The people vs. technology: A guide to harnessing playful tech to engage audiences in new ways

Jessica Taylor, Preloaded, UK, Hilary Knight, Tate, UK, Becky Menlove, Natural History Museum of Utah, USA, Dave Patten, Science Museum, UK


Playful tech is all around us. This professional forum takes inspiration from three recent ambitious playful technology implementations, and will explore the risks and rewards of embracing new and playful technology video games, VR, and AR, in order to drive deep audience engagement. In a practical session, attendees will learn how the speakers evaluated the decision to embrace the unknown in order to inspire and challenge audiences. Speakers will include Becky Menlove (Associate Director for Visitor Experience, Natural History Museum of Utah), Dave Patten (Head of New Media, Science Museum Group), and Hilary Knight (Head of Content, Tate). The session will be chaired by Jessica Taylor, Managing Director of Preloaded. Key focuses for discussion: -How can technology intensify a user’s experience of museum interpretation and its mission? What are the intended impact/outcomes for audiences, and how can the technology support that? - When is the right time to leap into the unknown with a new technology? How do you decide which technologies to adopt in-gallery to augment overarching curatorial objectives? - How much risk does an institution take on when embarking on an ambitious new tech project, and how is this managed internally? How can tech sponsorship spearhead innovation and new approaches to interpretation?

Keywords: VR, Technology, games, Collaboration, Risk, play

Playful tech is all around us. By playful tech, we’re not just talking about people playing video games on their game consoles, but increasingly, many of our everyday tech interactions—social media, fitbits, AR, or VR experiences—all target audiences by encouraging playful interactions. Why can’t museums and cultural sites play a bigger part in that story?

This paper has been put together by four champions of playful technology, all passionate about its potential to surprise and to challenge visitors to experience museums and cultural sites differently. Now is the moment for museums—through tech partnerships, innovative commercial models or external funding—to use playful tech to engage, thrill, or perhaps just meet the expectations of visitors, in person or remotely, who use tech playfully every day.

This paper takes a Museums and the Web “How to” session as inspiration: like the forthcoming conference session at Vancouver 2018, it provides a series of actionable tips. It focuses on three recent examples of ambitious playful technology and explores the risks and rewards of embracing new technology—video games, VR, and AR—to drive deep audience engagement. It is our aim that readers (and session attendees) will learn how the speakers evaluated the decision to embrace the unknown in order to inspire and challenge audiences.

All quotes in this paper are the result of interviews, specially conducted for Museums and the Web 2018 by Jessica Taylor, with the following key stakeholders, focusing on specific projects featured in this paper:

Becky Menlove, Associate Director for Visitor Experience and her team at the Natural History Museum of Utah, in partnership with Preloaded, launched Utah Climate Challenge ( in the summer of 2017. The Challenge is a multi-player in-gallery game installation, designed to harness audience collaboration as they envision a happy, healthy, and sustainable future in the face of climate change and its impacts. Early evaluation shows that visitors are quickly understanding the collaborative nature of the game.

London’s Science Museum hit the headlines in 2017 with Space Descent VR (, a mobile VR experience, created by the team at the Science Museum which included Dave Patten, Head of New Media, in partnership with Alchemy VR for Gear VR. The Science Museum acquired the TMA19 capsule, in which British astronaut Tim Peake made his ascent and descent six months later (in 2015/16) from the International Space station. Dave Patten and his team decided that the journey back from the International Space Station would make an astonishing VR experience, allowing Science Museum visitors to make a unique journey that only about 500 people have ever experienced—the descent from space back to earth. It does the thing that VR enables you to do so well: taking you to places you can’t go and doing things that you can’t normally do.

Hilary Knight, Head of Digital Content at Tate and her team launched Modigliani VR (—sponsored by HTC in partnership with Preloaded—in November 2017 to coincide with the launch of the eagerly anticipated Modigliani blockbuster show, dedicating a gallery within the main exhibition to this tethered experience for the VIVE (HTC). When the project was announced, there was considerable media interest in the partnership between Tate and HTC. Now launched, over 300 people a day experience Modigliani VR.

Jessica Taylor, Managing Director, Preloaded ( and her team are passionate about using the power of play to reinvent the way that organizations connect with their audiences through creating games, VR, AR, or other immersive digital experiences. In the past year, Preloaded has worked with Tate on Modigliani VR; with the Natural History Museum of Utah on Utah Climate Challenge; and with the V&A on a game called Secret Seekers, in addition to work for partners like LEGO, BBC, Google, and Historic Royal Palaces.

Some of the questions we’ll explore in this paper include the following:

  • How can technology intensify a user’s experience of museum interpretation and its mission? What is the intended impact/outcome for audiences, and how can the technology support these?
  • When is the right time to leap into the unknown with a new technology? How do you decide which technologies to adopt in-gallery to augment overarching curatorial objectives?
  • How much risk does an institution take on when embarking on an ambitious new tech project, and how is this managed internally? How can tech sponsorship spearhead innovation and new approaches to interpretation?

Let’s start at the beginning

It’s often hard to understand how a project came about in one organization, and how that special set of circumstances could be applicable to another organization. We want to try to break down our experiences of creating and delivering these projects into actionable and relevant tips.

Tip 1: Secure buy-in for the project at RFP stage

To ensure that all departments were up for the challenge, understood the risks, and could bring their expertise to bear, each of the featured projects had institutional backing from the start—and that’s our number one tip! At the Science Museum, Dave Patten explains:

The most senior level of the institution realized the fantastic opportunity we had in acquiring TMA19 and being able to develop an experience which gave our visitors a unique insight into traveling back from the International Space Station to Earth. We ensured the development was led by a team of stakeholders who covered everything from the technical quality to the commercial viability and the curatorial integrity of the piece.

Becky Menlove at Utah agrees:

I think the primary lesson learned is that it’s worth putting in the time and bringing in the stakeholders during planning for the RFP, and also that it may require more than one round of searching before the right partner is found. I think I would also be more diligent during the contracting phase to ensure that the internal team has the necessary time to engage across the schedule.

Tip 2: Take a prototype approach

For Becky and her team at the Natural History Museum of Utah, the game that is live now was not the first game developed for the Utah Futures gallery. The team worked with another pair of partners on an experience that showed promise, but it didn’t prove engaging enough. As Becky explains:

It was text heavy, had a required beginner level that stopped lots of players from experiencing all of the content, and because the data sets included actual projections of population growth and the real costs of water use, pollution reduction, and energy use, the game was impossible to “win.”

But crucially, this experience enabled a thorough evaluation of visitor engagement in the space, and helped the team to understand what was working and what was missing. Rather than reflecting on a failed implementation, Becky and her team had in effect created a valuable prototype; a first step towards establishing and honing the objectives to support a move to full commission.

Tip 3: Establish your starting principles

In early 2017, curators of the then-upcoming Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern approached Hilary’s team at Tate with a desire to fully integrate digital into the show. Tate could do this because (rather uniquely) Modigliani has no estate, which allowed the team more creative freedom than usual. Hilary Knight ran a creative brainstorm with curatorial, interpretation, and digital staff to explore innovative ideas. From this and further conversations, the starting principles were agreed: a bold idea, not done before, should be integrated into the exhibition, along with a new way of delivering interpretation that must uphold the exhibition’s rigor and authenticity. Knight found that these starting principles ensured the project stayed on track, even if sticking to them proved challenging:

Starting principles sometimes made things difficult (we couldn’t cut corners, new information had to be included such as painting out windows) but they meant that the final product is high quality, stands up to expert scrutiny, and its place in the exhibition is thoroughly earned.

Tip 4: Consider new commercial/partnership models to facilitate tech innovation

The Soyuz TMA19 capsule was the first manned space vehicle that the Science Museum in London had ever acquired for its permanent collection, and it called for not only a very special interpretation, but also a special commercial model. As Patten says:

We decided that the only way we could afford to make something that met our expectations for a high-quality VR visitor experience was to make it a charged experience. The development was paid for by our commercial arm, on a business model where revenue generation paid back the investment. Samsung supported us by providing VR hardware, giving us the GearVR headsets, Galaxy S series phones and headphones.

For Knight at Tate, the situation was different:

Funding came from HTC VIVE. I began conversations with our corporate development partners simultaneous to the conversations with curators. They were already talking to HTC about sponsoring an exhibition. HTC communicated that VIVE was a priority so we fed that into our brainstorms as a possible platform.

Tip 5: Time to rethink “never lead with technology?”

There is a view that museums should never lead with technology, for fear of it being given more importance than the audience need or overall concept. In some cases, though, could leading with technology (AR, VR, gaming) actually push the boundaries, and challenge an institution to do something different? Knight, Patten, and Menlove all agree that technology per se can never be the only reason to create a digital experience, because as Knight says, “Technology gives us tools to connect with audiences in ways which might entertain or inspire them, but only if the stories we tell are compelling enough, and the tech we use is appropriate to the story we want to tell.” But Knight also observes:

Having new tech to play with expands our ideas of how we can tell stories, how people might consume/receive them, and therefore expands our repertoire in how we might connect with audiences. Having tools to play with also helps us maintain an exploratory attitude and spirit of innovation across the organization.

Patten noted that “VR enables us to place the visitor at the heart of the story, not watching the story unfold from outside but becoming the protagonist.”

Tip 6: Tech installation is only the tip of the iceberg

Use of technology in a museum or public space has consequences from a logistical and budgetary (for launch and for ongoing maintenance) point of view. Introducing a technology installation to an existing public gallery poses challenges: how to manage visitor flow, how to minimise health and safety issues, and above all, how to integrate it into the overall exhibition/museum visitor experience. Knight ensured early involvement from all stakeholders:

Senior stakeholders were on board from the start and excited about a bold idea. The project would impact on multiple departments so we consulted with them from the outset to identify concerns and try to find ways to mitigate them. This project carried multiple risks, including brand risk. We worked continually with concerned stakeholders to help them find ways of mitigating those risks to their departments–for example, queuing strategies for Visitor Experience, and PR strategies for press and marketing.

Tip 7: Embrace the idea of external delivery partners

The case study museums and cultural sites did not have the internal resources to create their projects, so they decided instead to work with external partners: Preloaded for Tate and Utah, and Alchemy VR for Science Museum. Every project was different, but Knight, Menlove, and Patten were each looking for a partner to act as an extension of their internal team. As Menlove says:

Primary among the traits we looked for when selecting our supplier was a deep understanding of games and the value of play in learning environments. We wanted a team that was as excited and hopeful as we are about the potential of games to inform and even change thinking and behaviors toward climate change—one of the biggest challenges we face.

Knight’s checklist for the project partner was:

Alignment with our starting principles; track record of delivering high-quality experiences; prioritization of audience experience over showcasing the technology; good with narrative/storytelling and a willingness to work in partnership—we were looking for collaborators, not lone wolves.

Patten agrees, stating, “We wanted a partner with a history of making high-quality story-lead experiences, that could also create a robust, affordable, proven solution.”

Tip 8: Embed a vision for technology in the costs for any museum capital funding project

When the Natural History Museum of Utah opened its new gallery called Utah Futures in 2011, it was envisioned as a space in which to engage visitors in thinking about the future they would like to create in Utah. As Menlove says, buy-in for an innovative project was built in from the start:

Gameplay soon rose to the top among ideas for engaging visitors. We built a circular gallery with hardware for a multiplayer experience—five touch screens—and a synchronized projection to bring all of the players’ decisions into a shared space.

Menlove had even gone one step further:

Within the overall budget for the new building and its exhibitions, we included a research and remediation budget that provided resources for the evaluation and visitor research we carried out on the first game. This also provided funding for the new game production.

Tip 9: Identify project challenges early

Each project presented unique challenges. Knight had to integrate VR into an exhibition without bringing visitor flow to a halt, and ensure that the technology ran smoothly:

Nine headsets running simultaneously in one room is/was the biggest set-up HTC VIVE had run at that time. There were significant challenges in making sure that base units and headsets were set up in a way that meant they would run continuously.

Tate also had to train over 200 visitor assistants to explain the experience to visitors, most of whom had never encountered VR before. But perhaps most challenging of all, Tate had to ensure that its curatorial standards were enhanced and not compromised by the VR reimagining of an exhibit—Modigliani’s last studio. The experience had to be an integral part of the exhibition, meeting Tate curatorial standards and augmenting interpretation for visitors, and not simply a tech “bolt-on.” For Patten and his team:

The project had to be completed in a very short timescale. The subject matter and program meant we had no access to the capsule and our access to Tim Peake was extremely limited (as you can imagine Tim is a very busy man whose time is tightly controlled).

Tip 10: Be prepared to make changes—you might have to rethink project assumptions

Menlove envisaged that Utah Climate Challenge would be driven by authentic data to inform visitor decision-making while playing the game. But she was prepared to revise this approach if necessary, and indeed, implementation proved tricky:

There were a few glitches in the sequencing of content and game design, which made it difficult to ensure that player choices were scientifically sound and that algorithms were functioning in a realistic way. I had some heartburn about leaving behind the idea that real-time data or scientific data sets would drive the game’s outcomes, but a key recommendation from our advisory group was to favor a quality game-play experience over data that could leave players with a negative experience because they were overwhelmed by the information.

How was each project received, and has each institution achieved that deeper level of engagement they were aiming for?

All projects launched very successfully. Knight says of Modigliani VR:

The project has been reviewed very positively—it’s notable that almost all reviews of the exhibition included the VR, indicating that those critics understood it as part of the whole experience. Audience feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with many saying how the VR experience moved them and gave them a new appreciation of the artist. The room continues to run at full capacity, with visitors happy to queue to experience it, with some visitors (and especially Tate members) making return visits.

For Menlove, the most exciting outcome for Utah Futures is the level of collaboration that is beyond what she envisaged:

Families, friends, and strangers are working together as they play, and we’re aware of many families who visit regularly in order to play again. We know that the average stay time is nine minutes—a good long time in the midst of a busy and exciting Museum visit. Some guests stay much longer. Our recent visitor study indicates that visitors ages 17 and up are clearly understanding the climate change and sustainability messages and thinking about what this might mean for them in their daily lives. And while younger visitors are less clear about the content messages, they are coming away both understanding that balance is needed (stated by several eight-year-olds) in how we live and what we need/want, and they are having a good time.

Space Descent hit the headlines when it launched, benefiting not only from the worldwide appeal of Tim Peake but also from being one of the very first VR experiences in a museum. As Patten says, “So far, it has been used by over 50,000 visitors around the four different sites that make up Science Museum Group and four other national museums and institutions.” At the launch, Tim Peake said:

It really is breath-taking —and that comes from someone who has spent an awful lot of time using VR systems while training for my first mission. Science Museum visitors are going to experience something that truly is very close to the real thing!

Lessons learned

Each project generated many lessons learned!

For Patten, it was a deeper and more practical understanding of some of the technical challenges:

The render times for this type of experience are long (it took 100 computers over a month to render the 12-minute experience) so planning is essential. You need to make sure that when you hit the start button on the render farm, that everything is correct. In future, it would be nice to build in a little more time contingency—it’s fairly hairy when you don’t have time in the program to re-render if that is required. Fortunately we didn’t need to, but I think the fact that we didn’t have time if required gave us all a few sleepless nights!”

At Tate, Knight comments:

How the experience is delivered on the ground contributes enormously to visitors’ enjoyment of it. A key lesson learnt is to make sure visitor assistants and A/V staff are fully trained and supported to deliver this every day.

For Menlove, it’s about an acknowledgment that projects of this type do require lots of focused attention, which can be hard across big teams:

I would say that like many projects in which an outside vendor is engaged, it can be difficult to align internal staff schedules and availability with those of the outside team. Luckily, I brought in one team member whose time was devoted only to this project, but for the rest of us, we often found that we couldn’t respond as quickly as we would have liked.

For Preloaded, we have now built stakeholder alignment into every project we take on. That extra time at the beginning of the schedule pays off in spades later down the line.

So would they do it again?

We all agree that continued innovation and experimentation will only pay more dividends, not least because as Menlove says, it can be self-perpetuating: “I think the example of this project, in terms of budget, process, and outcomes will be a big help in making the case for new projects.” For Knight, the success of this project is likely to lead to Tate being more open to trying out new applications of technology. ‘Tate is more open to integrating digital into the exhibition experience, rather than useing it as an added extra on the concourse or simply for online communications.” The Science Museum, with the help of sponsorship from Samsung, has taken the TMA19 capsule and the VR experience on tour in the UK, getting this amazing object and the associated VR experience to even more visitors. Patten says “We continue to seek new ways to bring the objects in our collection to life and we are currently exploring other VR and AR opportunities that might help us do that.”

Cite as:
Taylor, Jessica, Knight, Hilary, Menlove, Becky and Patten, Dave. "The people vs. technology: A guide to harnessing playful tech to engage audiences in new ways." MW18: MW 2018. Published March 27, 2018. Consulted .