By Will Kelly
Fernbank Museum of Natural History, a 20-year-old natural history museum in Atlanta, Georgia, partnered with Cisco and AT&T to roll out a next-generation network using next-generation Wi-Fi and a supporting mobile app to provide location-based content to enhance the visitor experience.
"The project started with Joey Shultz, AT&T vice president of marketing and a Fernbank board member, who wanted to provide basic Wi-Fi connectivity in the museum. After seeing Cisco's Connected Mobile Experiences solution, the museum and AT&T realized that the Wi-Fi network could be a much more strategic asset in engaging a museum guest," according to Doug Webster, vice president of networking solutions marketing for Cisco.
Juliana Dykes, VP of Marketing and Communication for Fernbank Museum of Natural History, stressed that Fernbank is relatively young by natural history museum standards. This lets them take a more hands-on interactive approach to cementing their reputation among natural history museums. This project helps them meet their guests "where they are" on their mobile devices.
Webster further relates, "With that vision, the team saw how the Cisco Wi-Fi network would engage with the museum guest on their mobile device. The visitor can engage with Museum information using a native mobile app which is powered by location-based services, browser-based services and real-time location analytics."
According to Dykes up until the network launch, the museum had no Wi-Fi capability and poor phone service in parts of the building. Both of which became sources of frustration for their 'always connected' guests.
The launch of the museum's Wi-Fi network is a unique and tight collaboration between Cisco, AT&T, and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History with the following roles:
- Cisco provided the Cisco Wi-Fi network equipment and Cisco Connected Mobile Experiences solutions, including network-based location, location analytics, and billboard.
- AT&T deployed and managed the Wi-Fi solutions.
- Fernbank Museum developed content for the mobile app.
Two other companies also worked on the project:
- Meridian provided the location-based application programming interface (API) and mobile app.
- Crawford Media Services used Fernbank Museum content to create a custom experience.
Dykes talks about the museum's perspective on the network planning:
"The planning process really started in April of last year and was pretty serendipitous for us because everything aligned just right. We had our partners in AT&T and Cisco making this project happen."
She says it was a fascinating process just in terms of project management and how these entities came together. "They created a functional design plan which we were able to submit to engineers at AT&T who were able to create a technical network design and identify the list of materials that would be needed and communicate that to Cisco."
And the project was fast. Dykes says that, as a not-for-profit, the museum usually doesn't work at that speed. Everyone got together in April, with the work beginning in earnest in May. They launched a full network and app for their guests in November. The biggest challenge in the museum's perspective was the aggressive timeline.
The museum and its staff learned some hard lessons according to Dykes. "For me — and my boss who did the primary internal project management — the biggest challenge was that it was a very large, diverse group of people and interests that were coming together. It was, more than anything else from our perspective, a constant lesson in communications and overall project management."
Webster relates the following about planning the museum's Wi-Fi network:
"A location-based Wi-Fi network requires a higher density of access points in order to accurately identify a user's location in the application. Some additional network and management equipment is also needed to support the location-based network."
Interestingly enough, museum staff painted the network access points to blend in with the environment of the museum so visitors will not notice them unless they know where to look.
There were other planning challenges: "We had to keep in the forefront the needs of the museum and the expectations of our visitors as well as the level of educational excellence we produce." The installation was completed during off hours in the museum for minimal disruption to Fernbank's daily operations and guest experience.
"The Fernbank Museum team was accommodating of the changes needed for their network in order to support their location-based application," says Webster. "Because this was a new Wi-Fi network, AT&T and Cisco worked together to design the Wi-Fi network, with Cisco providing detailed guidance on what was needed to build a location-based Wi-Fi network. Cisco took responsibility for the additional network components needed for a location-based network via the Cisco Mobility Services Engine and Cisco Prime Management."
The location-based technologies required a denser set of access points on the Wi-Fi network and Cisco Mobility Services Engine — a platform that helps service providers like AT&T increase visibility into the network and customize location-based mobile services.
"We optimized Cisco's network-based location solution for locating mobile devices on the correct floor in large open areas and we're working with Qualcomm on longer-term network-assisted location technology for better indoor location accuracy," says Webster.
Interestingly enough, at the current time, there is no physical work required on the network to accommodate new displays. The infrastructure is such that its pretty well established and all encompassing in every single spot in the museum. Dykes states, "There is a process behind the scenes to update content in the app. That was one of the benefits we were so grateful for. AT&T and Cisco really made sure that in every corner, from the basement to the bathrooms to the top floor, we had these APIs. This allows us to really expand our application when we have the resources to do so."
One of the benefits of the Cisco Wi-Fi and Connected Mobile Experiences solution is that it doesn't require any ongoing maintenance operations or routine calibration. The solution runs smoothly on the Wi-Fi network and new features can be added easily with simple software upgrade.
"That infrastructure is sound and in place, so bringing in new exhibits and taking out old ones is not an issue at this point. The issue is more on the backend to make sure the application is updated," states Dykes.
Neither Dykes nor Webster consider the network project 'complete'. "The project remains active as all companies continue to learn how to better engage the more than two million museum visitors. As of today the museum estimates that approximately 20 to 25 percent of the guests to connect to the Wi-Fi network," says Webster.
The Museum, Cisco and AT&T are continuing to find ways to increase the engagement on both the Wi-Fi network and the mobile app.
As for the future of the network as a tool for museum outreach, Dykes says, "We've been working on compiling our own case statement and proposal just on the technology the museum offers this year to get into the hands of donors and sponsors who would be interested in this sort of thing. It's so critical for us. We are able to recognize that this was a big incredible feat we are able to benefit from."
The Fernbank Museum of Natural History Wi-Fi network shows how technology and museum leaders can come together to deliver an engaging educational experience using next-generation network technologies and mobile devices. The Fernbank Museum Wi-Fi network is offering the Fernbank a new tool for the solicitation of museum funds and an added attraction to bring in new partners, displays — and, above all, visitors.