Silk Road Map – Interactive – AMNH 2009

Silk Road Map – Interactive – AMNH 2009

Silk Road Map – Interactive – AMNH 2009

The Silk Road Interactive Map was the first of a fortunate series of interactives tables developed by my team at the American Museum of Natural History. It presents the main story of the exhibition by visually explaining how knowledge spread through the ancient Silk Road. It shows the trade routs and the overlapping changes that happened in languages, religion, art, population, technology and more. Twenty two layers can be activated, grouped to serve four users at any time.

The Idea

During our conceptual phase we discussed the possibility of developing a multi-touch interface for this interactive. Multi-touch surfaces were developed on other labs, but were still unstable and crashed frequently. They were also too small and bulky, hard to integrate within the design of a sophisticated gallery. A multi-touch table would have been hard to maintain, specially when traveling to other countries. Still, we wanted to integrate the interactive environments to the physical space of the gallery and leave behind the realm of the touchscreen kiosks. Also, we wanted to offer a social experience; something that visitors could do simultaneously and together.

I came out with an idea that looked and had the effect of a multi-touch, but that was actually a sensor-activated  projection. The key of the design was to conceal the need of a touch by embedding sensors (instead of buttons) in the design of the table. The effect would also be achieved by aligning the activated content with the users, giving the impression of a more advanced –multi-touch- technology.

At the same time I envisioned a table activated by miniature replicas embedded in back-lit blocks of resin. These would activate layers of information on the map while unveiling additional information through interpretive areas, located in front of the users. The first concept of this map captured most of its essence. It is one of those few projects that came out just as I had imagine in the first seconds of its conception.


The Content

The Interactive Map contained twenty two content units. Visitors could explore the routes taken by famous explorers; compare the population of Asia from 600 to 1200 AD; explore the range of languages, religions and empires; travel through the deserts, oasis and temples of ancient Asia while tracing the exchange of knowledge between the East and the West. Sean Redmond, our IT Systems Administrator and coincidentally Ph.D in Classics, took up the task to research and write the entire content for the interactive. Supported by our curator Denise Leidi from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sean was able to compile data form antique documents and books, producing an encyclopedic amount of content.

The Interface

The information design was challenging, because of the necessary overlap of information when simultaneous users activated the map. The interactive had twenty two layers of content, of which four could be active at the same time. Harry Borrelli, our interface designer and leader of the project, had to design each layer aware of potential overlaps with the other 21.

Besides the content showcased in the shared map, each visitor accessed an personal area, containing text and details of the subjects described. Each layer, activated by sensors, carried a representation in the map and in the personal area.


The Table

The hardware and software for the table were also designed in-house. Cameron Browning, Ben Wilson and Sean Redmond, our technologists and system designers for this piece, designed an physical interface powered by  electromagnetic sensors that used proximity and touch to activate each layer of content.

Harry designed twenty two brass engravings to cover the sensors. Visitors would touch the icons to activate the content, only suspecting what the layer was about. Visitors reacted to them with curiosity and that helped increase the sense of exploration and discovery in the piece.


Visitors’ reactions

There was some concern among our peers about the clarity and usability of the interactive map. Some wondered if the map was too rich in information (too many layers); some worried about the simultaneity of visuals and its capacity to confuse visitors. The results of the summative evaluation, developed by Rockman, showed that the map was one of the most successful features of the exhibition. People gathered for up to 20 minutes around the table, often reading through all the pages of the selected items. Both young and adults found the table interesting and learned a lot from it, often citing facts that were found nowhere else but in the content palettes of the map. Most surprisingly, 9 of every 10 found it easy to use and to follow.



American Museum of Natural History, 2009
“Silk Road” Exhibition
Interactive multi-player map activated by sensors
Helene Alonso, Harry Borrelli, Cameron Browning, Camila Engelbert, Araceli Galan, Sasha Nemecek, Denise Leidy, Sean Redmond, Lydia Romero, Karen Santiago, Ben Wilson.

1 Comment

  1. walter
    October 13, 2016

    how can I have such a digital table done for my multinatonal church. We are interested and being able to gather around the table and gather facts, and have discussions concerning the world wide church while planning

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