitter, you don’t say anything about it. If you do and the opposing team gets a hit, it is your fault. Announcers are the worst at following this rule. Joe Buck can kill a no-no like no other.

At your interpretive site if you have a no-hitter in progress and a visitor is buying in while moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, leave them alone and let them make their own conclusions. Just because we see the light bulb going off doesn’t mean we need to check the switch. We also think we know what’s best for the visitor but we never know what brings a visitor to our sites and what their motivations are. Lead but don’t guide.

Don’t steal bases when leading by a wide margin. Come on, there’s no reason to show people how fast you are. The only reason to break this rule is if you are in peewee baseball and you have new shoes and you must show others how fast they make you run. Just because you can swipe a bag because you can get away with it, doesn’t mean you should. (That goes for baseball too.) That’s all I’ve got.

Don’t admire your home run right after you hit it. This is a sure way to get yourself plunked at your next at bat.

Have you ever had a moment when Freeman shined down from the great visitor center in the sky and everything about your program went perfectly? The crowd was awesome, they asked all the right questions, and spent several hundred dollars in the gift shop before they left, buying everything related to your message. Don’t brag or someone in your office will throw a stapler at you.

Don’t use steroids. While we are on Manny you should also never grow your dreadlocks so long that they name the thing you wear under your ball cap a mandana.

 

Don’t Sink the Boat

For the first time since May of 1995, I didn’t put on a uniform when I went to work this week. When I began work as a seasonal interpreter at Millwood State Park more than 15 years ago, I didn’t know exactly what course my career would take. I just knew that I wanted to be a park ranger and I didn’t want to sink the park’s tour boat. I became a park ranger, and the boat only needed minor repairs and lots of cleaning. I now have a new job that doesn’t require me to wear the brown and tan uniforms that have become such a part of me. Though now that I think about it, that may have something to do with static, polyester, and legs that rub together when I walk.

I have moved into a fully administrative position as a regional supervisor. Needless to say I have taken a serious beating from my interpretive friends, who have made comments revolving around “the dark side,” “moving away from the east side,” and “gray and balding” (which I have now learned had nothing to do with the promotion). I have also heard from my non-interpreter friends who said things like “I just wanted to give you credit for sticking with that park rangin’ job.” And then there are those of you out there who are not surprised by this move, given that I love Walmart, Darth Vader, PCs, and the New York Yankees, which are all prerequisites for a job in administration.

I spent my last two days working at Parkin Archeological State Park leading 10 archeological site tours for a local school that visits each year. During each and every tour, I was reminded of how important leading those tours was for the students’ experience at the park and for me. After seven years and an unknown number of tours and other programs, I couldn’t help but think about how my view was about to change and how important even the smallest historic sites are to community. Leading those tours and preparing programs for that same group of teachers year after year is a tradition that supplements their curriculum.

The most important aspect of those programs is not me getting all sentimental and weepy, but the connection that is built between the site, the park’s mission, the program’s theme, and the visitor. If one of those elements is missing, the visitor’s connection is weak at best. It was a great way to leave a lasting impression of the park in me.

Now that I have had time to reflect and get over the symptoms associated with polyester withdrawal, I realize that my view is not going to have to change even though my window will. Whether I’m working at one park or working for a region, the responsibility is the same. It all comes back to the basics of those final tours: resource, mission, themes, and the visitor. Interpretation is the link between these items.

Arkansas State Parks knows the value of interpretation, which is evident though support for training, staff, planning, design, projects, and involvement in the National Association for Interpretation. The diversity of interpretive sites within Arkansas State Parks is truly amazing. The themes interpreted are mission driven and support stewardship and protection. It is an honor to work for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. It is also great to live in a state where citizens have provided support through a conservation amendment that offers a consistent source of funding. When you have visitors who care, connections are easier to build.

I’m excited about my new position, while at the same time still being gloomy about leaving a great interpretive site and some awesome co-workers, and hanging up the uniform. But I’m not going to change even though my clothes have. It is not about a uniform, but rather being an interpreter. Though, I was able to find solace in my new uniform, the sweater vest. Deep down inside, I’m still a park ranger and I still don’t want to sink the boat.

Voice of the Village

In 1995 I was hired as a seasonal interpreter with Arkansas State Parks. I was so excited to have the chance at a professional position, doing what I went to school for, and working in an area I was passionate about. One of the first steps towards being prepared for that position was to attend seasonal interpreter training. My initial impression upon meeting other classmates at the training was mixed, mostly because I wasn’t sure that I fit in with the group. This was a feeling that I was well accustomed to and had experienced in most every other interaction that I have ever had with humans.

Being highly trained in the skill of observation, one thing that I picked up on immediately was the amount of original personalities in the group. I was witnessing originality from the outside looking in but I found myself concerned about my lack of outward originality as well as my lack of  inner voice. Now that I look back with experience I see that it was the originality of those interpreters’ personalities and styles that help make the profession what it is today.  That training helped me find my voice as an interpreter.

Originality and voice are key elements of interpretation.  Freeman Tilden speaks of both elements in his definition of interpretation from Interpreting Our Heritage.

Heritage interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.

The use of the word original was no accident. It is those original objects that make our interpretive sites special. Those original objects can range from a prehistoric ceramic vessel to a landscape to a compelling story. It is “the thing itself” as Richard Todd coined in his book The Thing Itself that is the motivation behind creating where you work or what you interpret. How those relationships and meanings are revealed is where an interpreter’s voice comes into play.

I recently came across an article titled Getting Real at Natural History Museums on the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reading the Chronicle could be part of the reason that I have issues interacting with others. Perhaps I should spend more time visiting TMZ or on Facebook. The writer of the article Thomas H. Benton (pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) re-caps a recent visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (insert joke about Paul, museums in Philadelphia, cheese, and the Phillies) and is particularly harsh about his experience and what museums should interpret.

I have been compelled to read his article several times along with the other supporting articles that he provided about his visit. I also was compelled to come up with a pen name. His perspective voice from outside the field of interpretation is more than valuable to those of us on the inside because not only did he write about what museums and interpretive sites should be doing he speaks to the importance of originality, and “the thing itself.”

At one point in the article Benton aka Pannapacker (no wonder he has a pen name) makes this summation about museum interpretation.

It had taken many generations for museums to cultivate a kind of cultural capital that shaped visitors’ expectations in advance, similar to the experience of making a pilgrimage to a famous cathedral, full of relics. But in the last few decades, many natural-history museums have tried to emulate the entertainment industry, focusing almost exclusively on children and tourists—attempting to generate spectacles that do not cultivate quiet reflection and cannot sustain repeated encounters. The result has been a dilution of the museum’s formerly well-established identity: one that had cross-generational appeal and a deep connection to institutional histories and the local community.

On an interesting side note Benton was contacted by the Academy as well as other museums to help facilitate discussions on visitor experiences and expectations. The power of the visitor opinion or voice is a driving force in other areas online as well.

Paul and I have both have consulted Trip Advisor while planning distraction-based activities while we attend baseball games on “family vacations.” Our wives have been impressed with our combined knowledge about places that offer authenticity and original objects in cities with MLB parks. If you haven’t checked on reviews of your interpretive site or facilities on the website, you should. It can be empowering and depressing. There are several other online communities similar to Trip Advisor where visitors can be responsible for sharing or tearing experiences at your site.

If you stay close to your mission, interpret original objects, work with an original staff, and follow Tilden’s definition of interpretation you are probably doing fine. If you spend most of your day on Facebook just remember that there is someone out there with a voice to report that they saw you on Facebook while at the front desk.

Live from Australia, Part 3: Three Interpretive Experiences in Melbourne

The great Australian adventure finds me in the country’s second largest city, Melbourne, which the locals pronounce MEL-bun. We’re lucky to be staying with friends who have the time and patience to tote us around to some amazing sites. While I normally write about graphic design, three of our interpretive experiences in Melbourne have stood out, so I’m going to venture into Shea’s area of expertise and write about interpretation.

The Melbourne Zoo: Don’t Palm Us Off
One of the many great things about events like the NAI International Conference is that it affords you the opportunity to meet talented interpreters who work in amazing places around the world. One of the many great things about using vacation time immediately following the NAI International Conference is that you’re bound to go to a site where someone you just met works.

During the conference, I had the good fortune to meet Scott Killeen, visitor experiences manager for Zoos Victoria, who is based out of the Melbourne Zoo. After the conference, I had the good fortune to go to the Melbourne Zoo, where they have a sign that uses my new favorite word, Platypusary. Scott graciously took time out of his schedule to meet my family and friends and me. He introduced us to one of his recent projects, an orangutan exhibit that uses an advocacy-based interpretive message to alert visitors to the damage the palm oil industry does to the orangutan’s habitat. The zoo and its employees were covered with this “Don’t Palm Us Off” message, and visitors were asked to support a proposed bill that would cause products that use palm oil to be labeled as such. (Find out more at http://www.zoo.org.au/palmoil.)

The interpretive message itself focused on creating an understanding of the relationship between the products we buy at the local grocery store and the rapidly diminishing habitat of the animals immediately in front of us at that moment, and it was powerful. In fact, our friends in Melbourne are members of the zoo, and told us that they had already stopped buying products with palm oil because of an article in the zoo newsletter.

So soon after the NAI conference, it was invigorating to see interpretation at work in such a rewarding way.

The Penguin Parade
Every night at dusk, the southern shore of Phillip Island in Port Phillip Bay plays host to an amazing scene. Hundreds of fairy penguins (sometimes called little penguins) come tumbling onto land after spending the day swimming in the sea. These little guys (the smallest species of penguin) wait until dark to avoid detection by predators, then scramble in groups across the beach to the cover of the brush for the night. At Phillip Island Nature Parks, visitors can witness this event from stadium-style seating on the beach. They don’t allow photography of any kind because people don’t know how to turn off the flash on their cameras, so I’ve borrowed the image here from Wikimedia.

After enjoying this amazing event, visitors have the chance to tour through an attractive nature center (with the exception of one inexplicable and inexcusable use of Comic Sans), where you can learn all about the gruesome nature of these adorable animals’ deaths. After seeing stuffed cats and birds mauling our tiny feathered friends, we walked through the exhibit pictured here. My six-year-old son Joel, feeling protective of and connected to the penguins, saw the shark and asked, “Why does this building have to haunted?”

The exhibit included other information, but I was disappointed that visually, the emphasis seemed to be on stuff that kills fairy penguins. There was no take-home message that there was something we could do to help them, as the focus was mostly on natural predators. If I had to identify the theme of the park, it would be, “It’s a miracle that you got to see this amazing natural event at all because sharks eat these guys like popcorn shrimp at a Vegas buffet.”

Koala Conservation Centre
I didn’t fully appreciate the majesty of these beautiful beasts until I learned how much they sleep. At the Koala Conservation Centre on Phillip Island, we had the opportunity to witness koalas (as well as wallabies) in their native habitat. Noticing how droopy they all seemed, I asked an interpreter whether they were nocturnal. He told me no, they sleep 22 hours a day, and when they’re awake, they eat eucalyptus leaves, which are extremely low in nutrients, so therefore they have no energy. During their waking moments scattered throughout the day, they eat. I told him it reminded me of college.

At another site earlier on this trip, we had the opportunity to pay money to hold a koala and have our photo taken, and we jumped on it (the opportunity, not the koala). I love the photo and will enjoy showing it off, but I will have much fonder memories of moments like the one pictured above, where a sleepy koala (which I now understand is a redundancy) roused himself momentarily to look around and take in the scenery. Knowing what I know about koalas now, I think he looks like he’s trying to remember where the heck he is, what day it is, and whether it’s worth the effort to lift his paw to eat a eucalyptus leaf—all of which I find very endearing.

I’ve always liked koalas, but now because of one interaction with a knowledgable interpreter, I like them more than ever.