Online Extra: IBM's Tour de Force For MOMA

Big Blue's John Tolva and Stan Litow explain the thinking behind the renovated museum's new cinematic guide technology

IBM Corp. (IBM ) helped the Museum of Modern Art in New York revamp its technology as part of the big rebuilding project. John Tolva, a program manager at IBM, was the executive producer of the multimedia guide project. Stan Litow, vice-president for corporate community relations at IBM, oversaw both the MOMA guide and a precursor project for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. They talked with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Steve Hamm about how the MOMA guide took shape. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:

Q: Audio guides have become standard fixtures of many museums. When did museums start thinking about multimedia guides?


It's a new thing. A couple of museums are doing pilots with the guides. One thing we've focused on is a story-building application that sits back on the servers and allows curators to quickly build tours themselves. They don't have to go to an outside producer to get the program done.

Litow: This guide is heavily video-based. The first program is a history of the building, with a lot of archival video and audio. You have multimedia slide shows with voiceover. You see pieces of the building that have become art in their own right.

Q: What's your vision of the potential for multimedia guides?


By connecting the content management of the museum with the digital guide, you can deal with the entire museum on the guides -- not just special shows or a few pieces. And visitors can connect their visit to the museum to the museum's Web site when they get back home. It also makes the museum more of a global resource. You can post the programs made for the guide on the Web site for anybody to see.

Q: What lessons did you learn with the Egyptian Museum guides that you're applying to MOMA's guide?


We started thinking about storytelling. The Tomb of Tutankhamen is a tour where as visitors move from object to object, they move about the concepts of statesmanship in ancient Egypt. That helps them understand why the pyramids were built. The guides let you drill down into the story. There are menus that you can use to see more and go deeper. This is true of the MOMA guide, too.

The MOMA guide is cinematic rather than encyclopedic, like Egypt. MOMA wanted really good design. Everything about the museum from the wireless networks to the flat-panel displays in the walls. It has always been about making the technology disappear in the service of aesthetics.

Q: You chose the Pocket PC to display the guide. Why?


PocketPC has the most robust support for Flash, the language we used to create the story. Also, the museum wanted a large, bright color screen, and Toshiba Pocket PC has the largest screen.

In the future, there will be new devices that museums will look at. Eventually, people might be able to run the programs on their own cell phones. We designed it to be flexible enough to run on different devices.

Q: What was the most challenging technical hurdle you faced?


Getting full-motion video on these little devices is nontrivial. These aren't laptop computers. We optimized the video. We increased compression of the data to make it small enough so we didn't overtax the processor.

Also, we built a generic framework so they don't have to call IBM up every time they want a new program. It allows whole new media types to be added -- maybe 3-D objects that people will want to rotate so they can look at them from different angles. You might want to add instant messaging, so people in a tour group can exchange thoughts about the art without speaking out loud.

We didn't want to foreclose options. Now, it's slide shows, audio, and video. But you can imagine a day when they'll do something more interactive.

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