Eleanor, is that you?

The Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago recently started using a new app called Encurate, which is meant to give users a more personalized, in depth museum experience. I had mixed feelings about Encurate going into it. Would it enhance my experience or detract from it? Would I become annoyed? Would the notifications be information I could easily ascertain on my own? Would I still be left with questions that Encurate’s push notifications or the museum’s exhibit labels couldn’t solve? How seamless will the connection be between the real world and the augmentation?

I wish I could say that Encurate lives up to its tagline of “custom mobile experiences that highlight your space without distracting from it?” While I could imagine the potentiality of the technology with some editing, in its current form I feel like it distracted from my experience and left me with as many questions as it answered. It didn’t seem to be working correctly for me. It not only inundated me with information I didn’t want many locations, but it made it hard for me to access the information I did want in others. Sometimes, without moving, numerous notifications would pop up and almost immediately disappear to be replaced with something else. There was no way for me to get back to those notifications. I walked in circles trying to get them to pop up again and gave up, only to have them pop up again in another room.

There were a few notifications that I was sent again and again from various locations not related to the notification. While in an area dedicated to Andreas Vesalius I received a notification for “Radiation for Hair Removal”. This alert was sent to me at least 4-5 different times in different locations and rooms like my phone was possessed.

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On the third floor I didn’t get an alert at the top of the stairs about anything, so I went to the unmarked room to the right. Again I wanted information while standing RIGHT next to an object (paper mache fetus models)that I was not given until I was in the hallway again. In the alert, it instructed me to go to the Obstetrics Room , yet from the hallway, none of the doorway openings make it obvious which direction that was. Having already been through that room I knew, but often there was a lack of directional instructions. Sometimes something would be described as east or south, which is only helpful to those not directionally challenged. Once I get off of the street and wandering around a museum I lose all sense of direction. Perhaps when suggestions of nearby things pop up there could be arrows included? For instance, in the middle of this hallway I get this alert below. This Clyster image has piqued my interest but I can’t tell where it is in relation to me. Its definitely not in the hallway.

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In the fourth floor landing I received my third notification about imported limestone and an alert about a series of letters(which, again, were nowhere visible from where I was standing). What I REALLY wanted to know was more about some skulls in the case in the landing with holes drilled through them. In the Spinal Surgery Room and the Orthopedics Room I received identical alerts, over and over like it was possessed, about a bone saw and a wheelchair, despite changing rooms. The other visitor browsing that room at the same time kept on shooting me the evil eye because my phone was buzzing so much.  In the Artists-in-Residence Room I got the alert that I had hoped to get on the landing about the skulls. In talking to other visitors, it seemed that that accuracy did indeed vary, but not as badly as it was varying from my phone.

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Other times, even when a correct alert went off, I wished that the alert told me more. This was especially true of the architecture. In a popup about the fireplace it mentions elaborate details throughout the house but gives no specifics, like the story behind this ram’s head design. It offers no valuable information to the visitor. There were at least 4 equally interesting fireplaces for which I received no alerts. Between the multiple fireplaces, variety of crown moulding, original windows and doors, antique tile in the bathrooms and ornate staircases, there were very few architecture related alerts (yes, I realize it’s a medical museum).

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Consistency seemed to be an issue. Some areas had a lot of information, other pop-ups offered nothing the visitor couldn’t have figured out himself. The museum did make use of the app’s marketing capabilities with a quick mention of an upcoming event attached to an alert.Yet in an empty area marked “New Exhibit Coming Soon”visitors could get a teaser alert about the new exhibit. Or, in the halls of portraits or statues of the greats in medicine, visitors could get better acquainted with these women and men.  And I think they could’ve tapped into an additional design (Look! Pretty!) demographic by focusing on some of the beautiful designs of medical related things like these ornate cases in the optometry section or the sleek design of certain tools.

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Overall, when the app was working properly I thought it was ok, but this was the exception. Between the incessant buzzing for alerts about things not in the room I was in, and alerts disappearing if I moved an inch, it was more distracting than helpful. A comparison that I keep thinking about is when you’re driving and using Google Maps and something is slightly off. It’s telling you to exit. There is no exit. Or it doesn’t understand you need to detour. Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn. Until it gets its kinks worked out, Encurate reminds me of that- this thing that is supposed to be helpful that you end up muttering and cursing at as it buzzes and sends you alerts you don’t need. I love the IDEA of this app though and look forward to seeing what it is capable of after a little more Beta testing and tweaking. I feel like I had an atypical experience. Perhaps the ghost of Eleanor is the reason I’m getting alerts about death masks in a room full of paintings?

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