Maintaining Interactive and/or High-Tech Exhibits
Copyright © 2006-Present, TechnoFrolics
This document was written to offer guidance to organizations developing and maintaining a space containing interactive and high-tech displays. Such locations include science centers, children’s museums, aquariums & zoos, visitor centers, casinos, malls, airports, nature centers, convention halls, trade show booths, etc.
The document is particularly geared toward those tackling this issue for the first time, whether in the context of a new space, or adding technology-based elements to a location previously containing only static exhibits. With our over 18 years working in the field of high tech and interactive displays, we wanted to share our experiences – both for your sake and the sake of contributors like us!
Vibration-fractured solder joints, child-snapped 1/8" thick steel aircraft cable, and visitor-generated static discharge damage, are but a fraction of what a throng of 5-95 year olds are capable. Consumer-grade interfaces, or improperly-designed custom ones, are rendered non-functional in short order.
Appropriate understanding and handling of maintenance issues will prevent significant grief in an otherwise successful interactive exhibit space. As your program moves toward including more interactives, maintenance must be given adequate respect in such areas as planning, budget, and staff time allocation. Otherwise, you risk visitor frustration and related staff disappointment as exhibits become non-functional.
A first step is to determine the level of maintenance resources currently in place in your facility (assuming it already exists), including the specific technical expertise of on-site staff, in order to accurately assess how much additional time and personnel may be needed. There is a dramatic difference between the maintenance required for static exhibits that visitors simply view, and that required for interactives relying on computers, custom electronics, and moving mechanical parts.
Too many times attempts are made to have the person who does normal building maintenance, or a non-technical person in an organization’s education or administration department, extend their duties to cover maintaining interactive exhibits as well. Unless the individual in question is outstanding, has lots of free time (a very rare event these days), and happens to have the appropriate technical skills and experiences, this approach is doomed; frustration, inefficiency, and frequently non-functional exhibits are all likely to ensue.
To dramatically reduce miscommunications and misdiagnosis of problems, help catch and fix intermittent problems quickly, and overall, enhance the visitor experience, we suggest the following guidelines as a minimum:
- Each exhibit have, physically proximal to it, a maintenance notebook, along with a firm policy that anyone making repairs, adjustments, tests of functionality, etc., must note in that book their name, date, and description of what they did and saw.
- Each exhibit have, physically proximal to it, a detailed service manual provided by the developer/manufacturer, including description of normal operation, troubleshooting guide, and vendor contact information should assistance be needed.
- There be a single onsite staff person responsible for any given exhibit, and that they are present regularly. It is critical that only one person diagnose and repair any given exhibit, in order to minimize misdiagnosis and confusion. Otherwise there is a real risk that even simple, correctable issues can cause a piece to be down for days.
- Contact with an outside developer of a given exhibit (or exhibit element) should be the specific responsibility of a designated staff member. In addition, the person who experienced the problem should be the one to talk directly to the developer — otherwise you play an adult version of the child's game "telephone"; by the time the information makes it to the intended ear, it bares no detectable relationship to the actual problem. Adhering to this policy avoids communications which are, at best, duplicated, and at worst, inconsistent, requiring large amounts of time on all sides to sort things out
- It is almost never a good idea for maintenance staff to make alterations and adjustments prior to having a conversation with the original exhibit developer. All too often, such alterations and adjustments compound problems because of subtle issues which they could not anticipate, but with which the developer will be intimately familiar.
- If an exhibit is not working, a sign indicating this should be placed on it (or the exhibit removed from the floor) as soon as the problem is discovered. Otherwise, visitors will spend inordinate time and effort trying to figure out how to use an exhibit that is in fact non-functional. It is critical that your visitors come to expect near 100% functionality, so that when they come to an exhibit whose operation is complex, they know it is worth their time to engage and understand, as opposed to simply thinking, "Oh, it must be another broken one".
- In terms of maintenance staff skill requirements and available tools, while obviously having highly trained technicians with years of debugging experience across several fields is desirable, as well as having a fully-equipped metal, wood, and electronics shop, this may not be possible/practical. At a minimum, we recommend the personnel qualifications below.
[Note that the skills and materials we list may in some cases be best provided by local outside professionals. In such cases, it is key that in-house staff have sufficient expertise to know what outside professionals to call upon (this is not trivial). It is also desirable that such professionals are located and evaluated before you actually need them. And it is critical that each exhibit be worked on by the same outside person each time (this for all the same reasons we mention above regarding in-house staff).]
- Maintenance staff should have training in some technical field, and past field experience diagnosing, debugging, and repairing equipment. With the right person, the exact area of expertise can be relatively unimportant, because the basic skills one learns from such experiences translate well across fields.
Note that it is not adequate to take the approach of simply getting comprehensive warranties from exhibit developers (though obviously having those is great). If the developer has to fly in every time there is a simple problem, the cost (whether absorbed by the organization or charged up front by the vendor) will be prohibitive.
- The person must be outstanding in terms of:
- Realizing when something (an action, modification, or state of affairs) might be dangerous — first to visitors, and second to the exhibit itself.
- Realizing, and being comfortable with, the limits of what they know, in order to determine when to get outside advice and help.
- Being able to determine whom to ask for outside help.
- Their caring about, and commitment to, keeping the exhibits under their care working safely and reliably.
- If there are exhibits employing custom electronics, the person should have a working knowledge of basic electronic principles, know how to solder fine components (this is a more specialized skill than most people realize), know how to use a volt-ohm-ammeter, and ideally, a digital oscilloscope.
- If there are any computer-based exhibits, the person needs to be facile around related issues. Thus, they must know what all ports and cabling look like (RS232 serial, USB, PS2, Firewire, parallel printer ports, RJ45 10/100BaseT Network, RJ11 phone/modem, VGA video (analog and digital), 120VAC power, etc.), understand what each element of the computer does (so they can quickly separate symptoms of a hard drive crash from a motherboard problem), etc.
Speaking from (painful) past experience, without these basic skills, what would be a 15 second test — e.g., "Check if the cable is plugged firmly into the serial port,” can turn into an extended, painful process. (The last time we experienced this ‘connector identification’ issue with a non-technical layperson, in order to resolve the problem, that person had to photograph the back of the computer and email us images, simply in order to determine whether an RS232 cable was, or was not, connected — and all this because some unknown third party, probably nighttime cleaning staff, had simply unplugged things...)
Ideally, they should also be comfortable swapping in and out internal components, mirroring and re-sizing operating system disk partitions, adjusting BIOS settings, configuring the site’s LAN, etc.
Tools & MaterialsThe location should have onsite, at a minimum:
- A complete complement of high-quality hand-tools and fixtures — hex wrenches, screwdrivers, C-clamps, etc. (One can buy very nice tool cases pre-loaded with such things for under $1000.)
- Simple hand power tools — drill, saber saw, sander, screw-gun, etc.
- Ideally, some basic shop power tools — circular saw, drill press, etc.
- Common materials — screws and nuts, nails, wire, solder, glue, electric tape, double stick tape, etc.
- If there are electronics-based exhibits, a professional temperature-controlled, grounded, soldering iron, volt-ohm-ammeter, magnifying lens, grounded wrist strap, and ideally, digital oscilloscope.
- If there are computer-based exhibits, then extra hard drives, an extra computer, monitor, keyboard, and mouse for testing, lots of extra/extension cables of all types, etc.
- If there are mechanical interactives, either a full metalworking shop (milling machine, lathe etc.), or relationship with good nearby outside one.
- A computer with fast Internet connection and wide-carriage color printer.
- Custom replacement parts and backups:
- For any computer-based exhibit, it is critical that recovery solutions be readily available. At a minimum, there should be exhibit-specific software and content backup onsite. Operating system recovery solutions are more diverse, ranging from backup drives, to familiarity with local repair shops, to original install CDs. Complete redundant backup computers should be considered. Also, suppliers such as Dell provide outstanding next day service for very modest warranty fees.
- For custom electronic or mechanical exhibits, we strongly recommend having extra parts on hand for those items likely to need regular replacement, and close relationships with the exhibit developer for everything else.
Each exhibit should:
- Have a liberal warranty.
- Include documentation sufficient to readily perform periodic maintenance and troubleshooting by in-house staff. (Whether the manual should also be sufficient to cover serious repairs and parts replacement is less clear. Obviously, having such a document is highly desirable, but in that it can increase exhibit cost significantly, it is not always practical or the best solution as compared to contacting the supplier.)
- Have a single supplier contact if something goes wrong.
- Ideally, be composed of either off-the-shelf parts, or ones that can be readily custom manufactured. (Unfortunately, with custom one-off exhibits, particularly if produced under tight budgets, this may simply not be possible.)
- Be designed by skilled people with a keen eye toward safety and longevity.
- Where the piece includes electronics, be tested for imperviousness to high-voltage visitor-generated static discharges to the user interface. (In this regard, Piezoelectric charcoal lighters, with flammable fluid carefully removed, are an excellent, inexpensive, supermarket-available test device.)
Additionally, if possible and practical
- Encourage your visitors to tell you if they experience what they believe to be a non-functioning piece. Either it really will be non-functioning, in which case you should know, or its operation is (apparently) quite confusing to some users, which is also good to know. This can be part of a general request for visitor feedback — it need not focus exclusively on exhibit problems.
Note regarding custom interactives
If you develop truly custom interactives (as opposed to just tweaks of field-proven systems), it is prudent to assume that things will virtually never work exactly as desired in the beginning, and that it will take several months of visitor use before all the issues surface and are resolved. Thus, it is critical that you have good relationships with committed exhibit developers, allocate staff time to give the developers feedback from the floor, and verify that the developers are prepared to handle this process and have budgeted adequately.
For further discussion of this issue, including the need for prototyping, please see TechnoFrolics' How we work with museums document.
NEVER put an unsafe exhibit on the floor, and if one has (or may have) become unsafe, remove it immediately.