Culture, Art and Technology: Museums make for Fantastic Hackathons!

Posted by Gabriel Couture on December 6, 2016

On November 26th and 27th, the Canadian Museum of History and Canadian War Museum teamed up with Hackworks to host the Museum VX Hackathon, their first event of this kind. Working with Carleton University and Algonquin College, Marquis Côté, Head of Digital Interactives and A/V, wanted to foster creativity by inviting post-secondary students to craft new and innovative digital experiences for museum visitors. Together, the two museums own all kinds of interesting hardware technologies and their exhibits are the perfect stage for resourceful problem-solvers to explore the use of new tech tools. Marquis thought a hackathon would provide a unique opportunity for students to use their imaginations and engage with the museums. And how right he was!

At kick-off, the students were provided with a variety of problem statements they were encouraged to tackle that varied from gamifying the museum-going experience, creating personalized curated visits and developing new immersive software solutions that would make exhibits more interactive. Students were confronted with a wealth of creative possibilities; the only directive was they choose from the themes of hockey, the battle of Vimy Ridge or the Franklin Expedition (based on three upcoming exhibits that will be shown at the museums) to craft their solutions.

In order to inspire them further, the museums provided touchscreens, beacons, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, motion sensors, NFC readers and writers and an HTC Vive VR headset for participants to play around with. Moreover, mentors from Carleton University and Algonquin College as well as local tech professionals joined over the weekend to share their expertise and help teams with the ideating and development process.

With all this stimulating material at their disposition, it was clear for participants that museums are fantastic hackathon hosts. Beyond the technology, there’s also the abundance of artifacts, stories, data and general information that creates numerous interactive possibilities. With the right tools and knowledge, participants can let their imaginations roam wild to come up with cool submissions. Museums today increasingly demonstrate a sophisticated convergence of culture, art and technology.

With this in mind, the participants enthusiastically developed their ideas. Over the weekend, one of the teams built a boat in Unity based on the Franklin Expedition and created a VR experience to go along with it; another developed an AR platform that generated 3D artifacts when you scanned pictures or objects in the exhibit; a third team created an app that allowed you to digitally collect artifacts from the museum in order to curate your own personal museum space. The students managed to use every technology made available to them – many using software and hardware technologies they had never had the opportunity to work with. Despite this learning curve, in less than 18 hours of actual hacking, each team presented forward-thinking solutions that could go a long way in improving the interactive nature of the museums’ exhibits. Marquis was certainly pleased by the results:

“There is nothing more rewarding than having young enthusiastic students in one room working together to find creative ways to make Museums more engaging. I was extremely impressed by the students’ energy over the weekend and the quality of the final projects and prototypes.”

Ultimately, the teams who received the best scores during the judging innovated without losing sight of the museum visitor. Their ideas were designed to satisfy today’s visitor’s interests, natural predispositions and access to smart mobile technologies. They crafted solutions that were financially feasible, realistically implementable and user-friendly – the keys to successful design and development.

At the end of the hackathon, the inspiration between museum and participant was mutual: Marquis and the rest of the museum team were able to engage and learn from a group of participants who belong to a demographic that doesn’t frequently visit museums; and the participants were able to find a new appreciation for the how museums use technology and the creativity that's required to design attractive and educative exhibitions.

Who knows, over time, perhaps hackathons are a solution to increasing attendance of young adults at museums. Following the hackathon, a participant wrote to us about his experience:

“it seems like the [museum] exhibits would really benefit from more interactivity. This is a good way to engage more young adults at the museum. This was the first time I visited this museum since I was in elementary school.”

This, in itself, is a success story.