Digital Wayfinding

Wayfinding Goes Digital

From touchscreens to handheld devices, the future of digital wayfinding is in your hands.

Long considered the flashy stepsister of traditional signage, digital signage has generally been known for its chameleon-like ability to convey multiple messages, loop promotions, or display ambient imagery. Think Times Square, highway billboards, and retail marketing. But although it can be big, bright, and bold, it’s had trouble getting outside the box.

With the arrival of digital wayfinding, however, content is going from promotional to informational, complementing static signage in complex indoor and outdoor environments. And with portable mobile devices and cell phones becoming ever more sophisticated and ubiquitous, digital wayfinding is poised to jump out of the box and into the palm of your hand.

Digital wayfinding indoors

“Digital signage often is about popping a sign somewhere, putting ads on it, and making lots of money, and that gives digital signage a bad name,” says Rob Wolf, senior managing partner and creative director for Launch Dynamic Media (Wyomissing, Penn.). Launch has been developing “digital signage” for more than a decade, and has recently completed what is being called the first digital wayfinding system of its kind for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s 7.5 million annual visitors were creating congestion at the information desk, where staff were bombarded with questions that could be answered quickly through signage. OpenEye Displays (South Amboy, NJ) saw an opportunity to use digital wayfinding and interactives to guide visitors through the museum and enhance the environment.

“There’s definitely a misconception that digital wayfinding will replace traditional media,” says Bryan Meszaros, director of business development at OpenEye, which worked with Launch to develop the digital wayfinding system. “I believe it’s meant to be complementary, add value, and improve the experience.”

And fortunately, money earmarked for the sign program had a stipulation, according to Mike Laurence, chief of design in the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits. The donor specifically requested a prototype digital program.

A digital wayfinding system is constructed much like a website. Launch uses open-source code, a browser and Internet connection, databases, and Flash. The content is managed through a content management system and displayed on appropriate hardware (LCD screens for the Smithsonian). The LCDs are hooked up to PCs, and all the individual displays are networked to a main server which, using LAN or WAN, tells different pieces of data to play at different locations at different times.

Developing digital content for the museum had its share of challenges. For one, Launch had to create the content from scratch and with little direction from the client. They created categories of content (e.g., main areas of interest, exhibits, “you are here”) and branded each one using colors, in the same way a traditional wayfinding program would be developed.

Installation was also challenging and costly. “We couldn’t drill holes in the marble floors and we had to make a high-tech system look seamless and integrated within a traditional setting,” Meszaros explains. In some cases, kiosks designed by Fitch were installed. In other cases, screens were wall-mounted or placed within cabinetry. Sometimes the PC was placed right behind the sign, while other times they were placed inside cabinets that slide out on wheels.

Now that the system is up and running, Launch is fine-tuning it—perfecting the timing, ensuring adjacent screens sync up—and working on the next phases of the project, including integrating real-time data and adding interactive components.

The good, the bad, and the costly

Although the system is generating increased interest in digital wayfinding, there are some roadblocks to progress. One is cost.

“A lot of people want to know if digital wayfinding will be more affordable, but we haven’t been able to make that case yet,” says Leslie Wolke, associate principal at fd2s (Austin), which used a custom, proprietary software to design a comprehensive wayfinding system for the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Medical Center. Many clients still think of digital signage as a promotional or advertising vehicle rather than an information vehicle, she adds. And because digital wayfinding is not a revenue generator, it’s also difficult to gauge the return on investment. “You’re not selling a product, so the ROI is based on how big the smile is when visitors leave,” Meszaros says of the Smithsonian’s new system.

But the advantages are obvious. Rather than displaying one layer of information, a digital wayfinding component can display multiple layers with almost limitless flexibility in how and when it can be displayed. It can also be updated easily and remotely. “We can make Flash changes to the signs onsite without remaking the sign,” says Bill Combs, Launch’s director of business development. And once the system goes live, updateable information and interactive components can be added without racking up huge costs and without adding hardware.

Digital wayfinding to go

When it comes to the future of digital wayfinding, however, many agree it is in the palm of your hand. Literally. “The core future is around portable mobile devices for wayfinding,” says Craig Johnson, executive director of the Interpret Green Foundation (Philadelphia). Johnson has already been involved in several digital wayfinding projects that use handheld devices for everything from interpretation to orientation.

His firm’s work for the National Park Service involved creating prototype kiosks, a website, and cell phone tours for the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, which spans 600 miles through 10 states on the East Coast. By creating an “information commons,” Johnson aimed to create a wayfinding system that would give visitors a free digital guide with live information that could be accessed on multiple platforms. Unfortunately, the project went belly-up due to insufficient funding. But the groundbreaking concept is taking root elsewhere.

Tom Patterson, a senior cartographer for NPS’ Harpers Ferry Center, is spearheading a project that will create a modern, high-tech way of navigating people around the National Mall using mobile/handheld devices; in other words, mobile maps. He put out an RFP in December with a wish list of features for this mobile mapping system, including: 1) GPS enabled so you can see what’s in front of you, 2) directionally aware to reorient when you move, 3) high-contrast and monochromatic when used in sunlight, 4) labels that softly fade in and out as you move around, and 5) access to park-related content. The content would be delivered either through a 3-G cell network or Wi-fi, and a content management system would allow NPS staff to update content via a user-friendly interface.

“Generating maps for mobile devices is the logical next step,” Patterson explains, citing several problems with printed signage and maps. “Either physical signage isn’t good enough, paper maps are inadequate for navigation, or visitors themselves are inexperienced map users. We see [digital wayfinding] as a solution to these problems.”

Like Patterson and Wolke, Johnson views Google Maps and GPS systems as a great opportunity for taking wayfinding with you. “We think that will be the strategy for a new form of wayfinding. Not just getting from A to B, but getting guidance on what’s interesting along the way,” Johnson explains. “What I see as the promise or opportunity of digital wayfinding is that we can make maps for ourselves and view them within the social networking environment.”

Radio frequency identification tags are another new technology that can be used to enhance digital wayfinding. For example, RFID tags could be installed all over a museum and “talk” to your cell phone to let you know where you are because they know where your portable mobile device is. Wolke, who is part of a technology-oriented “futures group” at fd2s, adds that RFID tags can be added to tickets in a parking garage to help you find your car.

Breaking the digital barriers

As with any groundbreaking technology, however, there are still some barriers to overcome in using handheld devices as digital wayfinding tools. For one, particularly in the U.S., there is no standard platform for sending and receiving messages. Developing standard software that supports all devices is the solution, according to Johnson. Google has invested a great deal of money into Android, a new software “stack” for cell phones that’s based on open-source software and a new way of programming.

Another challenge is the adoption curve. Not everyone has a portable handheld device, such as an iPhone or even a basic cell phone. For example, Patterson’s proposed digital wayfinding system for the National Mall would be designed for higher-level portable devices, such as the iPhone. So the applications would be available only to the “privileged” portion of the population that can access information digitally.

The bottom line: good design

No matter what course digital wayfinding takes in the future, great design will be a make-or-break factor in its success. No matter how much information is presented, it needs to be clear, logical, user-friendly, and engaging. “It’s a thrilling time because there are tools like Google API to play with, so I think we’ll see a lot of exploration with digital wayfinding,” Wolke says. “But you still have to use a best-practices approach as with physical signage. Getting the logic right first is paramount.”

--By Jenny S. Reising, segdDESIGN No. 23, 2009




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