MCA NOW - A reflection on Digital Media Summer Internship at the MCA

  Sky Mirror (Anish Kapoor 2006) Outside the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. This was the first photo on the #MCANow page.

I was selected to be a digital media summer intern at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. The internship was run in the Digital Media section of the Museum from January to March of 2013. I was working with Keir Winesmith, director of digital media at the MCA and Tristan Deratz, the MCA’s digital media fellow. I was given a project to create called MCA NOW.

 

MCA Now started as a project that would represent the physical space of the museum in the digital environment. MCA NOW would be a place where visitors not physically at the museum could get a sense of the physicality of the museum.

 

Final version of MCA NOW

The first thing I worked on was getting the current weather observations and displaying them on MCANow. I used the Bureau Of Meteorology's weather API to retrieve the latest observations from Sydney Observatory. This ended up being a little trickier than expected as the current observations are presented in formatted plain text and delivered over ftp. Initially this was working, but it was soon discovered that the BOMs FTP wasn’t the most reliable service. At the end of the project, the weather segment of MCANow was omitted, hopefully in the future it could be integrated once again, maybe this time using a JSON service.

I made a little script to tell the user if the museum was open and if it was closed, when it would reopen again. A bit of interface design that I am really pleased about is the change of scale used. Rather than saying that the museum is closed and will open again in 9 hours, the script will say “the museum will open tomorrow morning at 10”, at midnight this changes to “today at 10am” and only at 8am does the website start giving a countdown in hours and minutes.This was a great first step in getting my hands dirty in PHP and APIs. It had been around 2 years since I last used PHP so I was a little rusty, but I was fairly quick to get back on my feet. As MCA Now progressed, it moved from a closed system, where I would be working on the website using my own machine as the server and I would be the only one seeing the output, to an open system when we started to upload my work to the MCA’s server and make it public at mca.com.au/now. This was really rewarding seeing the work that I had done live on the MCA website, looking really nice surrounded by the rest of the website.

Early stages of MCANow page. We used a 3D rendering of the museum with red dots to show wifi access points. This part of the site has been changed to a relevant image of the MCA

Keir and I decided to make MCANow a social hub for the museum, allowing visitors to see instantly what was going on in the museum. I quickly set up a twitter account and twitter widget for MCANow. This twitter feed is a heavily populated feed of tweets from VSOs, visitors to the museum and people working behind the scenes at the museum.

Twitter has its own widget for you to use and customise, but Instagram does not, so we decided to make our own! Initially we started to look at 3rd party services such as Stackla, an Aussie startup which creates an aggregation of all social networks. In the end, we decided to make our own.

When we were searching for hashtags to use, we were initially reluctant to use #mcanow as it had spam posts from the Motor Club of America who have an affiliate program that is extremely popular ( have a quick search of #mca on instagram to see what I’m talking about). This led to the elegant solution of having a curated feed. This way we could keep spammers at bay and also use #mcanow for ourselves. When MCA Now started, there was only 2 posts tagged with #mcanow (both of them spam), now there are over 800 unique photos.The final instagram widget turned out in a similar manner to the twitter feed. It shows the main feed that gallery staff take photos of, and also photos that have been liked by the MCA instagram account.

Twitter and Instagram widgets for MCANow

After the success of the instagram widget, it was decided to move it from a small widget to digital signage to be displayed on HD TVs around the museum.

Initially we seeked and loaded all the images of instagram when the page was loaded. This made the load time of the pages 6 seconds, far too long for public display. To rectify this, images are now saved to the MCA’s server every minute. This was tested on the large displays originally with 6 photos, but it was found that we could fit 8 on the screen at once if we decreased the padding to the left and right.

Early test version of the Digital Signage. The bottom right font is in red as I was playing with positioning of the text.

 

Polished version of the digital signage. Notice the change of fonts and the images are now closer together.

Something was missing. I wanted to add a 3D flip transition to the images to draw the eye to screen, and bring a bit of interest to the display. Initially, I used CSS3 transitions and animations to make the images flip. This looked really great while I was testing it on my computer, but when the time came to try it out on the big screens it failed. Miserably. None of the images were moving and two were displayed at once. The digital screens are using an old version of firefox that doesn’t support CSS3, so it was back to the drawing board.

 

Final version of the digital signage screen with 8 photos at once.

I started looking for jQuery plug ins that would produce a similar effect, there were some, but they all had issues with frame rates and generally didn’t look as good as I would have liked. In the end I used css transforms and hid one image behind the other, after a set time the back image would drop in front of the original image. I used the jQuery library to ease in the drops so the look a bit more lifelike. Once this was uploaded to the big screens it looked fantastic. The images were loading, and flipping, and (most importantly) members of the public were taking and sharing photos tagged with #MCANow. I had a moment of “oh wow this is impressive” when I was in the MCA’s cafe and on the screen I could see the instagram screen that I had made and in the reflection of the screen I could see the Sydney Opera House.

MCA Now on the digital screens in the MCA Cafe.

 

After one more week of tyding up the code and finishing documentation, the internship had suddenly run its course, just as uni started to raise its hectic assignment filled head. My last day at the MCA was making sure everything was tickety boo, all the documentation of code was completed and everything was working as expected. I had lunch with another intern Kelly and we took instagram photos of our lunch. The last thing to do was to take a nice photo of me in front of one of the digital signage screens. If you look closely at the photo, you can see a photo of me in the photo of me.

Standing in front of my creation! MCA NOW!

 

Overall it was a great experience. It was a great way to see behind the scenes at a large art institution, although I only saw a small sliver of the full workings. A huge thank you to all who helped me out: Keir and Tristan for being such nice interviewers after my crash, and for being such nice 'bosses' :) To Keg De Souza for giving me advice and being heaps rad all of the time. Thanks to Mel and Justin and the other MCA staff I talked to. Thanks to my mum for letting me stay at her house :)

HUGE HUGE HUGE HUGE Thanks to Lucas Ihlein for pointing me towards this internship, giving me heaps of advice throughout the application process, being an excellent reference and overall just being the best. Thanks Lucas!

 

Visit MCA Now or visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia to see the digital screens.

Day 11+ 12

MCA NOW IS ZOOMING!  

Digital signs are on! Live. Open to the public. Looking sexy as hell.

8b8

This week was spent mainly polishing the digital signage section of MCA NOW. We want to show the public an glimpse of the digital version of the physical space, and how people are interacting with the space, artwork and museum on instagram. Currently we are showing 8 of the latest images uploaded or liked by MCA staff, and the MCA staff are liking images taken at the MCA (tagged with geolocation, #mca, or other relevant tags like #anishkapoor)

It looks really polished now. The fonts have been replaced with the MCA’s default font (its Katarine for those of you who are interested) and the logo is in place, and we have a super sexy grid.

 

The images that we are showing are in fact a random selection of 8 images from the last 20 images taken and liked. If someone is sitting and watching the screen for ages, each refresh of the screen will look different and have at least some new photos. When the feed is busy, new photos will be seen each time. When the museum is slow, we still have what appears to be a fresh selection of images. I have been putting heaps of effort into getting a image flip for the images to draw the eye, show more images and also give the experience of constantly new and updated images. CSS3 provides some really nice 3D transitions that are also fairly lightweight. So I put a couple of hours into trying to get them to work and finally when I had something looking a bit snazzy we went downstairs to the digital signs to give it a test run. Nadda. Turns out the digital signs are running an older version of firefox that doesn’t support CSS3 so no nice flips for us right now…. I have been working on a ‘fall down’ effect with jquery that hopefully will be implemented next week. It was a bit of a disappointment that I couldn’t get it working this week, but it just means I have to work extra hard next week. On the Wednesday afternoon I did lots of adjustments to the spacing and layout infront of the cafe’s digital screen. I looks really good on the giant displays!

MCA Day 7, 8, 9 +10

  Things are moving rapidly with MCA NOW, both the twitter and instagram widgets are polished and public, and looking very snazzy! The instagram widget is now super polished and looking quite sexy! Nice round corners and cool colours, and it is working! AND its live! Hooray!

 

I have been a bit lazy with blog posts, but I have been very busy between internship, work, moving house and playing settlers of catan!

FRQfh

On Tuesday night after work last week, the digital media team from the MCA headed to Sydney town hall to see Sir Tim Burners Lee give a lecture on the web. It was very interesting and he was quite an engaging speaker. The way he talked made it so clear that he was a computer scientist, which is really great! I think he is probably the most well known computer scientist alive today, so it was great to see him talk. He said some great stuff that made me really excited to be a programmer. “Lots of people see computers like white goods, like a fridge. You get one, you bring it hmoe and you fill it with things you like. If you dont have the things you like, or its broken, you get it repaired or buy a new one. This is where computers are different, you can program your comuter to make it do what you want’ - Tim Burners Lee.

 

After TBL’s talk there was an over crowded panel, and then a surprise projection mapping show on the back wall of the town hall…. It felt really out of place, like a 1990’s rave show that was impressed by PCs being connected to each other.

MCA day 5+6

Hello! Welcome back! Yes I have been naughty and haven't updated! But to be fair I was living in a leaky yucky house with no internet.... but now I am living in super nice house with INTERNET!! Hooray for modern technology!

 

Rainy day at the MCA

Talking of modern technology, I took the above 'cinemagraph' with my new Nokia Lumia 820 (plug! but actually it was given to me under the pretence that I use it so I can sell them) I think its a pretty cool little feature :)

MCA NOW beta

Lots of progress has been made since we last spoke. There is a live version of MCA NOW which is really exciting. After working on a project for a while and seeing few results, having something to show for your hard work is always a great feeling. mca.com.au/now is now floating around the internet, although there are no links to it (except that one ;) ) It has been really great to show friends and family what I have been working on.

So what is MCA NOW doing? (I love the name: It's very easy to make puns) Well, at the moment it tells you if the museum is currently open or closed, what the weather is doing at the MCA and most excitingly, shows curated feeds for twitter and instagram. Why curated? Well, as we talked about last time, #MCA is full of spam, so now we have an independent twitter feed that is dedicated to NOW. We also have an independent  instagram. We are giving gallery staff (you know, the people that tell you "please don't touch the artworks sir") iPod touches so that they can keep an eye on twitter and instagram for relevant MCA posts to retweet or like. Gallery staff can also contribute content, eg "Check out how busy Kapoor is right now" or upload a photo of something special to instagram. Hopefully this will keep the streams flowing full of fresh content! This also lets the public know about MCA NOW quickly, as gallery staff can talk to guests they see using instagram, and then show them MCA NOW.

Cool stuff!

I am keen to get out into the gallery and do some testing: talk to some guests about what they think of the website, if they would use it, what could be done better and just to see how they go about using the site. I would also like to talk to some gallery staff and see what they think about using the site and what they think of browsing through twitter and instagram to get relevant results.

MCA Day one and two.

First day at the MCA was exciting, a bit daunting, but very interesting. Tristan gave me a quick tour of the museum before it was open to the public. My favourite part was probably seeing Anish Kapoor’s My Red Homeland from a viewing deck above the floor, not open to the public. Pretty rad to see such a large scale work in an empty room. After the tour it was time to get to work! Keir ran through the project with me, MCA NOW. Sky Mirror

MCA NOW is a website that takes in the physical space of the museum and presents it as a website that can be viewed on a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer. One of the key elements that make up MCA NOW is using live location data from inside the museum to present what areas are popular NOW. This would be useful to see what are popular exhibions to see, or to see what artworks lots of people are looking at. Conversely, it will be able to show you the least busy galleries for people who prefer to visit with less people around. It will also show when the cafe is most popular. There is other great location data we can get (for MCA admin, rather than the public) like how people move around the galleries, what rooms they visit, how long they spend there and other data that we don’t even know about yet! At the end of a visitor’s visit they can check out their trail and see where they went. MCA NOW will also show relevant data about the weather, when the museum is open, what special events are on today and any mentions of MCANOW on social networks like twitter and instagram.

Day one involved remembering how php works (it’s been about 2 years since I last played with php!) but thanks to the kind folks at learnable.com  who donated access to their site to our hackagong team, I was able to brush up my skills relatively quickly (well, hopefully!). I sucessfully got a php scrip grabbing weather data from the BOM and another script showing when the museum is open and closed, and counting down until when it opens again. Inititally, the countdown was in hours, but this gave stupid results like “the museum reopens in 16 hours”. No one knows how long 16 hours is! Well…… what I mean is, if I asked you to meet me in 16 hours, you wouldn’t know when it was, it would be far better for me to say, “hey I’ll meet you at 10 tomorrow morning”, so currently the scrip will tell you that the museum opens tomorrow at 10, then today at 10, then hour countdown from 3 hours and finally MCA NOW Open. Yeah, get to tie in the name, oh yeah. Day two was more php wrangling, this time with the instagram API. MCA seems to be a very popular acronym, and the museum shares it with the motor club of america, who seem to have some shady affiliate program going on. #mca is flooded with spam of pictures of cash and people saying how you cn make heaps of money too! #mcanow has a few too, but we still want visitors to be able to interact with MCA NOW on instagram, so currently the challenge is to pull the data from instagram based on if the picure is tagged with #mcanow and then if it has #cash or some other spam like triggers, not to show it on our MCANOW stream.

Have a look at a 360° panorama that I made outside the museum.

 

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I am still without internet at home, so blog posts are going up later than I write them.