AR @ Mom

Quick synopsis of this project!

Project Title: #CrystalBatCave


Kerstin Graudins- Art Director, Fabricator, Designer, UX
Chelsea Read- Designer, Co-Creator, UX

Adobe Aero, Illustrator, Fresco, After Effects, Polycam, Blender, Photography, Premiere Pro

Problem to Solve
The Crystal Cave at the Museum of Museums (MoM) is an exhibition that transforms one museum bathroom into a magical space that encourages visitors to take selfies that are shared on social media. These images attract more people to the museum. I am the artist who created the Crystal Cave installation, and I wondered if there was a way to create more visitor engagement by adding Augmented Reality experiences.

Project Goals and Objectives
Use Augmented Reality to create an interactive exhibition in a Museum. Create 2-3 interactive AR experiences which enhance my ongoing Crystal Cave exhibit. Make a tangible and portable take-home experience that advertises the museum and exhibition. Our personal goals were to learn Adobe Aero, Fresco, and Blender, and to test the limits of AR and its applications within an art exhibit.


We were interested in achieving the Museum’s goal of increasing moments of engagement at the museum using AR, and my installation was an opportunity for us to test that within the context of an actual museum. However, we were concerned about people’s experiences and expectations of AR so we created a survey to help guide our approach.

this is an image of our survey results

From Our Research, We Found:  

  • 68% of people surveyed are familiar with using AR on their phones but may need contextual information to help them understand that’s what they’re doing. 
  • Fewer people were comfortable using tablets, glasses, and headsets. 
  • 10% of respondents worry about data security. 
  • Folks who reported they didn’t trust an app experience said they would be willing to use a pre-loaded tethered tablet experience. 
  • 96% of respondents would download a free app to experience art they may not otherwise see. 
  • 31% of respondents are willing to wait 10 minutes in line, but 53% are willing to wait just five minutes or less. 
  • 20% worry that AR is distracting for themselves and others, and fear they may cause harm to the museum, art, or other people.

Based on our research, we decided the best option was to design a mobile experience rather than glasses or a headset. We went through a third-party app, Adobe Aero, which has the resources to devote to privacy and data security and also features a safety awareness warning on launch. Since the exhibition is located in a bathroom, we chose to create this experience for mobile only with no tethered, pre-loaded tablet experience. While it would increase accessibility to provide that additional means to experience AR, sanitation and privacy concerns on a shared device took precedence. We chose to create a postcard souvenir to give visitors a way to experience crystals and bats wherever they are. This increases brand awareness for both the Museum of Museums and my art. While we could not provide a pre-loaded experience for this exhibition, we could give users a way to experience the art anywhere.


Augmented reality experience where brightly colored bats fly around you

To create an animated component to support the existing imagery in the exhibit.

I did this by drawing bats in a similar cohesive style to the art installation in order to remind people of the museum experience. I animated the bats in Fresco, duplicated them in multiple colors, sizes, and flight patterns, then imported them into Aero as .png sequences.

User Testing:
Wins for this experience were that it was fast to load and had a consistent delight factor. A challenge with these bats was creating accurate depth in Aero. When we first tested the bats on users, they were about 20 feet away; from there it was too far to be delightful and too close to fully see all of the bats through the device screen. Because of that, we rearranged the experience to fit an 8’ x 10’ space and added additional panels of bats so they would appear in any direction the user looked. When we tested this experience in the museum, it became clear to us that while users learned to deftly navigate QR codes because of the pandemic, there is no mental model for surface mapping. Users put their phones on the ground, pointed them sideways, and cocked their heads: this was completely new. Once they figured it out, they were all able to perform the same surface mapping action to launch subsequent experiences.

Bat cave

Premise: To create an animated component with music to delight users and entice them to become museum visitors. For this, we created one experience triggered by the framed screen print in the museum and another experience triggered by the image on the back of the postcard. I used my framed screen print as the basis for the animation, beginning with the question: “What if it came to life?!”. I animated it in three layers to show depth in the AR experience and added music to make the experience even more immersive.

Process: I used my existing neon screen printed poster as the trigger image for this experience. Originally the trigger image was a color print of the neon screen print, but the colors available in the Canon printer aren’t as vibrant as the fluorescent inks in the museum version.  This led us to change the image to black and white to eliminate color fidelity issues and to show a bigger change when the experience launched. We worked with a local musician to add sound which felt appropriate and matched the tempo of the animation. The Bat Cave Scene features bats flying out of the cave and a hanging bat that sways to the music.

User Testing: We tested this experience on 30 different people and found that it loads fairly quickly. On average it took 15-30 seconds to load, and every participant vocalized their joy and surprise. When we tested this using the postcard image, it worked every time users read the instructions, which was about 70% of the time. Since the crystals and the bats map their experience to the floor and this experience is triggered by an image, we decided to place this QR code and its directions in the middle, so users wouldn’t train themselves to automatically map the floor.

a person is using the AR experience in the museum


crystal Augmented Reality experience. Sculptural objects are scanned and used in this AR project

For this experience, I wanted to have the actual crystals from my installation exist in AR, and make them interactive.
The crystals in the exhibitions are made of paper that I screen printed with patterns I created in fluorescent ink which glows under blacklights, then folded and glued into crystal shapes. They needed to be large and wide enough to cover the ceiling, yet short enough to allow for head clearance. I originally wanted to include crystals on the walls and floor of the installation environment but opted not to because of concerns about destruction. 
Initially, we thought we could create original crystal forms in Illustrator and import them into Aero as .OBJ files. Chelsea created these crystals using Illustrator’s 3D design tools, but when imported into Aero they appeared without the patterned skins that were applied in Illustrator. We tried Microsoft Paint but it didn’t work either. As a workaround, I found 3D crystals that looked similar in shape to the crystals in the exhibition and used those to create the interactive scene. This workaround was not a realistic solution for an addition to the Crystal Cave exhibition because it was stylistically inconsistent, so we sought another solution.
To create our AR crystals, I scanned the paper crystals in a lightbox, and in situ at the museum using PolyCam. The crystals scanned in the lightbox did not need to be edited because the edges were easily detectable. Each crystal was created from 40-140 still photos of all different sides of the crystal. Each crystal scan took about 15 minutes to export a 3D rendering in camera RAW. We chose Camera Raw because we wanted the highest quality to edit in Blender, but when we put the RAW crystals in Aero, they were too big and the experience wouldn’t load. I reprocessed the crystals in Polycam to reduce the file size, then reduced poly counts in Blender which reduced file sizes from 30MB each to 2MB each. 

User Testing
This experience took a long time to load. When creating the experience on a fast fiber WiFi network, the experience loaded in 30-60 seconds. When we tested the experience in the museum, the network speeds were slow, and this didn’t load for anyone. Originally, this experience was 155 MB, which is huge. In hindsight, we should have checked average load times based on file size before user testing. After this round, we read from other AR artists that an experience should be smaller than 55 MB to load quickly without many issues. This experience needs a fast strong wifi connection to launch. We tested it again at Seattle Central Creative Academy with our cohort, and the experience loaded within 90-120 seconds.

The postcard

postcard designs as it evolved

We created the postcard to give users and visitors a tangible take-anywhere promotional experience. The postcard served as a flyer to promote the museum exhibit. The front of the postcard is an image that triggers the AR Bat Cave experience, and the back of the postcard is a functional device that holds the QR codes for all of the #CrystalBatCave AR experiences. We went through several iterations of the postcard to create the easiest, most intuitive experience for users.

User Testing
Preliminary versions of the postcard were black on a light blue background and contained short descriptions of each AR experience. The header section contained a description of the exhibit and an explanation of what users should do: take photos and tag the MoM on social media. Users were confused with the headings and did not know they could share their experiences on social media. The MoM logo was as large as the QR codes and conflicted with the CTA to scan them, and overwhelmed the artist’s name. People weren’t sure what to do once they scanned the QR codes. Based on this feedback, we created more hierarchy in the title, made the MoM logo smaller, and searched Instagram to find a new hashtag to track the experience online: #CrystalBatCave
In our second round of testing, we realized that there wasn’t enough contrast on the back of the postcard and that we could keep costs down by using color more strategically. To encourage people to read the instructions, we clarified what users should do when they scan a QR code and changed each set of instructions to a different vibrant color.
The third round of testing showed us that users were confused by dissimilar language in the app and on the postcard. We added “use the floor as your horizontal surface” so that users would get the hint when the app displayed a message which said “looking for horizontal surfaces”. When people read the instructions, this helped them understand what to do, and then they were primed for the other AR experiences. We originally showed the codes for the experiences which map the floor first, and the image-triggered experience last. When we did this, users were confused about where to find the image (even though the instructions say it’s the front of the postcard). To reduce this confusion, we moved the image-triggered experience to the middle so users wouldn’t become overconfident about what to do to launch the experiences.


On our process
When we started this project, we sought to test the limits of what two fresh designers could create with AR in the scope of 9 weeks. We conducted research, then visited the site, then created experiences that were continuously tested at the site. We think this was a major win for our project because we could see how our experiences worked in the context of the exhibition.

On Augmented Reality
We learned a lot about testing AR experiences in Aero’s beta model. People expected the AR to launch itself, and to have minimal action on the user’s part to make it work. We tried mapping the crystals to the ceiling and the walls, but currently, surface mapping works best on horizontal surfaces like a table or a floor. Aero experiences are editable on any device which supports it (iPhones and anything but Samsung Galaxy S9s). One challenge was that since the experience was already pre-loaded on the designer’s devices, there was no way to tell that the experience would take a long time to load. I plan to work with some new platforms that use Web AR so that no app is needed and I can create larger experiences.

On user tendencies
People take the success or failure of AR experiences personally. Even though the results were through no fault or feat of their own, there was a unanimous sense of shame and pride depending on whether the experience failed or succeeded at launching. We learned that because people are distracted, rushed, or pressured, they follow shapes and images before reading instructions. People follow the patterns of what has worked for them before: once they try something and it works (as in our surface-mapping example), they will use the same technique unless a given task is different enough. This told us that people crave intuitive experiences and have a generally low tolerance for lengthy explanations. Users tend to feel more impatient without a progress bar.