CHESS: custom-made storytelling to reinvent museums

Written by Eugenio Fasulo

Week 24

With over 55,000 museums in the world of all shapes and sizes, the Cultural Heritage market is just as varied as it is saturated. But how many of those are able to offer experiences that are truly meaningful to their visitors?
This is the very challenge that defines the future of art and educational spaces, now actual enterprises within a transforming economy, where experiences built around a product are often becoming more important than the product itself.
If it’s true that the museum system has long undervalued the scope of this issue and ignored the possibilities that the digital age implied, it is also true that something is finally changing. In an effort to improve their offer (and to confront with the Millennials), an increasing number of institutions are integrating immersive and interactive technologies. But there are those who try to go a step further.
Experimented at the Acropolis Museum in Athens and at Citè de l’Espace in Toulouse between 2011 and 2014, CHESS is a program funded by the EU that brought storytelling to new territories, where digital narration is the protagonist of innovative practices and not just an ingredient.


Indeed, with the support of a tablet and of the CHESS software, each visitor can take a trip through the museum, which connects the artworks with augmented reality contents.

The functioning is simple: trough the device’s screen, space is transformed and reshaped, ‘augmented’ by links, text and images, which trace an unpredictable path.
Despite the use of advanced media resources, the CHESS system’s biggest innovation lies in the high degree of customization that it offers to users, which allows for the creation of unique experiences.
By collecting personal data (combined with surveys and ethnographic observations), each visitor is associated with a certain ‘persona’, which is in turn associated with a certain kind of adventure. For instance, the experience created for a young musician will be different from that offered to a retired mathematician, or to a nun with an interest in Sacred Art.
Moreover, the software is constantly adapting to changes in the visitors’ preferences, taking into account the information gathered during previous visits. For instance, if the musician has ignored the ancient instruments’ section to spend hours in front of a Vermeer, CHESS will propose a Flemmish Paintings’ story for his next visit. In the same way, if the mathematician has proved surprisingly bored by logic testing, CHESS will then opt for creative or action games. Given that, even people frequently visiting the museum will be able to live a new adventure every time, and be certain that none of their friends will ever live one that’s identical.
Despite the experimental phase of the project being officially over, the new territories that CHESS identified are still largely unexplored.
While CHESS’ industrial partners are trying to commercialize the technology, researchers are already working on new versions that, through interconnecting digital devises, will enable a shared and personalized experience for groups and families. Certainly a difficult test that will determine much of the way we will experience culture in the years to come.

According to the New York Times, museums attendance dipped 5 percent from 2002 to 2012, as museumgoers 75 and older were the only age group to increase. Possibility of control and customization are key elements to engage the younger generations.