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Orangesplash's Geoxhibit Brings Interactive Machine Learning To Museums & Zoos

Laura Cowan

By Laura Cowan

Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.

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Designer Eszter Boldog left and Peter Lauwers right in the Orangesplash offices behind the meeting rooms of Arbormoon Software downtown Ann Arbor.

You go to the zoo, but you've just missed the lions, who are taking a break in the shade across the enclosure. Sometimes, visits to zoos and museums are like this. What if the app on your phone helped you plan your visit by routing you through exhibits when they would be open, buzzed you when the lions were being fed, and when you pointed your camera at their faces, it identified them for you by name using machine learning and gave you info on their health and history? Geoxhibit, from Ann Arbor design firm Orangesplash, is a new app that brings all kinds of custom features to museums, zoos, and gardens that helps visitors not only connect with the enormous amount of specialized knowledge held by exhibits and staff on site, but also customize their visit using mobile technology.

Peter Lauwers and his wife Beth run Orangesplash with an in-house team of 4 plus a distributed team out of the office, which is housed with Arbormoon Software on Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor. "We do the design side of a lot of Arbormoon's custom software projects, and they do the coding," Lauwers explains. Along with designer Eszter Boldog (pictured above) and others, the Orangesplash team offers custom user experience and interface design to go with Arbormoon's highly regarded mobile software development offerings. Now, they have a product that is exclusive to Orangesplash that is being marketed directly to museums. New app geoxhibit was designed by Orangesplash to create a semi-custom mobile software that would make it much more affordable for tech centers, museums and similar institutions to bring their extended content to visitors in a way that doesn't require Arbormoon's completely custom approach to software design that would otherwise cost millions.

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What makes geoxhibit different from other apps to bring interactive content to museums is machine learning, among other things, which creates new possibilities for the mobile technology to sense what users are doing and to interact with them in more relevant ways to enhance their visit. The technology can pack in all kinds of info from venues to inform this process, and also is highly customizable for users to have different experiences as they move through a space. "It's age specific," Lauwers says. He tells a story about taking his kids to a place he's always loved in metro Detroit: Greenfield Village. He loves trains, but knew his family wouldn't want to hang out at the roundhouse for 45 minutes to talk to the expert on site about trains. One child was bored, the other a couple of years older had a more engaged experience. Lauwers realized, "At different ages we care about different things." He says he didn't want to force his kids back to a place he loved, and he knew that even in a place where the staff held tremendous knowledge and enthusiasm for their historic exhibits, it wasn't always easy to customize the experience for different ages or connect with all visitors when staff weren't always available in their exhibits. "Every customer has this challenge," Lauwers explains. "If you focus a plaque of info on kids you lose adults. If you set up our system to say I'm 13 years old and you arrive at a location with the app, it's not a big technical challenge to send a bucket of info to your device for that age group. The more specific you can be, the more everyone has a good time."

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Some of the other offerings from Orangesplash, which also does design work for custom mobile software apps.

Geoxhibit has a feature called GeoQuest, where clients can customize scavenger hunts for devices giving clues and rewards for finding exhibits that are identified to the system by beacons. For example, kids could search the zoo for a list of endangered species according to a guided set of clues. "You've gone through the zoo in a different way, and now all these animals are connected in your mind in a new way," Lauwers says. "This can do a deeper job of educating and entertaining and bring people back to the zoo multiple times. You're connecting through the entire venue, not just one room." Lauwers says. Geoxhibit tracks traffic patterns as well, so the app can help museums collect data on how people use their space and reroute exhibits as needed. And teachers or parents can program devices per kid to guide them to the correct location for lunch, to track them around the property on a field trip, and even to give them the right amount of spending money on site that's programmed right into the app. Geoxhibit has point of sale integration built in. Families can program their kids into their account before a museum visit and track where their kids are, message them within the app to communicate on site, and guide family members to meet at chosen locations.

Lauwers says it's all about the end user experience. "If you don't focus on the end user as the goal," he says, "if you focus on the corporate client more than the user, people won't use your stuff. Implementation is key."

Orangesplash has been in talks with the Indianapolis Zoo. Lauwers says zookeepers love their animals like family, and the disconnect with this can be that they have info about their specific animals but no way to connect that with the public. Some zoos allow adoptions and donations to specific animals. With an app like geoxhibit, you could adopt Martha the lion, make a donation, and then receive personalized updates after you leave the zoo. It bridges the gap between animals and public, staff and visitors, in a much deeper and ongoing way. "We view this as a great program to increase entertainment and education level to make this the best experience people have ever had at the zoo," Lauwers says. Geoxhibit was just rolled out at Tech Trek offering their product to 6 categories of clients: zoos, museums, fine art museums, aquariums, science tech centers, and gardens. "We've figured out which features work for each type of client," Lauwers adds. We imagine that pointing cameras at butterflies in a butterfly garden would be a much more enriching experience to learn about the animals on the grounds than reading a paragraph off the occasional signpost. The possibilities for this, adding augmented reality features to that, for example, are just beginning.

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We asked Lauwers if geoxhibit could be used to replace staff. He says it's the opposite: the app augments the expertise and work of existing staff as a communication, education, and entertainment program. "Sometimes staff is there in the cottage to engage," he says, going back to the example of Greenfield Village, "and sometimes they're not, depending on the day. This fills the gap. We're not looking to take away from the exhibit. We want you to engage with the exhibit. All these kinds of exhibits are curated by professionals. We can't replace that. And the animals aren't there to perform. We are there to connect with them in their natural habitat." The goal, however, is to support institutions with industry-specific knowledge in communicating that to the public without having to beef up on IT staff on site. Whether that makes museums more engaging or reduces technology jobs that are distributed across these kinds of institutions remains to be seen. Orangesplash's expertise in user experience and interface design means they can create a better experience from a mobile design perspective and allow the museums to deliver their expert content in an elevated way. Lauwers likens it to when engineers designed the web but it took designers coming along behind to make websites usable to make the experience seamless. The same thing is now happening in mobile apps, which are growing up and bringing entire new realms of capability with machine learning and AI. The geoxhibit app offers augmented reality features, a virtual tour guide, and trip planning features.

It's early days, but geoxhibit is one of the most robust programs we've seen so far for interactive exhibit software. The app has only just launched, but we'll check back in as they find their niche. For now, you can learn more about the program at the Orangesplash Technologies website. If you have worked on this tech or used it in a museum to good or ill effect, let us know about it in comments.

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