For its Appleton Compassion Project exhibit of more than 10,000 works of student art, the Trout Museum of Art needed a way for visitors to easily find a specific student’s artwork and associated artist’s statement, and a way to share the exhibit outside the Wisconsin city of Appleton. Microsoft Partner Network member Skyline Technologies used Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, Microsoft Silverlight, and Windows Azure to deliver an interactive virtual exhibit on the web and an app for Windows Phone. The virtual exhibit closely mimics the in-person viewing experience, extending more than 10,000 K–12 students’ views on the meaning of compassion to people around the world. All solution components were developed quickly and cost-effectively, and were hosted in a manner that made deployment painless while providing virtually unlimited scalability.
Located in Appleton, Wisconsin, the Trout Museum of Art promotes, teaches, and nourishes the creation and appreciation of the visual arts through exhibitions, educational programming and special events, lectures, workshops, family days, and musical performances. The museum’s eclectic Trout Collection comprises more than 150 works of art—including American, European, Asian, and African paintings, sculptures, and other decorative objects—that represent more than 400 years of art history.
||Windows Azure was ideal for this project for many reasons—first and foremost being that it provided us with great flexibility in scaling the site up and down as needed.
Senior Engineer, Skyline Technologies
In mid-2010, the Trout Museum joined with the Appleton Area School District and the Appleton Education Foundation in support of the Appleton Compassion Project, a community art project involving approximately 10,500 students in grades K through 12. As the project evolved, students from Appleton’s parochial schools and from Lawrence University were invited to participate. Starting in the fall of 2010, students received a 6″ x 6″ tile on which to visually depict what the term “compassion” means to them. In addition, each student prepared a corresponding artist’s statement reflecting their thoughts and ideas on compassion. The inspiration for the project came from Richard Davidson, PhD, a University of Wisconsin-Madison brain researcher who has found that those who practice compassion are happier and have healthier minds. Just as important, his research shows that compassion is a skill that can be learned and should be practiced.
The plan called for displaying the tiles at the Trout Museum in a grand mosaic style beginning on May 1, 2011. This posed several challenges, one of which was providing a way for museum visitors—many expected to be the artists and their friends and families—to easily find a specific student’s tile among the more than 10,000 of them, which were to be displayed in multiple galleries on two floors. Visitors would also need a way to view students’ written statements, which were deemed equally important as the works of art themselves but could not be displayed because the tiles themselves would cover all available wall space. Finally, knowing that many students have family members across the world, the museum desired a way to share the exhibit outside of Appleton.
“We knew that we needed some sort of technology solution, but didn’t know what it would be—let alone how we would build it,” says Tim Riley, Executive Director at the Trout Museum of Art.
Assistance arrived in the form of Microsoft Partner Network member Skyline Technologies, which has a long history of community involvement—and an office in Appleton, across the street from the museum. Chris Fleming, Director of the Business Intelligence practice at Skyline, had heard about the exhibit during a conversation with his child’s art teacher. The next day, Fleming went to the museum, found Riley, and asked, “How can we help?”Solution
A solution began to take shape in November 2010, when Fleming and Riley met to discuss the museum’s needs. “At the start, I envisioned some sort of a kiosk that would let museum visitors enter a student’s name and be directed to the location for his or her artwork, along with the ability to view the student’s statement on the meaning of compassion,” recalls Riley.
However, when Fleming began enlisting help from others at Skyline for the pro-bono project, a vision for a richer solution emerged. “We realized that we had the means to build a complete virtual exhibit—one that would not only meet the needs of people who viewed the exhibit in the museum, but also virtually duplicate that experience on the web and extend it to people all over the world,” says John Ptacek, Senior Engineer at Skyline Technologies.
|Figure 1. Appleton Compassion Project exhibit at the Trout Museum of Art. |
(Photo courtesy of IMAGE Studios)
Development began in December 2010, with the effort taking approximately three months. As developers worked on the project in their spare time, they used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate development system to build www.appletoncompassion.org, a rich website based on Microsoft ASP.NET MVC 3, a framework for building scalable, standards-based web applications based on well-established design patterns. ASP.NET MVC 3 also gave developers access to “Razor,” a new syntax and view engine option optimized for HTML generation, which uses a code-focused, template-based approach to support a fast, fluid, coding workflow.Interactive Virtual Exhibit
The Appleton Compassion Project Virtual Exhibit (see Figure 2) is made possible by the Microsoft Silverlight browser plug-in. Silverlight provided access to Deep Zoom, a feature that uses animations and multiresolution images to let website users interactively view high-resolution images. Developers used Deep Zoom to let visitors of the virtual exhibit start by viewing a mosaic of thumbnail images of tiles, and then seamlessly “zoom in” to a high-resolution view of a single tile—an experience remarkably similar to walking into a gallery in the museum, seeing a mosaic of tiles on the wall, and moving closer to the display to inspect a particular tile.
“Many of the tiles include newsprint or other magazine clippings, handwriting, or other small objects that would not otherwise be visible online,” says Riley. “Being able to zoom in on the art and see the various textures, brush strokes, and so on has made for a very interactive exhibit.”
Developers also used the Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer control, which works with Deep Zoom to enable visitors to easily explore the exhibit’s more than 10,000 individual works of art in a natural, organic way. Users can search using a child’s name, grade, school, teacher, art teacher, or tile number, and find where in the museum the artwork is hanging. They can also explore the art by school, grade, teacher, or art teacher, with the tiles appearing to rearrange and resize themselves on the screen as the filtering criteria are adjusted. Clicking a tile displays a high-resolution image, along with detailed information that includes the artist’s statement. “Our virtual exhibit displays the 10,000-plus works of art in a format that makes it easy, appealing, and fun to explore and interact with the art,” says Riley.Hosting in the Cloud
As the Appleton Compassion Project gained awareness, the project team learned that there might be some celebrity participation—making it even harder to estimate the number of visitors that the website would receive. The project team knew that if it were to host the solution on the school district’s server, it would have to use lower-resolution images to keep the amount of data hosted on the site—and the bandwidth required—to acceptable levels, which would have detracted from the Deep Zoom experience and provided a less detailed look at the artwork.
“Many big-name celebrities, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, were invited to participate in this project, and we knew that if they accepted the invitations, the site would receive traffic from all over the world,” says Ptacek. “The school district would have had to purchase a large, additional server and be prepared for very high amounts of traffic, which did not fit into its limited budget.”
|Figure 2. The Appleton Compassion Project Virtual Exhibit is hosted on |
Windows Azure and uses Microsoft Silverlight to deliver a rich, interactive
experience. Functionality provided by the PivotViewer is exposed in the
navigation pane on the left side.
For all these reasons, Skyline chose to host the website in the cloud, on the Windows Azure platform. Windows Azure serves as the Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment, and provides on-demand compute, storage, networking, and content delivery capabilities through Microsoft data centers. “Windows Azure was ideal for this project for many reasons—first and foremost being that it provided us with great flexibility in scaling the site up and down as needed,” says Ptacek. “In addition, we knew that Windows Azure would give us all the storage space needed to store the Deep Zoom files.”
After the decision was made to host the solution in the cloud, the company could have chosen another cloud platform, such as Google App Engine or Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). “We chose Windows Azure for a number of reasons,” says Ptacek. “Its support for Microsoft .NET languages such as Visual C# made for a very short learning curve for our developers, as these were the tools they already used. Windows Azure was the perfect solution, as it best addressed all of our business needs. We also saw it as a great learning opportunity for our technical staff, allowing them to get some hands-on experience with Windows Azure while giving back to the community.”Content Upload and Processing
While developers used Visual Studio 2010 and the Windows Azure Tools for Microsoft Visual Studio to build the website in the cloud, Skyline worked with the school district to build a database that included all the student information, including the artists’ statements. As students completed their artwork, a barcode label with a unique number was affixed to the back side of each tile. The barcode was scanned as each piece of art was photographed by the museum, tying the unique number for the image to the other information in the database. The pieces were scanned again as they were installed in the museum, which added the location of each tile to the database.
The ease of scalability provided by Windows Azure proved useful as images were added to the site. “Images were added to the virtual exhibit as they were photographed, in batches of 500 to a few thousand at a time,” explains Ptacek. “As we updated the PivotViewer and ran the process to create the Deep Zoom files, scalability became a necessity. Windows Azure allowed us to easily scale up for this computationally intensive process and complete it up to three times faster than we would have been able to do otherwise.”Compelling Mobile Experience
As Skyline continued deploying content to the website, the company began to think about how it could meet other user needs—such as enabling museum visitors to easily access the artists’ statements. “As people walk through the exhibit, they’re bound to wonder what a particular tile is about,” says Ptacek. “While the kiosks that were to be deployed in the museum would provide such information, we felt that it would be impractical for visitors to return to them every time they wanted to read an artist’s statement.”
To meet this challenge, the development team at Skyline decided to create a mobile app that would enable museum visitors to enter the number of a specific piece of art and read the corresponding statement while standing in front of the piece. Skyline developed apps for three platforms: Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone, as it knew it had to reach as many mobile users as possible. All three apps connect to the website running on Windows Azure to provide their own virtual exhibit experiences.
The Windows Phone app, which can be downloaded from the Windows Phone Marketplace, was built using Visual Studio 2010, Microsoft Expression Blend 4 design software, and Windows Phone Developer Tools. Users can search for a student’s name and view his or her artwork and artist’s statement on the phone, along with other information such as the student’s grade and school. They can also save particular works as favorites, browse a “featured” pane that displays a random sampling of tiles, and access other information on the exhibit and the museum.
When development on all three apps was finished, Skyline invited Riley and a few others to its offices for a sneak peek and their final approval. Riley, who did not have a smartphone at the time, recalls his experience: “I remember making several comments about how the Windows Phone app was so much more usable and nicer-looking than the other two apps,” says Riley. “A week later, I went out and bought a new Windows Phone. All the apps that Skyline built were great, but when it came time for me to get a new phone, I wanted to be able to use and show people the Windows Phone app. It's really a sight to see.”Worldwide Access to the Exhibit
By early April 2011, all solution components were finished and all content had been uploaded to the website. The exhibit opened at the Trout Museum of Art on May 1, 2011, and ran for two months. Museum visitors had access to four kiosks running the virtual exhibit, which was covered by multiple local news stations and featured by Technology & Learning Magazine in an article about interesting ways that schools are using cloud computing.
||Windows Azure let us use familiar programming languages and tools, so there was no need to do excessive research before we started developing…. If you’re an ASP.NET developer, then you’re already a Windows Azure developer—the skills are entirely transferable.
Senior Engineer, Skyline Technologies
During the two-month run, approximately 3,500 walk-in visitors viewed the exhibit in person. The virtual exhibit tripled the museum’s reach during the same period, generating more than 12,400 website visits from more than 8,000 unique visitors in 70 countries. More than 350 people have downloaded the mobile apps.
“Traffic for the website peaked at just over 1,000 visitors per day,” says Michele Yahr, Marketing Manager at Skyline. “In reviewing the analytics for the site, I was struck by the fact that the number of page views per visit and amount of time spent on the site were both considerably higher—about double—than what we usually see for the other websites we’ve built. We plan to keep everything up and running for the remainder of the year, at a minimum. Appleton has already been declared a compassionate city by the mayor, and a group is working on plans to keep the Compassion Project going in the city, with things like ‘compassionate business’ status for area businesses and more.”Benefits
With assistance from Skyline Technologies, the Trout Museum of Art was able to take advantage of Microsoft technology to improve the experience of visitors to its Appleton Compassion Project exhibit. Even more impressive is how the museum was able to extend that experience to people around the world. Both the website and app for Windows Phone were developed quickly and cost-effectively, and were hosted in a manner that made deployment painless while providing virtually unlimited scalability.
Interactive, Engaging User Experience
Through its use of Microsoft interactive technologies, the Appleton Compassion Project Virtual Exhibit closely mimics the in-person viewing experience, extending more than 10,000 students’ views on the meaning of compassion to people around the globe. “Thanks to Skyline’s generosity, we were able to provide the full exhibit experience to people all over the world, in a way that helps them gain a deep understanding of what the Appleton Compassion Project is all about,” says Riley. “Interactive technology from Microsoft is very well-suited to the needs of museums, as it enables people to explore and interact with art in meaningful ways. Now that we’ve done it once, there’s no going back; if we can deliver a virtual exhibit for more than 10,000 works of art, we can certainly do it for the typical exhibit of a few hundred.”
Ease of Development and Deployment
Skyline was able to deliver a far richer solution than anyone had envisioned at the project’s outset, with only minimal effort. “It only took a few hundred hours to build the entire website, including the virtual exhibit, and the app for Windows Phone took less than 80 hours to build,” says Ptacek.
The ease of developing on Windows Azure also contributed to high developer productivity—and eliminated the need to wait for any new equipment to be ordered, installed, and configured before the uploading of content could begin. “Windows Azure let us use familiar programming languages and tools, so there was no need to do excessive research before we started developing,” says Ptacek. “Instead, I was able to jump right in and could delegate pieces of the project to other less senior developers, without excessive supervision. If you’re an ASP.NET developer, then you’re already a Windows Azure developer—the skills are entirely transferable.”Scalability on Demand
By hosting the exhibit’s website and app on Windows Azure, the development team eliminated any fears about being able to support expected traffic levels. Furthermore, Windows Azure gave Skyline the means to scale up to additional processing power when it was most needed—while creating the Deep Zoom files—and then scale the site back down for day-to-day website access.
“The Appleton Compassion Project has gone well beyond a typical museum exhibit,” says Riley. “The city council, mayor, and legislature have all been talking about it, and some people have even suggested a Wisconsin Compassion Project. Knowing that we could easily scale our virtual exhibit to handle unpredictable traffic levels provided great peace of mind.”Microsoft Cloud Power
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