Museums can delight, inform and inspire wonder in their patrons. But as technological advances keep, well, advancing, museums are looking beyond audio guides and gift shops to engage audiences.
Take the California Academy of Sciences, for example. It commissioned an interactive display powered by gesture-recognition technology for its Color of Life exhibit. In it, visitors could copy the mating dances of colorful insects and birds projected on a screen. Those who best mimicked the animals' shimmies saw their shadows transformed into the creatures—furry appendages sprouted out of their sides just like a peacock spider's legs.
That very cool idea came from Marla Supnick's Unified Field, an interactive design studio based in New York City.
"[We're] using technology to connect people to each other, and to connect people to place and mission," Supnick says.
Unified Field has become well-known in its field due to its solid execution and technological know-how. For the National Geographic Museum's exhibit on the Titanic, visitors were treated to an explorable virtual model of the doomed ship. And Unified Field created software that used RFID cards for National World War II Museum patrons to use to collect "digital artifacts" during their trip. Those pieces would then be compiled into a personalized website they could interact with long after the visit. The museum connected with around 750,000 visitors who provided their email address because of their software. "It's not just a kiosk in the corner," she says of the projects they work and consult on.
Even though Unified Field has become a go-to company in the museum world, Supnick is already thinking about where the company will plant its flag next.
"We're starting to look into really interesting areas of how people connect using technology in smart city environments, including buildings, hospitals, universities, transportation hubs and retail environments," she says.
As a tech-based company, being future-oriented is the name of the game. "That's what we do all day," Supnick says. "If you build technology, it's gotta be solid, clear and interpretable today, but it's gotta last into the future. If it looks old tomorrow, then we failed."
—Marla Supnick, CEO, Unified Field
When Supnick launched Unified Field 26 years ago, she was a graphic designer with degrees in fine art and sociology. She had just left a design collective with enough money to start her own company. While she didn't have a traditional business background, she did have friends who knew companies that could use her services.
"Things would fall into my lap," Supnick says. "A friend from the gym said, 'Could you help pick colors for this computer program that we're doing for [a financial services company]?' And that turned into us designing all [of their] institutional interfaces."
Unified Field's pre-internet work—turning DOS interfaces into Microsoft-based interfaces—was something “we invented at the moment," Supnick says.
"At the end of that period, [the financial services company], which had previously had manuals up to the sky, was able to say anybody could do their job with this new interface within one hour, no training. That catapulted us.
"It was the Wild West," she says now with a smile. “Nobody was doing this."
More financial services companies caught wind of their work and wanted help modernizing their interfaces as well. Then another friend introduced Supnick to a major client in the food industry that needed help in creating systems, devices and games for its category management and marketing needs. Unified Field, which had then gone from a one-woman outfit to a team of 10, was on a roll.
The company was doing incredibly well for itself—Supnick had taken a sizable capital improvement loan to renovate a downtown Manhattan office for her larger staff of 35 people and they were starting to dabble in the buzzy world of web development. But September 11 brought the world, and Unified Field's business, to a grinding halt.
"Nobody was talking, nobody was working, everybody was in shock," Supnick recalls. "There wasn't enough work for all the people that we had, and a lot of our exciting projects went on hold. Amazing things happened, too. Vendors said, 'Don't worry about it, we're with you.' Friends and family loaned us money. But [I felt] terrible. Our business was unrecognizable."
Supnick says she mounted enormous debt—"several hundred thousand"—trying to keep Unified Field afloat. The walls felt like they were closing in. Supnick was wary of firing her staff—along with being like family, it was hard to find and train people in this still relatively new field.
"People suggested we go bankrupt, [but] I couldn't—those vendors and friends and family would lose what they gave us," she says.
"Things were radically devastated," she continues, "but interestingly, out of that our business [was] reborn."
Looking at how hard the financial services industry was hit after September 11, Supnick decided it was time for Unified Field to pivot. Where they ended up was a seemingly unlikely place: museum exhibit design. Supnick's associate and friend was the director of technology at Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), a firm that has done exhibit design work for an impressive array of museums around the world. RAA invited Unified Field to propose a treatment for an artist database for the James Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The proposal was accepted, and RAA became Unified Field's first museum client.
Supnick jumped into the new field and wasted no time in making contacts and establishing Unified Field as a name to know. "We started to talk to museums, go to museum conferences and write articles for magazines' websites about this emerging technology and its uses," she says. The learning curve wasn't too steep—"It was still about making content accessible for people in the way that they wanted"—and Unified Field's work spoke for itself.
Now, "we're extremely busy," she says. "The museum industry grew a lot. Once upon a time it was like, maybe people put a kiosk in the corner, now it's like, 'Everything has to be digital! We want robots! We want social! We want everything!'"
Since the pivot, Supnick has paid off her debt. And after having a few periods where she forewent paying herself so she could pay her team, Supnick says those days are long behind her. The sacrifice has paid off: Unified Field is growing and diversifying their business model to include products—two are in development right now. "We created them because we thought they were needed in the marketplace, and we thought that they would have a lot of legs going forward," she explains.
Supnick's focus on what's next is informed by surviving a major industry shake up—it's made her wary of staying in one place for too long. So for right now, Supnick and Unified Field are comfortable in the museum world—but they're always looking ahead to the future, taking in shifts in the way we use technology. Chances are they'll have an answer before we know to ask the question.