Collaboration underpins delivery of digital exhibits for major UK science centre
Calvium delivered 25 unique interactive digital exhibits for Project What If. We worked collaboratively with Bristol’s We The Curious to undertake user research and went on to create the user experience and interface design system, plus develop and deliver the bespoke software. A massive achievement.
Half a million people visit We The Curious every year. It is one of the UK’s biggest interactive educational charities and its mission is simple: to bring together science, art, technology, culture and innovation to create positive social change for the community and environment. It wants to create a culture of curiosity.
Project What If is the next step in the evolution of We The Curious. Three years in the making, it is the first major science centre exhibition in the UK all about the curiosity of a single city. That city being Bristol, where the science centre celebrated its 20th year in 2021.
The exhibition was inspired by 10,000+ questions asked by people in every postcode in Bristol. What is exciting about science? What topics do people want to know about? People and curiosity are at the very heart of this exhibition. Whether a local or a visitor, the aim is for people to feel as if they are part of the city. Calvium worked with We The Curious since September 2019 to help bring Project What If to life. From giant hamster wheels to human clocks, we worked together to create a digitally-enabled collision of art and science, thus realising the massive ambition of the science centre.
Calvium's role in Project What If
Project What If was supported by a £3m grant awarded by the Inspiring Science Fund. After securing this funding, We The Curious commissioned Calvium to design and develop all of the exhibition’s interactive digital exhibits. Working as part of a multi-agency team that included Kossmann.dejong (exhibition designers) and Bruns (fabricators) we completed the interface design, user experience and front and back end development of 25 unique digital exhibits – achieving all the project goals.
It was a great pleasure to work with such a talented group of individuals at Calvium. The team really embraced the creative concept for each of the exhibits and worked with the content team at We the Curious to ensure the final interactive was true to the creative vision. We are delighted with the outcome of this collaboration, and are confident that each of the digital exhibits will be enjoyed by many visitors for years to come.
Innovation and collaboration underpinned the project throughout; combined with creative problem-solving, experimentation, keen project management – and much, much more. Afterall, we started working on Project What If before the pandemic and continued without a break through the lockdowns, tiers and reopenings!
I have worked with many agencies before but Calvium have delivered beyond my expectations. Their creative output is exceptional and their development processes are clever, solid and well-delivered. The processes and methodologies that were put in place for working through the numerous exhibits were easy for our team to engage with, and enabled any problems that arose to be resolved quickly despite the challenges that the pandemic threw at us. They have always delivered on time and in budget, making what could have been a tricky time, really easy and fun to manage. I imagine we’ll be working together in the future, once we finally open.
Project What If uses questions asked by local people to delve into the world of science. Those questions cover themes such as the soul, health and the universe. Inspiring people to engage creatively and critically with science through all sorts of lenses, be they artistic, playful or metaphysical, has never seemed more important than today.
Each exhibition area uses high-tech, beautiful design to explore these very different questions in lots of ways, covering a huge variety of different disciplines and voices. We’ve worked with so many amazing people, from members and volunteers, to partners and schools, the question askers themselves and people who have never even stepped foot in our doors.
We The Curious needed a team of experts in digital placemaking to help them realise their vision for Project What If; a digital agency who could design and deliver a wealth of unique digital interfaces that conveyed aesthetic beauty and conceptual meaning – whilst at the same time being secure and robust enough to withstand a daily bashing from eager and often highly animated visitors.
How we approached the challenges
When you’re working with a number of different agencies across different disciplines and countries, it’s crucial to agree at the beginning of a project how you will work together in the most efficient, transparent and mutually supportive way. Proof that our approach was successful came in March 2020 when the UK’s lockdown started, and our collaboration continued apace. Yes, there were a plethora of logistical challenges but they were all overcome by the team’s flexible approach and commitment to the project.
Clear and regular communication about all aspects of Project What If underpinned our collaboration. Specialist knowledge was freely shared amongst We The Curious, Kossman.dejong, Bruns and Calvium, and we kept an open dialogue so as to learn from each other and ensure that all aspects of the project were given rounded attention.
Calvium worked really well with our other partners Kossmann and Bruns. Bringing Kossman's creative vision to life in the interactive exhibits and working with Bruns on the changing timescales and review process of exhibits which we did over Zoom to sign off the exhibits before they were shipped to Bristol.
The Calvium team embraced the agile ‘fail fast – learn quickly’ principle; delivering iteratively and making sure that we could identify any areas of concern early and re-plan accordingly. For instance, we noted the opportunity to add extra reviews at the end of key phases, so that the deliverables from the wider project team and any associated critical dependencies could also be reviewed. As such, we kept improving how the team worked together which, in turn, improved the quality of our service – saving time, effort and money.
A hybrid user research approach
User research and user testing were key components of the project and an area where the Calvium team was involved, right from the start. Ensuring the usability of each digital interface and the comprehension of the associated content was absolutely vital to achieving the goals of the exhibition.
The exhibition’s research design had been devised in 2019, focused on participants being at the venue and undertaking hands-on testing of the exhibits. The research approach was fundamentally built upon physicality. Indeed, Calvium held an on-site research training workshop in January 2020 to help the science centre’s in-house user research team prepare for user testing sessions. However, this all changed when the country went into its first lockdown and the research had to transfer rapidly to digital delivery.
Rather than testing exhibits at the venue we quickly learnt how to run productive user research sessions with participants over Zoom conference software. The digital interactive exhibits were made available to users through a browser and participants were able to interact with the interface and feedback to the researcher team. WTC’s Content Team coordinated and interviewed a diverse range of participants online to test the usability of the digital interfaces and the comprehension of the exhibit’s content.
This totally different kind of user testing had some drawbacks but it definitely proved to have some strengths. For instance, it was found that topics which were sensitive, such as those about health or about the soul, were explored to a greater depth when online than at the venue, and there is a greater possibility to be inclusive by interviewing people who may not be readily able to visit the science centre in person.
Calvium’s Dr. Jo Morrison and WTC’s Rose O’Reilly reflected upon this experience at the MCG’s Museums+Tech conference 2020 where they presented ‘User Research in a time of Uncertainty’. They are currently designing a hybrid research model for future research practice.
A new visual language
The digital interfaces of the exhibition needed their own cohesive visual language — elements and styles that are used across the different displays — to help users feel comfortable when interacting with everything in the space.
An exhibition has so many visual reference points for visitors. Directional signs, interpretation panels, videos and interactive displays. Each one of these points should connect – shapes, colours and signage styles in the physical installation translate to their digital equivalents.
When Calvium joined the project, a visual direction for the physical exhibition had been established by Kossmann.dejong, which gave us our starting point. Working in cycles of design, conversation with project partners and refinement, we began to create a system of styles and components that could be re-used and expanded through the life of the project.
This design system became the go-to source of information for both the design team and the developers working to build each interaction. By working from this shared system, even vastly different interfaces become familiar, and form a reassuring thread of consistency at each moment that you touch one of the screens.
Across the span of the project’s development, each exhibit interface was tested with current and potential visitors. Collaborating closely with the We The Curious team, a combination of in-person and virtual tests was carried out. Participants helped to shape the design of each screen and the design system as a whole, maximising the impact of the insights gathered.
Bespoke software solutions
Let’s take one of these digital exhibits, the ‘John James Theatre of Curiosity’, to demonstrate the sheer scale of this project. As mentioned earlier, over the years, We The Curious has built up a library of thousands of questions asked by visitors, such as: ‘Why do rainbows make people happy?’ and ‘What if the sun stopped shining?’. The task was to visualise these questions in a three dimensional way and display them on four huge screens suspended from the ceiling.
In a nutshell: the screen operates in two modes – ‘attract’ and ‘facilitator’. In attract mode, the screen automatically flies to questions and switches topics every few minutes. In facilitator mode, a We The Curious staff member can select a set of questions, present them on the screen and then choose which question is highlighted to provoke discussion for visitors in the session. Calvium designed and built this system, using some techniques that have never been done before.
One of the key technical challenges of Project What If was the sheer amount of unique apps that we had to build and deploy. Several exhibits required more than a single app, with a few needing up to four in order to meet the vision. The task to design, develop and deliver such a vast array of bespoke software was huge, and it took exceptional skill to design Project What If’s system architecture.
The types of interactions that the software had to enable was equally challenging. We built 3D interactive models, applied visual effects to live video, developed interactive screens to input and moderate information, created custom keyboards and much more…
One of my favourite exhibits from Project What If has to be the Human Clock, where a visitor becomes a clock’s face and has to trace out a minute with their arm. The challenge here was to make it work for visitors of different shapes and sizes.
All of this meant that we were regularly working with middleware, which acts as a bridge between the software (apps) and the hardware (physical). Working with the physical exhibits and middleware meant that the number of technical teams expanded from two (Calvium and We The Curious) to three – which brought about its own logistical as well as technical challenges. For instance, we worked across different time zones and within the uncertain and varied impacts of a pandemic.
We really benefitted from the continuous integration and delivery process that we established at the start. This enabled us to test deployed apps as we were working and it helped our development process throughout.
Project What If has now opened to the public and the experience is permanently available for all to enjoy. However, it’s striking level of ambition was achieved by the whole exhibition team prior to its launch.
Project What If is an exploration of Bristol’s curiosity that will fundamentally change the way knowledge is generated and encountered in a cultural space. It opens up science to all, inviting anyone to explore the world as a scientist, an artist, a technologist or a theoretical philosopher. Projects like this one encourage people to ask questions and feed their inherent curiosities, which is why we are so proud to have been a part of Project What If.
This is a truly special exhibition and our involvement continues as we support the maintenance of the exhibits in 2021. We hope that everyone enjoys experiencing it as much as we have enjoyed working on it!
If you would like to find out more about our work for We The Curious or discuss how Calvium might support your organisation’s vision, we would be delighted to speak with you. Phone: 0117 226 2000. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org