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The concept of play has been regarded as a critical part of early cognitive development of a child, and there are countless studies showing the process by which play fosters learning both in formal and informal educational settings . Museums are often seen as an informal learning environment, where visitors gain knowledge through engaging with the artefacts presented to them . The museum has under-explored potential to be an educational playground   that enhance and support the engagement of visitors with the museum exhibits.
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The research identifies with the museum as a place to learn, that is a playground, where the visitor is presented with options that support open-ended exploration and learning through play. The aim of the work is to research and define playful practices that enhance the effective design and development of playful environments within the context of the evolving museum and with the support of embedded or invisible technologies; moving the visitor from a traditional role of consuming content in a curated space to an active participant. The interest is in encouraging playful practices and cultivating engagement with the museum and its artefacts. Existing technological frameworks, and emerging technologies, including tactile, location, sensor-based, and networked technologies, such as those technologies underpinning the Internet of Things’ will be brought to bear on the visitors’ experience. The research uses creative design methods to hypothesize about and evaluate visitor engagement while simultaneously exploring the opportunities and boundaries of existing technological frameworks in novel interaction scenarios and defining design frameworks for future development.
Work to Date
The research has adopted a grounded approach and iterative design methods. It has been situated at Cork City Gaol Museum (CCGM), a heritage centre in Cork City that has been a test base for observations and small scale interventions thus far. The research has progressed from a literature review; which gathered research from several fields including interaction design, embodied interaction design, museum studies and play research. This led to the development of initial design guidelines. These guidelines were a reference point for initial brainstorming solutions, early prototypes and focus groups.
Observations were carried out in the museum space to identify typical visitor patterns and behaviour. Insights from these observations were used to identify potential visitor patterns and develop a series of prototypes, built using off-the-shelf technologies, such as Arduino and open-source coding platforms including, the Arduino IDE and Processing. These prototypes were tested in a controlled environment initially and then also presented as interventions in the museum space. Feedback from initial testing and observations was used to refine the prototypes, the design guidelines and the proposed scenarios. A comprehensive research review document is available for further reading.
The research is concerned with the experience of the individuals engaging with the museum and its exhibits. It aims to use available embedded, emerging technologies, to probe the visitor experience and to creatively apply these technologies to design an engaging, social experience. To this end the research project asks the following question: How can the digital enhancement of a conventional museum space foster playfulness, co-creation between visitors and open-ended exploration and learning?
To further explore this question, the research aims to investigate the following questions:
- How can playful practices enhance emerging exhibition design and digital enhancement of the exhibition space?
- What are the principle characteristics of playful practices?
- How can an embedded technology framework support the implementation of playful practices and what opportunities and limitations do these technologies have in supporting social interaction in complex public environments such as the museum?
- What design implications do the identified opportunities and limitations have for future design and development?
The primary objective is to examine the adoption of playful practices in museum exhibit design and to investigate how ubiquitous embedded technologies, either bespoke or off-the-shelf solutions can enhance or limit playful practices, and social and collaborative experiences. The research will delineate a framework for the application of invisible embedded technologies which underlines the Internet of Things, and playful practices which augment the social and collaboratve museum experience. The research is influenced by the ideas of Hiroshi  and his investigations at the MIT Media lab in moving the interface “off-the-screen” and the intersection of the fields of science, art and experience design. (The explorations of Chris Speed  in network technology and the Internet of Things, the intersection of Art and Science and social experience are of particular interest also.)
The research aims to:
- Identify how best to integrate playful practices within a museum that supports the existing objectives/goals of the environments while engaging visitors in a creative and collaborative way.
- Develop a comprehensive lexicon of terms to describe playful practices.
- Develop a framework for implementing technological interventions in the museum that enhance the visitor experience through encouraging sociability, collaboration and other playful practices.
- Evaluate existing technological frameworks in terms of supporting playful practices and social interaction within the museum.
- Implement a series of technological interventions across several distinct public spaces.
- Develop comprehensive guidelines for implementing playful practices and designing playful environments within the context of a museum
- Demonstrate the opportunities and limitations of existing technological frameworks, and off-the-shelf tactile, location, or sensor-based technologies when applied to open public environments such as the museum space and develop a design framework for future development.
To answer the research questions, this study will combine a mix of methods , theoretical investigation with design practice, including but not limited to design thinking and iterative design methods. The research will examine the characteristics and connections between the following elements; the visitor, the museum space, playful practices and digital technologies and frameworks. Existing methods of visitor engagement will be reviewed and existing digital frameworks will be analysed. A new framework for implementing playful practices and digital enhancements will be created that emphasises social engagement and collaboration between visitors. This model will then serve as a theoretical framework for further investigation. In-gallery observations of visitors will be used as a key method to gather comparable data before and after any design interventions. Cork City Gaol Museum has been chosen as a test environment, it is envisioned that two other open and public text environments will be identified and investigated also.
 Ginsburg, K. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds – The American Academy of Paediatrics, 2007
 Falk, J. The director’s cut: Toward an improved understanding of learning from museums. Science Education v88 nS1 pS83-96, 2004
Fróes, I., Walker, K (2012)The Art of Play: Exploring the Roles of Technology and Social Play in Museums, Museums at Play, MIT Press, p486-498
Semper, R. J. (1990). Science museums as environments for learning. Physics Today, 43(11), 50-56.
(Creswell & Plano Clark 2011, pp.71-72)
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