Event in Review: NYC Media Lab Summit ‘19

Photo: Janet Liu 2019

My event in review is on the NYC Media Lab Summit that I attended on September 26, 2019. Organized by the NYC Media Lab, the summit brings together people from various industries and universities in NYC to discuss the emerging technologies of today and the future. The event was split into a morning and afternoon session that was held from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Media 2030 panel led by Justin Hendrix, Executive Director of NYC Media Lab.
Photo: Janet Liu 2019

The morning session began with an innovation panel discussing the challenges and future vision for Media 2030. The list of speakers includes Yaël Eisenstat, R. Luke Duois, Desmond Upton Patton, and Tony Parisi. It was inspiring to hear different professionals’ takes on what they thought will be the most critical challenges facing institutions in 2030. Even though the speakers come from different industries, it was surprising to hear all of their responses towards AI and algorithm bias. This made me think about Posner’s discussion on the inefficiency in having a binary mindset to make sense of the world, and how binary groupings in digital humanities projects are causing further marginalization of groups (Posner, 2016). It is concerning to learn of all of the bias we have in our society today, and how it will remain a critical challenge ten years later.

Following the panel were two keynote presentations given on AI and storytelling. The first was from Amir Baradaranand, an artificial artist and art-based researcher at Columbia University. The second was from Heidi Boisvert, CEO & Founder of futurePerfect Lab and Director of Emerging Media Technology at CUNY. It was fascinating to see AI creating immersive storytelling experiences and artworks. This made me think about Norman’s argument of machines as ‘rigid, inflexible, and fixed’ (Norman, 2018). We can see these traditional views shifting, as innovators like Baradaranand and Boisvert show us a vision where artists, creatives, and AI technologies can work together. Perhaps, as Norman imagined, humans and machines will form a complementary team and take on both a human-centered and machine-centered approach to learning.

The afternoon session began with a Demo Expo that included 100 student prototypes. I was looking forward to this event the most as I wanted to see what kind of emerging technologies students were currently working on and excited about. It was immediately evident that there was a big trend in VR. I saw many VR products used for prototypes such as designing an online retail store, an immersive travel experience, and a chemical lab. One project that really stood out to me was the Hip Hop data visualization project, ‘Mapper’s Delight’ designed by Rap Research Lab. Instead of showing a list of lyrics, the lab explores the “global distances traveled by the lyrics contained in each rap artist’s career while exploring the secret flows of Hip-hop’s spacetime through a panoptic interface.” (“Mappers Delight VR,” 2017). It was cool and clever to see over 2,000 lyrics connected by geography and transformed into a virtual platform, which also brought an emotional engagement as I was able to find lyrics connecting me to Hong Kong. Projects like these make us think about new possible ways to provide meaning and context to big chunks of data.

Stuart Trafford’s workshop, “Magic Leap in the Enterprise: How Spatial Computing is Revolutionizing Education, Media, Entertainment and More.”
Photo: Janet Liu 2019.

The last part of the summit included a hands-on workshop where attendees had the choice of picking one out of the fourteen to attend. I decided to go with Magic Leap, a leading VR company presenting on extended reality, spatial computing, and how it is transforming the industries. I wanted to attend this workshop to understand why there is such a big fascination with these types of products. Stuart Trafford, the Education Lead of Magic Leap introduced its newest product called Magic Leap One, a mixed reality product that creates immersive experiences. One point that stuck with me was when Trafford said the experience of information is changing as technology has allowed these online experiences to be personalized instead of appealing to the masses. It was fascinating to see how MR products can be applied to future industries such as in hospitals and construction sites. This workshop inspired me to write my research paper on VR and understand if there will be a demand for such a product in future museums, as I still find VR products to be very gimmicky.

Overall, I was very impressed with the structure of the summit. I expected more students to attend as tickets cost a hefty $200 but students can attend for $30. I loved the order of presentations. It started with broad topics discussing the challenges and future use of emerging technologies, to the current uses demonstrated by students, and then to workshops that show specific examples of how these types of technologies are used. Also, it is important to note that the event relied on the WHOVA conference app, which allowed you to keep track of the full agenda, learn more about sessions, take notes, chat, and most importantly, sign up for workshops. Even though the app was really convenient, it made me think about the accessibility of information. How will the experience change for people who don’t have the app downloaded and can’t sign up for workshops? Will their experience be different since the event heavily relied on the app to connect with other attendees and speakers?

I appreciated how the summit not only showcased all the fancy cool products but also emphasized on the downsides and challenges technology brings. By doing so, the summit did a good job of providing transparency. One thing that really stuck to me was when Boisvert spoke of her research findings at Limbic Lab that shows how technology is rewiring our brain. As Boisvert comments, it will be important for us to take a human-centered approach to reverse the harmful effects caused by technology. This seems to be a central theme in the summit as well as our discussions from class. As Norman, and what other speakers have repeated throughout the summit, future designers and technologists will not only need training as technicians but will also need to receive training to learn what it means to be ‘human’ (Norman, 2018).


Mappers Delight VR. (2017). Retrieved from: https://rapresearchlab.com/#portfolioModal2.

Norman, Don A. (1998). Being Analog. Retrieved from: http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/being_analog.html.

NYC Media Lab ’19. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://summit.nycmedialab.org/

Posner, Miriam (2016). What’s next: The radical, unrealized potential of digial humanities. Retrieved from: http://miriamposner.com/blog/whats-next-the-radical-unrealized-potential-of-digital-humanities/.

Disrupting the Art World Through Digital Access (And A Lot of Money)

An artist explaining her video projection

This past Tuesday I attended a salon for a museum non-profit called The Current. The salon, which occurs at the founder’s loft quarterly, is meant ostensibly to close the gap between artist and collector by providing a relaxed social setting (shoes off!) against a backdrop of visual and interactive artworks in the museum’s small but growing collection.

The mission of The Current is steeped aggressively in opening access to their collection. For a not-insignificant amount of money, one purchases a membership to The Current, which provides access to a USB Drive that contains the museum’s entire collection, digitized. The member can then share the collection where ever they go. In the founder’s own home, for example, the salon displayed five selected works from artists in attendance via a projector.

Perhaps most important, however, is the intangible benefit of membership to The Current, which is a vote in each discussion surrounding the direction of the museum. Members vote on which works to bring into the collection, as well as details surrounding future events and salons. On this night, the museum announced proudly that they planned to move into a permanent brick and mortar space in the neighborhood, a move that I assume was burnished by a members vote.

It was this emphasis on a sort of direct democracy (along with wine and cheese) that drew me into attending this salon.

Screenshot of the event page

In a welcome toast, the Director made sure to note all of the technologists among its members. I’d spoken with an architect for the City of New York as well as an art collector at the salon by this point. Hearing an emphasis on technologists signaled to me where the money was coming from. This makes sense. The founder of The Current, William Nathan, got his start with Buzzfeed where he coded native advertising and analytical tools for cat video editors. He then founded an interior design startup before landing on The Current, becoming its primary financial provider.

With this context, The Current feels more like a startup than a proper museum. The crowd, which leaned young, affluent, and materially-interested, reflected a strong tech background. I met a guy who’d just gotten his first job out of undergrad coding for a major bank. Another young man who’d purchased a membership that night celebrated his new status by chest-bumping his friend and taking selfies during an artist talk about the video messaging platform Chat Roulette.

There is an element in The Current‘s messaging that implies that this museum exists to disrupt the existing museum infrastructure. On the museum’s landing page in large text laid over a VR piece in the collection, the website informs visitors, “The Current is a non-profit museum with radically participatory patronage.”

The art on display reflected this instinct. There was a piece made for VR in which the user goes through wormholes, for some reason. Another projected piece featured a loop of the artist waxing lyrical on the existential crises of being too connected on social media. Yet another piece was the artist, itself—that is, the artist was a virtual avatar projected on a brick wall. The person who wrote the code to create and project the avatar was not on site. One artist that I found interesting was an Iranian woman who saved, digitally scanned, and 3D-printed cultural artifacts that were targeted for destruction by ISIS.

A 3D-printed bust

But for the most part I walked through the event wondering, why?

As an information professional with a background in tech in public libraries, I was interested to see how a museum, another cultural institution, was utilizing new technologies. In my previous position as a library assistant in the TechCentral department at the Cleveland Public Library, we had access to a number of VR machines and 3D Printers, which we would roll out to the public for open community events, not unlike the salon. As staff, we were tasked to provide context for these new machines for a public that was unfamiliar with the technologies.

After three years of working in TechCentral with these fabrication technologies, our staff still had not landed on a framework around which we would showcase the tech. We would more or less roll out the machines for the public to use, and explain how the tech worked. Beyond that there was no active learning. They were effectively toys.

The writer interacting with art

I encountered a similar attitude among the artists and collectors at the salon. Beyond establishing that, yes, this new tech is cool and interesting, I couldn’t quite find a reason for it all. The same questions remained. How can VR function in the context of art in a museum, or in the context of informing the public at a library? What is a practical reason for a public library to demonstrate VR? The most clear explanation came from the Iranian woman preserving cultural artifacts. It’s a shame she was an outlier.

In a cultural institution, I like having context for learning and for art. I lose interest when something is put on display without so much of an explanation. My experience at the salon was not unlike my time in TechCentral. There’s all this new technology, but to what end? As an information professional, I think about this—why does a cultural institution house new tech if it’s funders or patrons can’t contextualize them?

My career goal is to find a way to contextualize new tech in a way that makes sense for my patron population. If the creators can’t do that, then who can?


The UX of Virtual/VR Tour of Museum

Virtual tour of museums has been around for a while, but it is far from being widespread and popular, which I found it is a pity because it can really benefit a lot of people if we do it right. It is also a perfect category for the recent hottest tech – VR to implement. After browsing some virtual tour project of museums, I found some common issues and drawbacks and a few shining points. As a UX designer, I would like to try on analyzing these projects from a user experience perspective. Below are the key factors I found that matter the most for a good experience of virtual/VR tour of museums.

Smithsonian Museum Virtual Tour

(Typical setting of virtual tour: map, arrow, controller)

To clarify, a virtual tour is a simulation of an existing location, often composed of a sequence of videos or still images that are panorama. If it is still images, users often have the control of the pace and location where they “stand” and look at, the drawbacks are the scene is static and most of the projects are difficult-to-control. If it is video, then the location will be filmed at a walking pace while moving continuously from one point to another, where users have to follow the sequence and won’t have free control.

Virtual reality tours are the virtual tours that can be viewed and experienced by a VR viewer (headset). They are more immersive and have different controllers compared with viewing on a computer, tablet or phone, depending on which headset or app users use.


3D vs 2D

There are two ways these virtual tours present the work in the museum – 2D photos or 3D model.

The most common way is using 2D still photos where users can only see the work from a certain angle, which presents the same scene with the physical museum but the experience is incomplete, such as the one from Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

(2D Virtual Tour – Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History)

While some project use 3D model to rebuild a virtual museum, where each object is independent, so users can select, zoom in, and rotate to observe closely, such as the project of Ancient Sculptures of Vietnam.


(3D Virtual Tour – Ancient Sculptures of Vietnam)

From the user experience perspective, the experience of 3D is much better than the 2D one, because users can interact with objects. It also has the advantage of better storytelling, since the narrative or commentary can pair with each object, and be presented only when users select the object. Sketchfab, a 3D models platform, also has some exquisite 3D models in different categories including one for cultural heritage & history.

Sketchfab- Cultural Heritage & History


User-control and Interaction

Another issue I found when experiencing the virtual tours is the awkward user-control.

In the most common 2D virtual tour, users can only stand in one location at a scene. The only interactions are rotating the viewing angle and zoom in/out. Since users can’t move horizontally, they can’t see the objects placed in the longest distance clearly. It means what users can see in the virtual tour is partial. The only movement users can take is to move the next scene by clicking the “large arrow” on the ground where the transition isn’t smooth and continuous either. I think the poor performace of user interaction is the most important reason why the virtual tours are not real enough so far.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History2


Narrative and Commentary

The accessibility and convenience of narrative or commentary should be the advantage of a virtual tour because users already have a device anyway. However, I can’t find the well-presented narrative or commentary in most of the cases. This is tied to the issues of 2D photos which can’t separate the objects within it.

For cultural heritage like the work in museums, the stories behind them are too important to neglect. On the app or website of Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art), there are great introductions and audio commentary for each work. While in its virtual tour, the narratives are still missing. Since this kind of narrative and commentary resources is already there, I would say adding them to the virtual tour should be the next step to improve the experience.

Met App

(App of The Met)

Searchability and Shareability

Other features that should be the advantages of the digital tour while missing are the searchability and shareability. When people are consuming information, search and share are the two vital parts of their behaviors. (Wilson, T. D., 2000). One happens at the beginning (of information behavior), and one happens in the end.

In the physical museum, people use a map to search and locate the information they want, and they take photos or write notes to share with others. While in the virtual tour, the map (often located on the top right corner of view) is majorly for switching location. There is no search bar or menu as other digital products, and the map is not listing enough details for users to easily locate the things they want.

Virtual Museum Tour Map

(2D Virtual Tour – Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History)

In terms of the shareability, if users experience the tours on the computer, tablet or phone, they may be able to take screenshots, although it is not convenient and personalized. If they watch with a VR headset, then there is no way for them to keep a record and share with others. Without the shareability, the virtual tours just lost the free yet powerful marketing opportunities – word-of-mouth.

I believe the virtual tours has great potential because it makes the best work and cultural heritage of the world more accessible to anyone. It has unique advantages compared with physical tour while there are still some gaps it needs to catch with the experience of the physical tour. Hopefully, it will happen soon as the evolvement of virtual reality and 3D modeling.



[1] Dalbello, M. (2009). “Digital cultural heritage: concepts, projects, and emerging constructions of heritage,” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA Conference, 25-30 May, 2009

[2] Wilson, T. D. (2000). “Human information behavior.” InformingScience3(2): 49–56. http://ptarpp2.uitm.edu.my/ptarpprack/silibus/is772/HumanInfoBehavior.pdf.

[3] Virtual tour, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_tour

[4] How VR Is Changing UX: From Prototyping To Device Design https://uxplanet.org/how-vr-is-changing-ux-from-prototyping-to-device-design-a75e6b45e5f8

[5] Smithsonian Nation Museum of Natural History http://naturalhistory.si.edu/VT3/NMNH/z_NMNH-016.html

[6] First 3D Virtual Museum with 3D scans of ancient relics – Ancient sculptures of Vietnam, http://vr3d.vn/trienlam/virtual-3d-museum-ancient-sculptures-of-vietnam