14th June 2017

Chatbots for culture, tourism and exhibitions: event roundup

Andrew Larking
Creative Director
Crowd at museum

Speakers and panellists

  • Joe McFadden – CTO, Royal Opera House
  • Simon Michael – Senior Technical Evangelist, Microsoft
  • Sarah Towle – Award-winning digital storyteller, Time Traveller Tours & Tales
  • Julien Decot – Director of Platform Partnerships, Facebook
  • Stefania Boiano / Giuliano Gaia – Co-Founders, InvisibleStudio
  • Sarah Coward – Development Director, The National Holocaust Centre and Museum

Part 1:

Chatbots for culture, tourism, and exhibitions

“If you want to talk to more users and achieve more engagement, chatbots offer a simple solution.”

Leaps of faith, holding your nerve, and not being afraid to fail and start again are all key to designing and launching a captivating chatbot experience. These were the lessons shared at Deeson’s recent ‘Chatbots for culture, tourism, and exhibitions’ event, held at the Impact Hub in London on Wednesday 24th May. Technology leaders Microsoft and Facebook joined the stage with culture sector veterans Time Traveller Tours & Tales and InvisibleStudio, to demonstrate the art of the possible, and where they expect this technology to take us in the coming years.

Deeson’s AI lead and Tech Strategy Director Ronald Ashri, kicked off the evening by speculating on how useful this technology will become as we start to introduce and apply the principles of artificial intelligence, and how we’re going to be using it as its capabilities increase. Ultimately his message was clear: “The driving forces are making it inevitable. As computing is embedded in every aspect of our lives having a conversation with it will be the easiest method of dealing with some very complicated behaviours.”

Conversational intelligence

Simon Michael, Senior Technical Evangelist at Microsoft, began his talk by stating Microsoft's core aim for this technology: "Giving users a richer experience and better relationships with technology, as well as enabling them to converse with everyone else and more data in more intelligent ways, is the goal."

Simon Michael

Conversation with chatbots is not going to replace everything that exists now or has gone before – it works in some instances and not in others. But these interfaces can augment what we already have. We are becoming increasingly impatient as technology teaches us to expect responses immediately. As our demands for speed grows, and our use of chat-based apps increases (it currently stand at 3.5 billion people per day on chat applications), the questions about if and how to use conversations as user interfaces become the obvious next step. The challenge is how to make conversations with technology smoother and easier.

Microsoft – like Google, Facebook, and openAI – have their own set of technologies and APIs available for use by anyone. But while they are powerful for creating conversations, the more immediate power for business lies in using these technologies to understand the data they already have. “Chatbots can help businesses understand the data they have in much more natural ways, allowing them to give visitors better experiences at galleries and museums, while enhancing their own relationships with these visitors and achieving better engagement overall.” – Simon Michael

A recent example of this was at Shrewsbury Museum, where Microsoft used their visual recognition and conversational APIs to identify the age and gender of each visitor to give them a personalised experience, while providing real time data to the museum staff of which exhibits worked best with specific demographics. Two years ago this would have had a high associated cost; today it's almost entirely free.

Pokemon go for art?

"We know that more people are using messaging apps every day but interestingly this use is cross-generational," said Julien Decot, Director of Platform Partnerships at Facebook. “My job is to help people build something relevant; there are a lot of useless bots out there."

Julien Decot

Messaging for businesses is on the rise and has increased dramatically over the past two years. As we become more comfortable with technology and our use of social platforms increases, we are lowering the barrier for entry into our personal digital spaces. We no longer consider it strange to have a ‘conversation’ with a brand – in fact it builds loyalty. This is where Facebook, with its powerful Open Graph targeting platform, is aiming.

“You can create a conversational experience and measure the impact on your business objectives. It’s not science fiction, it’s happening today."

For museums, Julien suggested an iterative approach. Start with a chatbot-led audio guide, then as you learn more about the capabilities of the technology and the needs of your users, begin to build in augmented reality and collections database integrations. Once you are comfortable with that, think about immersive social experiences in virtual reality.

“You can make the guide really personal. You can change the experience for a first-time visitor versus a regular visitor, and this can be done today – and the big plus is that it doesn’t cost a great deal of money.”

Chatbots: The next frontier in digital storytelling?

Time Traveller Tours and Tales, which designs and builds interactive mobile applications and books, wonders if chatbots could be the next frontier for delivering cultural and educational knowledge.

Sarah Towley

Sarah says “teens and tweens are the fastest growing markets. We know that they are living in apps like Facebook Messenger, and this has changed the way we market our services and products to that audience.”

Teens are digital natives and they have very different expectations of how content should be delivered. They have grown up in a content on demand world and to them the culture sector is no different – ‘give me what I want, when I want it’. “Chatbots offer more than just on-demand content however, they can pull people in and, by creating meaningful conversations, keep them engaged during a visit.”

“Seeing history through the character’s own experiences is much more compelling for teens. It appeals to their brains and suits the way that they learn – it gives the story context – there is playful engagement.”

Chatbots and gamification: The Milan House Museums case history

Milan has four house museums, often perceived as ‘old and full of dust’, said Giuliano Gaia, of InvisibleStudio.


“We worked closely with staff to find out what problems there might be when engaging with teens, and decided that creating a game was the way to go." InvisibleStudio developed a chatbot-based treasure hunt game within Facebook Messenger. Targeted directly at teens, the game encouraged players to search out clues as they explored the museum, making the physical space more engaging to them.

To ensure the chatbot was fun and not creepy, and to demonstrate to museum staff how the conversations should be designed, they studied real human chats, and developed a conversational model for their chatbot to use. "It was very important to do this with the museum staff, so they could see for themselves what teens do in real life."

“The staff know so much about the museums they often give out too much information. For teens it’s essential to break it up and make the language a lot less formal."

Feedback has been incredibly positive and the impact felt. “Now is the time to make chatbots – even in culture and museums!”

Part 2:

The second part of the evening was a panel discussion which started with the visceral and jaw dropping explanation by Sarah Coward, Development Director of The National Holocaust Centre, of the conversational experience they have been developing for the past year.

Sarah Coward

“We invited 10 Holocaust survivors, who have dedicated their lives to sharing their stories, to be interviewed over four days whilst being recorded with 3D camera technology." Each person was asked 1400 questions, which when unpacked and digitised, were turned into one of the most emotionally impactful experiences chatbot technology has delivered so far. Visitors at the Centre are able to directly ask questions to these people and get a human response, in 3D, right in front of them.

“At the moment, we have just one person available. We call him Digital Steven, and he has gone down very well with young visitors who understand he has important memories to share.”

Apart from the logistics, where were the challenges? "Children can ask very fearless and often quite unexpected questions. We had everything from ‘what is your favourite colour?’ to ‘what was the last thing your mum said to you before you never saw her again?" A real conversation relies on being able to respond to the unexpected, and designing the library of questions which would allow valid responses was a year long project on its own.

What about security, opportunities, and the ‘uncanny valley’?

"We see chatbot technology as mainstream right now," said Joe McFadden, CTO at the Royal Opera House, "and we need to know how to use it to engage our visitors. It’s bringing art forms to new audiences of the future, and we all need to be part of the conversation. The more natural the conversations, the more it will appeal cross-generationally. We are possibly at the ‘uncanny valley’ at the moment. We are constantly thinking about how to make conversations natural in different domains.”

Sarah agreed: “How do you use chatbots to deliver different content for different audiences? We need to understand how to achieve that."

"There are some things that are very difficult for humans and very easy for machines, and some things that are very difficult for machines and very easy for humans. Inevitably, there are going to be some contexts where it’s best that a machine is there and some where human contact is best,” commented Julien.

Conversation then turned to how organisations react to trying out new technology which may or may not work for them.

Simon hypothesised that there were probably an awful lot of organisations out there that have innovation teams, "so build something, try it, test it and build something else if it doesn’t work. Get something out there and remember, you are probably not going to get it right the first time – just keep going.”

The panelists all agreed that the current hype about this technology could have a very negative impact, and people should be mindful of that. This technology is very new; it's similar to the beginnings of the commercial web. Instead of jumping on the bandwagon for the sake of it, find purpose and generate understanding of the problem you are trying to solve first. We are on all a journey to make things as natural as possible, and we need to constantly push the boundaries. But if this technology isn't going to help you solve a problem, don't force it.

The technology is growing quickly in capability but, as we've seen before, this doesn't mean it's ready for adoption by society or by the developers of the experiences. We haven't yet fully learned how to design conversations, and we haven't had the time and experience to build up a natural understanding. We are in our design adolescence with this technology, and everything feels painful. But undoubtedly we will get there and, when we do, we'll see the next iteration of human computer interaction. One which feels more natural and takes us a step closer to truly augmenting the human capabilities of our own minds, with the hyper connected capabilities of the web.

As Simon from Microsoft summed it up: “It’s all about the humans and the machines, not the humans or the machines.”

At Deeson we are building a number of different chatbots and exploring the possibilities of different platforms. Follow us on Twitter @deesonagency as we share our results.