For decades museums have worked to make their collections and programs more “hands-on” for the public. Hands-on learning helps physical learners better connect with ideas, helps to make the past more accessible, and generally helps to make museums collections more accessible to a wider audience. Sadly, until a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is developed, hands-on learning is a thing of the past and museums now need to find ways to make “hands-off” learning more engaging. As part of the BC Museums Association’s “Back to School Week,” this blog post will explore some easy and affordable ideas for converting touch-based experiences into touchless experiences.

Idea #1: Reduce touch by creating capacitive DIY styluses

In our day-to-day lives we’re surrounded by touch screens, but do you know how they actually work? Most of the touch screens we interactive in our daily lives (i.e. smartphones, tablets, laptops) are “capacitive” touch screens. While there are multiple kinds of capacitive sensing, they all work by using an array of sensors to monitor the electrostatic field around the screen. When your finger (or a capacitive object) touches the screen, it changes the electrical capacitance of that portion of the screen. This is detected as a change in voltage at various locations. The microprocessor captures, filters, and analyzes the data. Then it calculates the coordinates of where the touch occurred. While some older touch screens are “resistive” (resistive touch screens are made of two conductive sheets that respond when pressed together), this is an older technology and has seen dwindling use since 2011.

To interact with a capacitive screen, you need a capacitive object, like your finger, but to reduce the spread of disease, there are numerous other capacitive objects that can be supplied to museum-goers. The possibilities of creating capacitive objects are endless, but here are some easy and affordable ways to create DIY capacitive styluses:

  • Use a damp sponge: A damp sponge is capacitive. If your museums has a number of touch screens that can handle get damp, you could cut up sponges, dampen them, and allow people to use them to interact with touchscreens (you could even try stuffing the sponge into an empty pen shell to make a DIY stylus)
  • Cover something in tinfoil: Tinfoil is a capacitive object. Try wrapping tinfoil around a pencil or stick to create an easy DIY stylus
  • Plants: Many plants are capacitive. You could give visitors leaves or young branches (older branches are often too dry to be capacitive) and allow them to interact with touchscreens in your museum.

As a general rule, anything that is damp, conductive, or organic is capacitive and can be used as a stylus. You could even create an activity around finding and testing objects to see if they are capacitive.

Idea #2: Replace touch-based engagements with QR codes

QR codes (or “Quick Response codes”) have been used in a variety of fields for a number of purposes since they were invented in 1994. QR codes work in a similar manner to the barcodes that you’d see on items in a grocery store, but due to their more complex design, are capable of storing and transmitting considerably more information. To “scan” a QR code you’ll need to use your smartphone or tablet. In 2020 the iPhone default camera app can scan QR codes and most Android camera apps are capable of this as well.

Creating a QR code is very simple and there are numerous free options online for creating them. Shopify has a free online tool for creating QR codes and there are sites that even allow you to custom the colours and designs of your QR codes. A word of caution, however, when using any free online tool, make sure that it is legitimate and won’t compromise your online safety or the safety of your visitors.

You could then link QR codes to videos and replace touchables in your museum with scan-able QR codes. And while some view QR codes in museums as a dying trend, COVID-19 health precautions have the potential to breathe new life into an often maligned technology.

Further reading:

Idea #3: Explore ideas from the maker movement

Want to get really creative? Try asking your local makerspace for ideas for alternative forms of interactive input. Do you have an old Xbox Kinect sensor lying around your house? With a little creativity and coding, an old Kinect can be repurposed to power a touchless interactive experience.

Both of the above examples were created using a repurposed Kinect (which can be purchased for as little as $15 on eBay right now). From creating DIY 3D scanners to interactive art, the Kinect is an amazing tool for museums.

If you’re interested in creating new interactive experiences but don’t feel comfortable with the amount of coding that the Kinect requires, you should consider using a MaKey MaKey. For around $80 the MaKey MaKey is an easy-to-use circuit board that allows you to transform anything that conducts electricity into an interactive button than can be connected to a computer.

Using a MaKey MaKey, some cardboard, and some tinfoil, you could make the entire floor of your museum an interactive surface and allow visitors to use their feet as input devices. When combined with simple online programming tools like Scratch, the possibilities are literally endless.

If you have a local makerspace, strong local maker community, or local teachers/librarians with an interest in the maker movement, reach out to these communities. Makers are amazingly creative problem-solvers and will likely have affordable and accessible ways to de-touchify your site.

Further reading: