In my last post about using iPods for gallery tours with Art on Call, I talked about ordering serveral iPod Nano’s that we were going to load up and lend out to the public. I also mentioned how this had its own set of unique problems to overcome. That actually turned out to be a bit of an understatement.
Lending iPods out to patrons is much more involved than just the simple question of how you clean them, or avoiding theft (those items of business are handled by our Visitors Services department). In the New Media world, we care more about answering the question, “how do we make them easy to use?”
Ease of use really comes in two forms. One for the user of the device, and the other for those of us having to update the content on the device itself. When there are budgetary constraints, you’re always looking for the best bang for the buck, while not overly hindering the experience because of it. So what do we do?
The default iPod OS is not good enough.
When you’re using an iPod in a normal sense with MP3s as music, the tags for each song make sense, like artist, album, and genre. When you’re dealing with physical objects, the relationship doesn’t always make sense. Sure, Artist makes senes, but Album? What does that mean to someone looking for audio on “Spoonbridge and Cherry” who doesn’t know who the artist is? Where do they look with the default iPod interface? It’s obvious the iPod interface needs some changes to have it make a bit more sense for museum goers.
iPod Notes (aka “Museum Mode”)
Apple put a feature on the iPod called Notes, which is also referred to as “Museum Mode”. These are files you can put on the iPods data section that point to other files or audio. They’re very simplified HTML and allow you to basically customize the interface. You’re also able to default to “notes mode” so that you don’t see the normal iPod OS choices or are you able to fiddle with the iPod’s settings. Sounds like a great solution right? Well, almost.
One of the biggest problems with Notes is that it breaks the second rule of ease of use. Since they’re just flat HTML text files, creating the directory structure you want takes a lot of hand coding. Notes does not really take advantage of the ID3 tags in the MP3 files. While you can link to a list of songs in genre “X”, you can’t link to a list of all genres and go from there (and if you can, it’s not covered in Apple’s API docs). This means having to rewrite a lot of the basic functionality of the normal iPod through notes mode. It’s time consuming, and every update of audio means an update to the Notes files.
Even if this did work nicely there are other issues. One is that special characters don’t seem to render properly, if at all, in Notes mode, even with the correct text encodings set. The other for me was a real deal breaker. Half the reason to restrict users to Notes mode was to keep people out of the normal iPod OS. However, if you hold the Menu button down for 2 seconds (like you would to go from song info to the main menu in one click), it doesn’t go back to the Notes menu, it goes to the iPod menu! Imagine the confusion of someone holding the menu button down just a tad too long and now staring at a screen that looks nothing like they had seen before! Now we’re back to the same old problems we had in the beginning. So what do we do?
Hack the iPod
Before I tried Notes mode, I had thought about just hacking the iPod firmware to change the menu options in the OS. However, I figured “Museum Mode” would be much easier and then went that route. After my dissatisfaction with that, it was back to researching iPod hacks. This would prove to work well, with only a few drawbacks, and also allowed us to add something that we certainly could not do in Notes mode (at least not easily).
First things first, how do you hack an iPod? It’s actually a bit easier than it sounds, though not without a lot of risks. If you’re not confident with machine code, and don’t follow the directions to the letter you can easily turn your iPod into a 6oz paper weight.
That said, there is a great little program called iPod Wizard, that really helps in the process. The basic idea is you download the latest iPod firmware and load it into iPod Wizard. The Wizard helps you find and change various parts of the firmware, like text, fonts, even graphics. Once your changes are made you save the new firmware and then update your iPod with it. If all goes well you’ve just hacked your iPod and it works great!
In our case we mostly just wanted to change the text. Remember how I said earlier how “Album” doesn’t make much sense in a museum audio tour? What if I changed it to “Artwork”? Then we’d have something people could relate to. We’d just have to make sure each artwork title was mapped into the Album ID3 tag in the MP3 and it would be seamless to the user. Do this for other tags, and you get the following, which is our new iPod interface:
Lets start at the top. “Art on Call” is now the name of the iPod. Next are Artist and Artwork, followed by Location which lists each gallery in the museum, and then Code, which is the Art on Call number code on an artwork. As you can see there are a number of ways to drill down to get to the same content, and it all uses the build in ID3 tagging of the MP3s. Just tag them correctly, upload them and they fall into place. Much easier to make sense of and update!
You may have also noticed “Walker Calendar” in the options. This was what I was talking about earlier in regards to extra features that would be hard or impossible to do in Notes mode. iPod allows you to sync with iCal, and we have already made an iCal feed of our online calendar. So why not put it in the iPod? Here’s what it looks like:
Calendar grid is on the left. The red flags represent days when events take place. Click on a day and get the list of events for that day followed by a detail of the event which is shown in the right image. The great thing about this is because it works with iCal, it’s an auto update. When you plug your iPod in it auto syncs with our calendar feed and updates as we recharge. There’s literally no work to do to add this feature on our part.
Lastly you see an “Information” item on the main menu. This is actually Notes mode. We’ll still use notes for things like info about Art on Call, or perhaps various other info we want to push there.
While this does sound nice there is one main downfall. While you can change the text of the items that appear on the OS, you can’t outright remove some of the options. For example, “Settings” always appears on the main menu, meaning anyone could go in and change them if they wanted. However this was also a possibility in Notes mode as well, given the problems I wrote above.
To try to solve this we used a bit of social engineering that will hopefully help at least keep a few people from mucking around in the options. One was to label Settings to “iPod Settings” to alert people that this is perhaps something they want to avoid. If they do happen to click on it though they’re greated with this message:
Most honest people will recognize the mistake at this point and back out. Those who really feel like fiddling of course can, though resetting the defaults is pretty easy and will be done after each iPod is brought back to the counter after use.
Overall this isn’t the greatest solution in the world, but I feel it works a lot better than the default OS menu or the Museum Mode. Time will tell how patrons feel about it, which is the only real thing that matters in the end. Hopefully we’ve covered our bases.