The Franklin Institute- Prototyping Lab Field Trip

October 3rd

This week, students from both the SLA and String Theory High School, along with the UArts students and faculty, embarked on a field trip to The Franklin Institute (TFI) to experience first hand how the prototyping process works. Since there were so many students, they were broken up into two groups: while one group was inside the prototyping lab, the other group was interacting with the machines and mechanical interactives in Newton’s Loft.

Inside the prototyping lab, TFI staff gave an overview about who they are and what each of them does to facilitate “building the bridge between what gets built and how the audience interacts with it.” They also explained the difficulty of prototyping, in that they need to build things which all people and all ages can enjoy and use, however they want to create something that is unique. Like with any museum experience, people need a reason to come. This is done by focusing and communicating the storyline of the exhibit through the design of the interactive. This is conceived in the prototyping process and it starts with focusing on the content which is unique to the exhibit and pretty much ends by turning the theoretical into a reality.

TFI staff made it clear, that prototyping is a messy process…and it’s supposed to be! Throwing out crazy ideas is the first order of business, and building as quickly as possible to access the experience for feedback is crucial. The question to come out with in the end is, does the visitor know how to use it and is the idea or concept clear through it’s use?

One of the interactives the TFI staff were prototyping was a demonstration of the impactive G-Force on a football helmet. One SLA student recommended a slow motion impact video to accompany the interactive. The TFI staff said he should consider a job in exhibition development because that is exactly what they’re going to do. Other observations were made about why the impact is simply focused on one point on the helmet. The TFI staff explained that there are mechanical issues with not being able to rotate the helmet since the interface had to be simple. This also raised conceptual issues about how to communicate that the force of the impact is not just focused on the helmet, but there is also collateral impact going on inside the helmet. Balancing the conceptual and mechanical issues is what prototyping is all about.

One student, seeing how involved the process is, asked if they work on multiple prototypes at the same time. The TFI staff replied that they redistribute the workload and trade off on who works on what, so they “don’t go nuts.” Another student asked about what the final result would look like. The TFI staff replied that the goal is to reduce the material, physically and conceptually, but not too much where it loses its function. Once they figure out how it will work, another company needs to build it and make it look pretty. The process, as the TFI staff described it, is something like this:

Ideas/Concept==>Prototype==>Proof of Concept==>Fabrication==>Evaluation

The bottom line, according to the TFI staff, is you should make sure you build for the people who will use the interactives. Even though only 3 of the TFI staff were present for the group discussion, they assured the students that there is so much more to the team and the process. It contains a lot of moving parts, from evaluators to graphic designers. They also assured everyone not to forget that TFI is a science museum and that scientific principles have to remain the underlying theme of the learning experience. If they lose that, then they’re no different than, say, a Dave & Busters.

Paul & Peggy

After the groups got a chance to walk through the prototyping lab, everyone from SLA and String Theory High School went into the new Brain exhibition to experience interactives in a new light. Separately, the UArts students and faculty met with Paul Orselli, President and Chief Instigator of POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop) and Peggy Monahan, Exhibits Projects Creative Director at the New York Hall of Science. Paul and Peggy met with the UArts students to provide feedback on their prototype designs which are in the conceptual stages.

Paul and Peggy gave some guidance fro initial criteria of the prototype. The question to start with is, what do you want people to get out of this experience? Also, if the criteria is pre-established, how will you know success when you see it? What’s the measure of success? When it comes to prototyping, it’s important to establish a framework but it’s also important to identify which questions to ask or prompts which can be set up to understand your impact and goals. Ultimately, you want to build an exhibit which would ostensibly communicate the idea you wish to make transparent. Peggy pointed out that design can influence the reactions of the visitor. For example, there was a talk-back interactive which provided visitors the opportunity to write down, on post-it notes, answers to questions regarding the exhibition. It turns out, that the color of the post-it notes changed the way in which people answered the questions. So, sometimes the most salient details are responded to by visitors, other than what we actually put into the exhibition.

In any case where you’re asking the visitor to respond to questions, there’s always going to be a wide variety of responses, regardless if they’re serious or not. People can see that dichotomy. The way in which they’re given to respond are simply tools and the design of the interactive has to be clear in a way which gives the visitor clear instructions on how to freely use these tools as having a handle on the concept. Paul and Peggy emphasized the question, that when you’re prototyping an interactive which utilizes visitor feedback, what are the mechanisms for sharing and collecting their stories so that they can be communicated through the interactive? The UArts students were given a sense that the SLA and String Theory High School students’ place in the discussion around community are the keystones to forging these mechanisms which will influence the design of the prototype.


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