Student-designed app guides Peabody visitors through new mineral and gem hall

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Duncan Keller, left, and Leo Shimonaka collaborated on an iPhone app that provides visitors to the Peabody Museum information about the signature specimens displayed in David Friend Hall, the museum's new gem and mineral gallery. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

David Friend Hall, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s new mineral and gem gallery, was designed to be a contemplative space where visitors can ponder the beauty of a quartz or fluorite specimen as they would a canvas by Monet or Van Gogh.

While the gallery’s aesthetic, which includes customized lighting and minimal signage, emphasizes the physical beauty of each specimen, visitors have a way to learn more about the larger specimens on view. The museum recruited Yale undergraduate Leo Shimonaka and graduate student Duncan Keller to create a smartphone app that provides detailed information about six of the gallery’s signature pieces. The product of their collaboration is available for free in the Apple App Store. (Search for “Peabody Museum.”)

Shimonaka, a computer science major, designed and built the app. Keller, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, produced the content.

Richard Kissel, the Peabody’s director of public programs, said developing an app to convey information about the mineral specimens was part of the initial vision for the new gallery, which opened on Oct. 23.

“We knew that we wanted minimal interpretation within the space,” he said. “We wanted it to be object-driven, but we also wanted the ability to offer deeper content. We were fortunate to have Leo and Duncan available to help us realize this goal and enhance the gallery.”

Shimonaka helped develop an app about the Peabody’s dioramas as a group project for a course called “Engineering Innovation and Design” during his freshman year. His work on the diorama app, which provided information about various animal specimens on display and served as a beta test for the museum, led the Peabody to invite the student to develop an app for the new hall.

He spent 127 hours developing the app, a task he said involves “writing a lot of code.”

“Software is very much like architecture,” said Shimonaka. “If you don’t design it correctly, everything will break under pressure.”

He enlisted sophomore Will Kortum, a friend from his design club, to build a three-dimensional model of the gallery space. A rendering of Kortum’s model provides the primary visual component of the app’s interface. The locations of the six specimens are marked by dots on the 3-D rendering. The user can scroll through cards at the bottom of the interface to access information about each specimen and related images.

Keller constructed short narratives about the objects that provide basic details about where they came from, how they formed, and their physical characteristics, but that also offer nuggets of relevant information, such as practical uses of the materials on display. For example, the entry for the one-ton quartz crystal on display just inside the hall’s entrance explains the use of quartz in wristwatches. The entry for the sandstone concretion — an otherworldly formation sculpted by water over millions of years — notes that the specimen comes from a location in France: Fontainebleau, known for the extraordinarily pure sandstone quarried there. Sand from Fontainebleau was used to make the glass pyramids at the Louvre in Paris.  

“Telling a story is a good way to convey knowledge,” Keller said.

The gallery is outfitted with iBeacon technology. With the touch of a button in the upper right of the app’s screen, the map will orient to closest corner of the room and will light up the dots representing the three specimens closest to that corner. The information provided by the app remains accessible once the visitor has left the museum.

“One really valuable aspect of the app is that you take it home with you,” Keller said. “You might see something on a sign in a museum that you want to learn more about, but when you get home, you can’t remember what is was. With the app, you could literally cut and paste it into Wikipedia.”

Shimonaka, who created his first app while a junior in high school, has spent the past two summers working at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.,. He says he enjoyed the Peabody project.

“Rendering 3-D images was something I had never done before,” he said. “It was a new experience for me.”  

The app is currently only available for iPhones, but the museum intends to make it available on iPads and for Android users, said David Heiser, the Peabody’s director of student programs, who oversaw the app project.

The app for the gem and mineral hall is the first phase in a much more ambitious project.

Shimonaka is working with Heiser to expand the app to other galleries within the museum. Eventually, they hope to create a searchable interface that will allow visitors to create customized experiences and faculty to develop material for courses using the Peabody’s exhibitions and collections.

“We want to broaden the ways in which people can experience the museum,” said Heiser.  “One way we can do that is through this kind of technology. It’s a way to make the museum’s resources more available, but also more exciting and custom-tailored to the needs of faculty as well as the general public.”

Kissel said that while museum exhibitions traditionally focus on a single narrative, this project has the potential to provide endless opportunities for experiences.

“A visitor could enter the dinosaur hall and look at the dinosaurs under the narrative of evolutionary relationships,” he said. “On the next visit, they could base a tour of the museum on the topic of climate change.  It’s taking the same objects but giving people new and different avenues through which to explore them.”

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