I have a question - or the future of audio guides!

“In such a technological world, museums could not be left behind. The Pinacoteca is always reinventing itself and creating strategies to speak with its audiences. The partnership between Pina and IBM represents this effort, which has resulted in an unprecedented, interactive and accessible action, “said Paulo Vicelli, director of institutional relations at the Pinacoteca of São Paulo.


When I started to introduce audio tours to the German market more than 25 years ago, many museum professionals in the education departments were sceptical: would a pre-recorded comment not be too didactical? Deliver information and interpretation, yes, but in a too one-directional way which wouldn’t allow visitors to raise questions and start a conversation? Provide guidance and orientation in all languages also to foreign visitors, yes, but would the invisible narrator really be able to replace the personal guide with all his or her smiling, glancing and acting?

Now, hundred-thousands of audio tours and millions of visitors served cross the globe later, it has become very clear that the intention has never been to replace real people by the audio guide, but instead step in where staff reaches its limits in time, capacity and language. And much more important, the incomparable power of the medium has been recognized! Today, we know – based on evidence and scientifically proofed by multiple researches, including a very recent brain-imaging study, that audio goes directly to our heart. Audio evokes emotions, fosters empathy and thus can bridge the gap between us and the unfamiliar other. When an audio tour is done right, when it combines wonderful storytelling with voices, interviews, archival recordings and music, and maybe even do all this in dynamic binaural sound, it augments our reality in a fully immersive way. The encounter with culture is turned into a long-lasting memory.

Nevertheless, it’s still true, that a visitor can’t raise a question. This is one of the reasons, why Multimedia tours have come up, combining great audio with all sorts of interactives- They allow visitors to go really in depth and explore an art work according to their interests. But asking a question? We have to confess, that – even though we start all our tours by asking questions, to ourselves, to the artist, to the curator or to our potential listeners in visitor surveys – there is no way to spontaneously express one’s wonder and get an immediate response through audio guides. Or is it?

Well, IBM Brazil has just launched the ‘A Voz da Arte’ project at the Pinacoteca of São Paulo using it’s IBM Watson artificial intelligence platform to make the visit to the museum a more interactive experience. Through a mobile application, Watson gives a voice to seven works of art from the Pinacoteca of São Paulo collection, with technology that is capable of answering questions from visitors. Both IBM’s and Pina’s staff have put months into research and IBM another 6 month into programming to generate the audio guide who not only speaks, but also listens to people. Watson’s responses are surprisingly profound, even touching! Do they evoke more questions? Do they lead to a comprehensive narration, that remains as a memory in a persons’ mind? That’s probably food for more researches. Also, art very often confronts us with the unseen and the unknown. Can we formulate a question, if there are layers, that don’t speak to us in an obvious way? And isn’t that what can excite us about art and why it inspires us: that we understand something we not even had thought about before?

Still, having a question, means that the art relates to us. Getting an answer, means we are personally connected. If we find a way to combine both with great audio and storytelling, this could be the future of mobile interpretation. And maybe even to reconcile the personal to the audio guide. 

 Don’t miss the project’s video

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We are innovative storymakers and creative technologists devoted to visitor-first experiences.

We make audio tours, mobile apps, multimedia guides, podcasts, interactives, and superior story-driven content for the museum and cultural sector.

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