A co-founder of the Spokane-based computer-game pioneer Cyan Worlds Inc. is heading up a new venture that hopes to blaze new trails in museum technology.
The executive, Chris Brandkamp, says the fledgling company in which hes involved, IES Group LLC, is developing software for hand-held personal-digital assistants, or PDAs, that museums could use to provide visitors with interactive information about exhibits.
The hope and expectation is that this will appeal to the masses, Brandkamp says.
At this early stage, IES Group is calling its technology simply a museum PDA interface. The company expects to come up with a more marketable name.
The technology would allow a museum to download onto PDAs text, audio, and video about its exhibits. A museum using such a system would rent the hand-held devices to visitors, who then could use the devices to find outquicklyas much or as little as they choose about certain items in a display.
IES Group is working with the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, located in Brownes Addition just west of downtown Spokane, on a pilot project in which the software will be tested. The company and the museum expect next year to unveil a technologically enhanced exhibit that incorporates the technology, Brandkamp says.
For a typical customer, the system would cost either $20,000 or $50,000, depending on the level of service a museum needs to implement the system. Those costs dont include the PDA devices themselves. Brandkamp says its unclear how much a museum would need to spend on the devices, because IES Group hasnt determined yet how many devices a museum would need to have available and how much each PDA would cost.
A business plan developed by IES Group says the company expects to employ five people during the year the pilot program gets rollinglikely in 2005and would grow to 14 workers within three years.
During the first full year following the pilot programlikely 2006the company is projecting about $400,000 in revenues, its business plan says. The following year, it says, revenues are projected to rise to just over $1 million.
Those figures are based on the company being able to land contracts with a small percentage of the more than 18,000 museums nationwide.
Bruce Eldridge, chief executive officer of the Northwest MAC, says the museum has been involved in discussions with IES Group about the technology for a number of months and is interested in such technology.
In a number of instances, Eldridge says, the museum has wanted, but been unable, to use technology to enhance what patrons get out of its exhibits.
For example, the Spokane museum had an exclusive exhibit from the renowned Smithsonian American Art Museum for four months in late 2002 and early 2003. The exhibit, called Young America, included 54 paintings and sculptures from many of the nations most prominent early artists.
Eldridge says the Northwest MAC was the only venue west of the Mississippi River to display that exhibit, and landing such a prestigious collection was a once-in-a-lifetime event for the museum.
Eldridge worried, though, that visitors might not fully understand the significance of the exhibit and wanted to find a way to describe each piece in detail. The museum looked at having an audio tour made for the exhibit that would have used whats called a wand system. Each visitor is provided with an MP3 player device with which they could punch in a number and listen to a presentation by holding the device to their ear. Eldridge says, however, that audio tour would have cost about $30,000 to produce, not including equipment leasing, which proved to be cost prohibitive.
The PDA systems cost would be high on the front end, but production of content could be handled in-house, Eldridge says. Much of the written material for an exhibit also would be generated for other usesbrochures, exhibit reader boards, and the likeand audio and video could be developed by staff and college interns.
The full-color screen could include a picture and brief description of a display and options a viewer could click on for additional text, audio, and video.
Is it going to be PBS (Public Broadcasting System) quality? Eldridge says. No, but it will be a dramatic difference.
Even in many of the worlds best museums, patrons have only tape players to listen to as they view artwork and exhibits. It can be difficult to fast-forward or rewind the tapes in those machines to find desired information. Because the recorders are used so much, the audio quality and reliability of the recorders often deteriorates over time.
Brandkamp says museums nationwide are struggling to attract more patrons, and at the same time are drawing fewer donations. One challenge they face is that the same amount of information is presented to each patron, regardless of his or her level of interest in a given subject.
The PDA system would personalize the museum experience by allowing a museum patron to find out great amounts of detail about exhibits or artwork that he or she is interested in and skim over or skip items that are less interesting, he says. Ultimately, such interaction could become more entertaining and draw more museum patrons, he says.
Brandkamp says hes aware of eight other instances in which handheld PDA technology has been incorporated into museum exhibits, but he isnt aware of any other companies that currently are marketing such technologies to museums on a broad scale.
Brandkamp is currently Cyans chief operating officer and plans to stay with that company. Other people involved in the new venture at this stage include Wendy Schneider, of Spokane, who has worked as a teacher and curriculum designer, and Noe Medina, of Boston, who also has worked in education program research and development.
Cyan, which aside from Brandkamps involvement isnt affiliated with IES Group, started in 1987 with what it says is the first entertainment products for use on the CD-ROM medium. The company went on to make hugely popularand groundbreakingfantasy computer games, including Myst, and Riven.
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