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How will 5G technology impact museums?

Mobile phone networks have been capable of passing data communications from their earliest iterations. However, it was not until so-called 3G came into existence that mobile phones were really able to offer anything other than the most rudimentary access to the internet. Now, no one with a smart device thinks twice about using 3G and 4G services to look things up on their phone, to send emails and to stream videos – all while they are out an about. In fact, in many cases, people don’t even bother to connect to local Wi-Fi services because they are content to rely on their mobile connection alone.

When 5G starts to be rolled out in earnest, this trend could become even more sharply pronounced. The fifth generation of mobile data communications technology will offer much greater speeds when data is flowing and also far less latency. In short, the average consumer will be able to attain more bandwidth with the technology than they would by accessing the average museum’s Wi-Fi. Tests for the service have already shown that average download speeds exceed 500 Megabits per second, while this is expected to accelerate to 10,000 Megabits per second in the coming years.

So, one of the very first impacts of the communication technology as it rolls out in more and more cities around the world from a museum professional’s point of view will be that local Wi-Fi services are no longer wanted with the same level of demand. Of course, demand for Wi-Fi is not going to go away overnight but investment in offering visitors more and more Wi-Fi provision at establishments is likely to drop as the mobile technology takes over. This is something that will be the case throughout the leisure industry as a whole and not a trend that is specific to museums, of course. How will the technology impact on the museum sector?

Improved Augmented Reality Experiences

Virtual reality headsets and audio systems are nothing new. However, unless they are wired into a stand-alone system, they tend to be extremely glitchy in a museum situation because they are so demanding of the local wireless communications infrastructure. In short, virtual reality installations tend to be used in an educational room or a specific setting where all of the equipment can be supplied with the bandwidth it needs. When it comes to augmented reality software, the demands on the available bandwidth are even greater.

vr museums 5g tech

Thanks to the improved rates of data communications the fifth generation of the mobile phone network will soon offer, museums will no longer be so restricted in where and how they can deploy both virtual and augmented reality tools. Rather than them being offered only in certain areas of a museum or a gallery, they will be sufficient bandwidth to provide them everywhere. So, if you wanted to show an augmented reality version of every image within an entire wing of a gallery, for example, then you could. Virtual and augmented reality can be used in a myriad of ways, of course, but with the latest communications technology, it would be possible for visitors to see previous versions of paintings via their smart device as if they were hanging alongside the original they are experiencing in front of them.

What is important to note about both virtual reality and augmented reality is that it will no longer be restricted to something that museum professionals and educators can only offer batches of people at a time. The augmented bandwidth of the mobile phone network will mean that any device which is able to connect to it will be able to provide your museum’s vision. Because it is so much faster, higher-quality experiences will be offered to more people and, crucially, they should all be able to access this sort of service simultaneously. In fact, even people who are not physically present at a museum or gallery will be able to visit it in a virtual sense in future, offering the sector a whole new way to provide educational outreach to the public. Imagination will be the only limiting factor in so doing.

Museum-Based Connection to the Internet of Things

A lot has been made of the so-called internet of things, or IoT as it is more commonly referred to, by technology companies. Essentially, IoT technology means designing devices which can connect to networks that may not necessarily be thought of as computing devices. These days, of course, lots of domestic appliances have the ability to connect to the internet to download software patches and to report telemetry. Anything from fridges to TV sets can all offer this sort of network functionality.

However, as the next generation of mobile communications rolls out, the need to plug such devices into ethernet ports or set up a Wi-Fi connection will diminish. All that will be needed is the ability to communicate with the outside world via the mobile phone network. For the museum sector, this means that all sorts of things that are used in the daily life of a museum can be networked with one another which means, when you break it down, being able to control them efficiently and easily.

Let’s take an example to illustrate how the increased use of the IoT as a result of faster mobile connections might work in a museum setting. Lots of retail environments will use digital signage these days to be able to promote certain brands, inform customers about promotions or to simply provide visitor information. With a similar approach, digital signage could be deployed all over the museum sector in an increasingly smart manner. With such signage systems in place, for example, it would be perfectly possible for the display equipment to alter languages intuitively, simply based on data that has been obtained via the internet of the attendees’ mobile phones who are standing most closely to it.

Furthermore, museum staff will be able to alter what is displayed on digital signage systems with nothing more than a swipe or two on their own smart device, either to indicate an early closing time or to promote late availability for a tour, perhaps due to a cancellation, for example. Crucially, it will not simply be the ability to use the IoT to alter messaging when it is appropriate to do so but the ability to shift digital signage boards around at will. Because they will communicate without the need for any hard wiring, they can be deployed anywhere they are needed, inside or out.

Of course, the improvements in the IoT that will be delivered by 5G don’t simply extend to signage systems. A museum that has visitor lockers, for example, will be able to use the technology to notify attendees when their slot in their storage facility is coming to an end and even send a reminder if they have left the establishment, perhaps forgetting to collect their bag before they did so. Like virtual and augmented reality services, it is merely a question of thinking of ways that IoT technology can be used to improve museum services.

Preservation and Storage of Artefact Collections

Any museum professional knows that the work that is done to attract visitors and to promote awareness of the collection that is housed in their establishment is just one part of the industry. Preserving and storing artefacts for future generations of visitors and for academic study is just as important, even if the public’s appreciation of this sort of work is not so obvious. That said, the latest generation of mobile data communications technology is not merely there to provide visitor services – it can be put to use in the archives, as well.

vr museum collections

As mentioned above, a virtual reality experience can become much more realistic thanks to the improved resolution that is possible with the fifth generation of mobile data communications. This won’t just make for a more entertaining experience for visitors but could be used to help museum professionals liaise with one another in ever more meaningful ways. For example, if one of the world’s experts in preserving a certain artefact happens to be a professional in another institution on the other side of the world, then a virtual experience of the item in your establishment’s possession could make all the difference in the way you preserve it. Museum professionals all around the globe should be able to use the technology to collaborate with one another with greater accuracy.

Of course, offering advice to another archivist from across an ocean is only one way to improve artefact preservation and storage. With the modern technologies offered by today’s mobile phone network operators, even more can be done. For example, armed with a robotic arm and a virtual reality headset, an expert in one country could manipulate an artefact in real-time with virtually no latency even though they are nowhere near the item in question. Surgeons are already looking at the possibility of conducting operations in this way in the near future, so why shouldn’t the museum sector be looking at similar applications when a high level of expertise is called for?

Big Data Acquisition

When you are responsible for a museum’s website or its e-commerce platform – if it has one – the use of data analytics cannot be underestimated in terms of getting to grips with what visitors are engaging with and what they are not. With the rise of new mobile data communications technology which provides greater accuracy and speedier responses, it will be possible to capture more data than ever before. In a museum setting, curators will be able to track the movement data of individuals with connected devices to see exactly which exhibits have captured their imagination by looking at how long has been spent in the establishment and where.

However, it does not end there with the sort of number crunching that real-time big data acquisition allows for. In the near future, it will be possible to look into all of the demographic data you might need from your museum’s attendees to work out where your marketing strategies are working and where improvements need to be made. If attendees are only willing to pay for access to some of your exhibitions when they fall into a certain age or gender demographic, then it may be time to rethink your approach to marketing in order to broaden appeal. Of course, this is only possible with big data acquisition that does not necessarily rely on people volunteering said information about themselves. With the latest data communications technology, it won’t only be museums that are collecting data on their visitors but all sorts of institutions which engage the public, from music venues to sporting arenas.

More subtly, analysing visitor interactions will enable museum professionals to alter their presentations and even tailor their information on different days of the week or times of the day. As we have already discussed, information signage can be altered at will in the new communications world, so why not have exhibitions with contextualising signage that works for schoolchildren during the day but has more of an adult feel in the evening? The tools to carry out such analysis already exist from traditional web-based interfaces and they just need converting to the particular requirements of the museum sector, after all.

Intelligent Energy-Saving Measures

One of the key aspects of the fifth generation of mobile communications is that so much more data will be available to those who wish to harness it. Although there are some legitimate social control aspects to the technology which some fear, there can be little doubt that harnessing artificial intelligence based on the data that is being collected can have a beneficial effect. In this regard, there can be few better instances than the use of the technology to lower a public institution’s carbon footprint, something that many museum professionals will be concerned with.

smart museums using 5g technology

In this scenario, a museum can become a so-called smart building which uses power only minimally. In the summer, for example, air-conditioning systems could be controlled by a smart technology which knows where people are within a museum space and only cool those areas accordingly. Even more exciting is the prospect that an artificial intelligence system will be able to predict when people will progress from a cooled area to an un-cooled one, initiating the air-conditioning a little in advance to make sure the space concerned is comfortable to step into. The same algorithmic approach based on location data from handsets should also be able to predict when people are about to leave and turn off the air-conditioning prior to departure, thereby saving on utility bills and carbon emissions.

However, air-conditioning is only one aspect of these sort of energy-saving applications. The same sort of control systems could be put in place for heating in the winter as well as controlling the lighting of a museum or gallery. Environmental design is at the forefront of architecture these days, especially when it comes to public realm buildings, such as galleries. Any new museum or wing should expect to have such energy control systems built into the fabric of the structure. For any museum which occupies a historic building – and many do, of course – modern data communications may provide the answer to a greater level of energy-saving which has hitherto been hard to achieve.

5G Case Studies in the Museum Sector

Thus far, we have looked at the potential for modern data communications in the museum sector. And yet, this technology is fast being rolled out in some of the world’s great cities and more and more mobile services will be offered using fifth-generation communications in the months and years to come. As such, some people in the museum sector have already grasped the nettle and are already using the technology. How is it being applied today?

Firstly, there is the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City of Beijing where Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, was commissioned to create a so-called smart network for visitors to access. There, the museum officials have linked up over 3,000 CCTV cameras around the museum to facial facial-recognition software that can then communicate with visitors – based on their historical preferences – and suggest where they might go in order to avoid the longest queues. Crucially, the system makes use of the big data it has collected as well as updated information about current queuing information to enhance the visitor experience. If a visitor chooses to ignore the advice and stand in line for an exhibit, then so be it but the data surrounding such a choice is then fed back into the system to make better recommendations in future.

The State Hermitage Museum, which is located in Saint Petersburg, has also started to make use of this enabling technology. According to officials there, the functionality of the technology has already allowed for the digitisation and virtual storage of huge numbers of historical records and cultural treasures. The roll out of the technology in Russia has also enabled virtual tours to be possible at the museum making use of panoramic 360-degree imagery that can be explored in real-time. A similar experience is being put together at the moment at the Roman Baths in Bath so that the ancient heritage there can be explored more easily, too.

In Summary

The sky is the limit with wireless digital communications. It is likely to become an accepted part of daily life soon with the current bandwidth of 3G and 4G seeming very old-fashioned in the blink of an eye. As such, any forward-thinking museum professional needs to understand its implications somewhat, whether they are occupied in digital engagement or not.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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