Education Through Interaction

Education Through Interaction

Developing interactive experiences that enable visitors to connect with scientific research at Oxford University

It’s critical that the integrity of the research is preserved when it's presented to the public. Complicated information must be exhibited in a way that visitors can understand in just a few minutes.

At Oxford University there’s a wide variety of scientific research carried out, some of which is extremely complex and in-depth. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH) houses a number of temporary exhibitions which present this behind-the-scenes data to the public. The aim of these exhibitions is to give museum visitors the opportunity to explore the research in a way that creates meaningful connections. The challenge lies in presenting this complex information in a form that visitors can understand after a short interaction.

The Settlers exhibition was displayed on two interactive screens

We were invited by the OUMNH team to work with them to design and build a series of digital installations that allow visitors to quickly understand data through interaction and play. Since 2016 we’ve collaborated on four of these digital installations, each with very different subject matter: how the brain works (Brain Diaries), the migration of people in and out of Britain (Settlers), the world of bacteria around us (Bacterial World), and the proliferation of life during the Cambrian explosion (First Animals). Each subject has had its own set of unique design challenges but the core challenge for all of them has been to make the complex information easy to digest.

For First Animals we transported visitors back 518 million years to the oceans of the Cambrian period. In this fully animated 3D recreation of the Cambrian Ocean, visitors take control of a submarine, using a combination of three touchscreen monitor and a joystick controller, and investigate the proliferation of life during the Cambrian explosion.

We’ve worked closely with the team at OUMNH to design and develop interactive experiences for their ongoing series of temporary exhibitions. The exhibitions highlight the wide variety of scientific research carried out by Oxford University, giving museum visitors the opportunity to explore the results of this ongoing research.

Bacterial World helped museum visitors to understand the world of bacteria we live in through two interactives. Bacteria Explorer gave visitors the opportunity to delve into the microscopic world of bacteria and explore the five most common bacterial forms. Gut Wars was a playful exploration of how bacteria compete within the human gut, demonstrating some of the research and scientific modelling Oxford University is carrying out in this area.

Planning and communication has been key during these projects. Collaborative design workshops explore the exhibition theme and how digital interactivity could be employed to make the information understandable, engaging and inspiring. Once we moved into production, the interactives were developed in line with the workshop ideas and detailed design documents. Functionality and user testing was carried out at points during the development to check that the interactives worked as designed, that user interfaces were simple and intuitive, and that users were able to understand the subject matter. Throughout the project, communication remained high using combinations of face-to-face meetings, video conferences, telephone calls, emails and Basecamp.

The Settlers exhibition explored the history of Britain’s population and migration of people in and out of Britain through three interactive experiences; Inheritance Lottery, Migration and Where Are You From. Genetic data, an interactive timeline which mapped world events and changing patterns of migration, along with information on visitors’ own generational data, gave people an opportunity to interact with the info in a way they could relate to.

Dr William Smith is a Postdoctoral researcher in the Foster Lab at the University of Oxford. His research formed the basis for Gut Wars and this quote illustrates how successful we’ve been in making complex data accessible.

I co-created the Gut Wars game for the Bacterial World exhibition. We’ve now taken it to several successful outreach events across Oxford, and it’s proven to be hugely helpful for communicating our research to the public. As well as getting people talking, it’s also sparked new ideas- in making the Gut Wars game, we saw how bacterial strategies might play off against each other in unexpected ways. We’re now testing some of these predictions in the lab. For me, this is a cool example of outreach catalysing new avenues of research, as well as broadening impact.- Dr William Smith

Innovating the kitchen design experience