Reviews: four apps that look at objects

Over the holidays, between parties, blissful bouts of relaxing, and a bit of food poisoning, I’ve been catching up on apps I meant to look at but haven’t found time for.  In this post I want to discuss four apps worth examining that all try to get users to look at objects and use the tablet platform to extend that experience.  And then maybe, there’ll be questions about apps creating virtual analogues of a physical experience.

The apps in question are:

  1. The University of Virginia Art Museum’s “UVaM” app,
  2.  MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionism NY,”
  3. The American Folk Art Museum’s “Infinite Variety: ThreCenturies of Red and White Quilts”,
  4. and a non-museum example, Pyrolia SA’s “Road, Inc.”

They run the gamut from pilot project to high-end, big budget custom developed project. What links them is that they all try to use the tablet platform to get you to do engage in a fundamental museum experience: looking closely at objects. And to a surprising extent, they all managed to get me to do it.

1) UVaM

The smallest of the apps in scope is a pilot project undertaken by UVA to expand on their efforts to expand access to their collection through their Object Study Gallery, a cross-cutting display of objects from a variety of cultures and time periods. To do this, they partnered with a company called Arqball, who describe themselves as “a platform for publishing rich interactive 3D content on mobile phones and tablets.” And 3D digital scans of eighteen objects form the backbone of this app. You can rotate high-res images of objects with a swipe, zoom in to inspect details, and access fairly lengthy curatorial descriptions of the objects.

The graphic design is minimal and clean and lets you focus on the objects. The objects that have extra images embedded in their descriptions are all large and zoomable as well.

The interface design is excellent. I never seemed to be more than one tap or swipe away from what I wanted. Because of the limited scope of the app, it has a pretty flat navigation scheme. You swipe left or right until you reach one end or the other.

The image resolution suits the objects. Part of it may just be clever object selection, but objects in the app are all displayed at good resolutions, and respond well to swiping and zooming. At max zoom, you can see the image start to fall apart, but I think that’s actually useful, a sort of visual “Here’s the limit” clue. I am also the sort who will zoom as far as possible, just to see what I can see.

The texts are long, but not off-puttingly so.  I might make the paragraphs a bit shorter, but… One nice feature of the text is that the image doesn’t go away when you swipe down. It moves to the top of the screen and only moves off-screen when there’s another image in the text that you might want to enlarge.

I like a landing page that sets you up for the experience. A signed letter from the Director as the intro? I’d rather launch into instructions and let this information not be the thing I see every time I launch the app.

The rationale behind the eighteen objects is unclear to me. I have no sense of what the collection is like from which they were selected.  It might be a case where I’d understand it all if I were in the museum, but as I’m not, it feels random.

Having only one orientation seems like a bug. The objects they’ve chosen are all taller than they are wide, but I’d still like to be able to rotate the tablet and have the app reorient itself.

On the whole
I thought this app was a great pilot. It demonstrated how an app that lets you look at 3D scans of objects might look, and it left me wishing there was more.  This is also the downside of pilots. Will there ever be a more comprehensive version?

Doing one thing really well can be enough to make a free app worth trying out.


2) Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts”

The American Folk Art Museum partnered with Toura to produce this app.  It got a lot of interesting press when the show opened (like this one from Simon Schama in because the unusual exhibition design from Thinc Design made traditional labeling impossible. Quilts were hung in towering cylinders and arcs, many meters above the ground. Having an app a visual field guide was an interesting choice, and I still wish I’d seen the show while it was up.

What the exhibition looked like. By Gavin Ashworth

This app is very much in the vein of an old school multimedia guide. It exists to help you make sense of the physical space and identify quilts at a great distance to learn what the curators have decided to tell you about them.  It seems to be built with Toura’s MAP platform, which lets museums build an app from templates in relatively little time. Sometimes, it feels like a little off-the-shelf, but on the whole, the developers made great use of the platform.

Navigation by images rather than numbers or names is very pleasing.  I’m finishing off our first Toura app, and I so wish I could come up with a better method than the little card with the number… Maybe next time.

The addition of a whole “Post Exhibition Materials” is a very smart move, especially since the exhibition was only up for less than a week.  After the initial viewings of the quilts, I spent most of my time here, looking at installation photos, timelapse videos of the installation of the show, and videos of programming from the exhibition.

The navigation really only works in portrait mode. I was getting really frustrated with my inability to find any quilts in landscape mode. It was only when I accidentally turned my iPad that the screen rearranged and the navigation appeared across the bottom. I don’t know if it’s an issue with MAP or this instance of it.

The image zoom was inadequate to make out details on the quilts. I’m not quilter, but I know you have to be able to see the stitching to really understand how the piece was constructed.  You can’t even get close enough to resolve emroidered words on the quilts, let only fine detail.

Content was scarce. I wanted more, at least something on every quilt, even if it was only bare bones provenance.

The quality of the audios is atrocious. I listened (or tried to) with both headphones and the iPad speaker. The audios sound like they were phoned in from someplace with very bad phone service, or they were overcompressed to conserve bandwidth. Either way, they’re hard to listen to.

On the whole
This app made me feel like I’d missed something special, which I think is definitely a kind of success.  I can’t say how it functioned in the space, though.

Using premade templates isn’t as limiting as you might think. And if you want it done fast, not reinventing the wheel makes sense.


MoMA’s Abstract Expressionism NY

I have no special information on budgets for any of these apps, but MoMA’s Ab Ex NY has very high production values. Slick doesn’t come close to expressing how I felt using this app. From the graphical representation of the objects on the landing page, to the navigation, to the photography, all the pieces of the app feel like they were custom-built and tuned for the platform.  It’s an interesting counterpoint to the UVaM app, since most of the works here are essentially 2D, paintings and drawings, and the 3D objects in the show are treated as if they were 2D. There’s also the (in)famous cat video for the app.

Content depth is remarkable, and broad. Across all the objects I tried, there was something more to do, so even when I didn’t follow a link, I knew I was choosing to not go deeper, rather than hitting the wall beyond which no further content exists. This is a common occurrence for me using educational apps, so it’s a noteworthy departure.

The photo quality is superb throughout, and this app is really the only one of the four that let me get as zoomed in as I wanted to be without the image quality falling apart.

Glossaries and descriptions of techniques are becoming more common interpretive elements, praise be!  Telling me what a pallette knife is compared to showing me an artist demonstrating one is a little addition that I think has huge impact. More showing, and telling please!

I tried to find something, for fairness’ sake, but came up short. I really like this app.

On the whole
I like the way the app embodies the whole milieu of the New York Abstract Expressionists, showing not only their works, but their words, their images, their hangouts. It does all the things I’d want a companion app to do, and more. The art historical information and additional content are rich enough that I’ll probably keep this app on my tablet longer than UVaM or Infinite Variety.

Having a clear vision and hiring good people hardly ever results in a poor product.  Boatloads of money often help, too, though I wouldn’t be surprised if this app cost less than many might think.


4) Pyrolia SA’s Road, Inc.

The non-museum entry here, Road Inc. was produced by a French multimedia publishing studio, Pyrolia SA, which lauds their first product as redefining publishing, and marrying the craftsmanship of traditional publishing with the latest technologies.  This sounds like so much PR bombast, but in Pyrolia’s case, it’s not far off the mark.  The amount of effort that went into creating a virtual museum of famous cars is undeniable. 50 3D models of legendary cars have been created at motion picture quality levels of detail.  Around this virtual collection, Pyrolia have collected a wealth of multimedia content, from essays, to contemporary film and video, advertising, and (a personal favorite of mine) the sounds of the engine revving for many of the cars.

The app is set up in such a way that all but one of the cars are literally under wraps, hidden under a sheet.  When you want to explore a car, you have to choose to download it and then wait while your tablet installs the new content.  At first, I was balked at how long it took, but once I realized how much content came with each car, I realized how clever this strategy is. This sucker is a really heavyweight. If everything was preinstalled, the app would be a gargantuan download that would scare a lot of people off.

I think I’m not the demographic this app was designed for. In fact, I know I’m not.  Luxury cars really aren’t my thing, and sometimes the tone of the essays can be a bit smug. C’est la vie.

The 3D models of the cars look fantastic, but you can’t zoom into them or shift your view, so if you want to look inside you’re out of luck, unless there are historical photos that show the details you’re interested in. In most cases this was true for me, but not all.

On the whole
Road, Inc. is an impressive piece of work. As an exhibition of fifty automobiles, it’s remarkably deep, easy to navigate, and a lot of fun even if cars aren’t your thing.

Another interesting convergence. When a publisher makes what is essentially a tablet version of a coffee table book, it winds up looking a lot like a tablet version of a museum exhibition. The whole digital publishing shift I wrote about in December is neatly embodied in this app.


Discussing four very different apps can present the old “comparing oranges to apples” dilemma of trying to compare things that shouldn’t be. But I think that the four all try to get at a basic feature of museum-going; looking at something worthy and learning more about it (and, I like to think, your relationship to the object) through interpretation. In the next post, I’d like to pick apart some of the questions that came to my mind as I was exploring these apps and pondering how well they let users appreciate these objects in ways that they might do in person.

What questions come to your mind about these kinds of apps?


  1. Thanks for such an informative summary. All of these apps sound like they are great if you are not at the museum or if the exhibition is closed. My questions would be how you think they would work if you were using them in the space where the objects were – would they enhance or distract, and also do they lend themselves to social interaction – i.e. if you were visiting with friends or family, do you see how they might enhance your visiting together, increase questions, discussion among you- say if only one of you had a tablet, or if each of you had one?


    1. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a tablet app for visitor use in the museum that wouldn’t be a distraction, though as a docent device that could be shared back and forth, I think they’ve got real merit. Scott Sayre’s chapter in the Mobile Apps for Museums book is a good example.

      That doesn’t mean that isn’t a good visitor use that takes advantage of the tablet’s capabilities, I just haven’t one yet.


  2. Those are the questions I’m wrestling with right now, Gretchen! There’s something about the where and when these apps are designed to be used that is very interesting to me, and different from what we’ve traditionally done.


  3. Some of the advantages of the iPad app experience are 1) the intimacy – it’s just you and the objects, up close and in multiple view points; 2) the luxury of time – there’s no crowd of others maneuvering so you feel pressured to move to the next object. Apps can give users a deep and lasting impression.

    Then there’s the energy that emanates from a real life experience that you get from standing in front of the object – what Kevin Slavin from Area Code called the “aura” in his MCN2011 keynote speech. And the opportunity to experience a shared moment with others in the space.

    Did you try any of the social media features of the apps? What was that like for you?


    1. I wish I’d been at Kevin’s talk. 2011 was a bad year to miss MCN…

      I didn’t once use any of the social media features of the three apps that had any. After your comment I even went back into all three and looked at their SM features, and couldn’t bring myself to tell my Facebook or Twitter peeps that I was looking a really thing on this app… I’d love to see usage stats on how any of these features perform.


Comments are closed.