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.