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Comparing Popular Digital Interactive Exhibits: Tabletop v. Immersive

April 21, 2016
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As the digital world has integrated more closely with the built environment, museums and exhibitors continue to search for the most effective ways to interface with their participants. While interactive experiences have often been effective by their novelty, their proliferation provides us with increasingly important usage metrics, which have become particularly vital when considering their use for educational exhibits.

At the Exploratorium – The Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception in San Francisco’s Embarcadero, exhibit designers and evaluators sought to discover the effectiveness of different digital interactive exhibits. Specifically, they asked, “How does the museum visitor experience differ at exhibits that visitors can manipulate with their hands (tabletops) compared to exhibits that they can get inside (immersives)?”

Within the study, researchers discovered many unexpected results from generally anticipated outcomes when choosing between the two options. Exploratorium evaluators acknowledge that, “Immersive exhibits which surround visitors are becoming more and more common, especially in science and history centers.” However, by the data they acquired, immersive exhibits may not be the most effective at holding participants’ attention or helping participants take away specific information.

Researchers found adults and children spent, on average, 2.89 minutes actively engaging in immersive exhibits, but 4.05 and 4.06 minutes at tabletop interactive, respectively, which came against assumptions of immersive exhibits holding users’ attention longer. InteractiveBlog1

However, the study also found, that while users spent less time at immersive exhibits, both adults and children had more positive attitudes toward the immersives at the time of usage. Where the findings of adults and children align on these two stats, the study found that children and adults can tend to disagree on the social aspects of immersives versus tabletops. In speaking with children, researchers found that some children, 18%, viewed the social aspects of immersives negatively, where children wanted to use the immersives in particular ways, but other children and adults hindered them from getting the outcome they desired. Children were nearly as likely to return to immersives (50%) as to tabletops (42%).

One interesting part of the study was the examination of self-referencing talk, where researchers observed how participants viewed themselves and their bodies as integrated parts of the exhibit phenomenon, which is an important component of embodied learning. “Adults were significantly more likely to reference themselves at the immersive exhibits (68%) than at the tabletop exhibits (0%)…” While strikingly different for adults, incredibly, InteractiveBlog290% of children were likely to talk about themselves or their bodies at immersives, versus two percent at a tabletop interactive.

While tabletop interactives have become more commonplace within education and museum settings, as immersives begin to infiltrate education spaces, it is up to developers to ensure digital content is considered appropriately for its application. While especially important for education, crafting experiences on one versus the other can foster more effective usage and higher enjoyment in the final product.

Digital interactives allow for educators to more effectively teach particular topics in ways which may spur more students to grasp content, but their effectiveness may differ depending on the broadcast method. Teaching children the relationships of basic shapes or colors may be more effective at a tabletop where students can focus their attention on whatever is within arms reach. Likewise, immersives in nature point toward content more social and relational, allowing users to make connections in ways not possible without the interactive. Making effective interactives is as reliant on its design within the physical as it is with its content being broadcast.

While this study looks particularly at scientific and historical museum exhibits, some inferences can be drawn toward interactive usage in other types of exhibit spaces, like the many social activations used in several of Dimensional Innovation’s projects. As we consider interactives within museums and schools, designers should begin to weigh their effectiveness as these devices become more mainstream. While few studies have been completed on their effectiveness, their increasing usage will begin to illustrate, how, when, where, and why one might be better than the other, which can ultimately inform our clients of the potential shortfalls and payoffs associated with these devices.

Source: Dancstep (née Dancu), T., Gutwill, J. P. and Sindorf, L. (2015), Comparing the Visitor Experience at Immersive and Tabletop Exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58: 401–422. doi: 10.1111/cura.12137


Derrick RileyAbout the Author: Derrick Riley, a designer at Dimensional Innovations, studied architecture and contextual research at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is interested in the interplay between the digital world, the built environment, and how people interact with both. His work within DI includes sports hall of fames, museum exhibits, navigation and wayfinding, and architectural detailing. He might also tell you you’re using the wrong font.