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Why MONA went mobile: The technology behind Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art

The story of Mona's 'O device'

Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art.

Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art.

There are many things that make visiting Hobart's Museum of Old and New Art an unusual experience. The setting, in the Moorilla winery, the striking architecture of MONA itself, and the intense sensory overload that takes place within its walls, with the shocking (and wonderful) juxtaposition of antiquities and contemporary art.

But beyond this, MONA also does much to change how the artworks on display are experienced by visitors. And the roots of this are simple: David Walsh, the creator of MONA, has a lot to say.

And although the collection itself and the way in which it's exhibited may do a lot of the talking, it was never going to be quite enough for Walsh. In MONA's predecessor, the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, the explanatory wall labels were sometimes larger than the artworks they related to.

Walsh was frustrated with this standard wall label approach of museums and he also wanted MONA's visitors to be able to rate artworks — to 'love' or 'hate' them.

The O

Enter 'The O': a device that functions as a sophisticated electronic guide to MONA, complete with Walsh's, sometimes lengthy, thoughts about different works and what they mean to him.

When visitors enter MONA they are each equipped with an O device: an iPod Touch running custom software and housed in a specially designed case. Touching the 'O' (the iPod Touch's button) brings up a list of nearby artworks.

Selecting an artwork offers details about the artist and the work, access to essays or interviews with the artist, and musings on the work by Walsh or his cohorts. Multimedia content can also be accessed through the system; for example artist interviews or the audio track of MONA's video-based works. And, fulfilling part of Walsh's original vision, visitors can 'love' or 'hate' a particular work.

Although the technology used for the internal location solution was purchased from a third party, it took four years of research and development to develop the full software ecosystem that drives The O at Mona says Tony Holzner, who worked on the O device. Holzner is now CEO and a co-founder of Art Processors, a company backed by Walsh that seeks to commercialise the systems developed for MONA.

The O device enclosure includes an active RFID tag, and uses wireless sensors in the museum's ceiling and a combination of received signal strength and time-of-flight analysis to fix the location of a visitor and produce a proximity ordered list of nearby artworks.

Holzner says that although there are a range of internal positioning systems on the market, it was tricky finding one that would work throughout a space that is as large as and complex, in terms of internal geography and the mix of materials used in construction, as MONA.

Other solutions to replace wall labels were considered, such as an RFID-equipped wand that visitors could wave near an artwork, or QR codes that could be scanned. But neither those alternatives nor the traditional wall label would offer the unobtrusiveness of the O device, which is a vital part of the MONA experience: an aid to becoming completely lost in the works and the museum itself.

It was "quite a difficult problem to solve transparently," Holzner says.

"Obviously you could do things with RFID and wave things around the works and embed chips behind the works, [or use] QR codes; those sort of things. But they're all quite clunky. And the big issue with those is they get in the way of actually experiencing the artwork so they defeat the purpose."

"They're no better than a label," Holzner says, and "arguably worse because you have people having to interface with the work via an obtrusive digital mechanism that involves waving hardware around and that's a terrible idea. You're going backwards from the label in my opinion."

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