January 5th, 2009

There’s a good botanical garden in Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife. The star turn is this demonstration of what the rubber tree in the corner of your office will do if you leave it in nice deep volcanic soil with just the right amount of humidity for 200 years:


Don’t say you weren’t warned.

I found myself grumbling unreasonably at the skimpy labelling. This not especially large garden has 75,000 specimens. If the curators labelled each plant with everything visitors might want to know, in several languages, you would see more labels than leaves. The problem is insoluble with traditional technology, in every kind of museum.

Humans don’t browse for information, we forage, as our ancestors did once for fruit and tubers. Foragers like us, hummingbirds and butterflies, who depend on scattered, high-value nourishment don’t browse like cows, munching their way through grass as unselectively as a lawnmower: we have a three-level strategy, flit, peek, and sip. We scan environments rapidly for potential objects of interest, zoom in on a selection, and select a few within this for close attention. As with berries and mushrooms, so with pictures and plants: we only want to pay close attention to a few, but on those we want a lot of information. The French committee with the thankless task of staving off the inroads of le franglais came up with a lovely and more accurate synonym for (software) browser, butineur, the word you use for hummingbirds, but it sadly didn’t take.

I have a Big Idea to solve this – labelling that is, not franglais.

Step 1: Label everything with an RFID tag. This is a very cheap, very dumb transponder chip: beam an interrogation signal at it at close range and it sends back the equivalent of a bar code. The signal you send provides enough power. Walmart and libraries use them for stock control.

Step 2: Use mobile phones for the user end. The Exploratorium, a go-ahead science museum in San Francisco, has got as far as my step 1 but uses special-purpose and therefore expensive kit for readers. The universal personal communicator of the future will develop from the current mobile phone, as with the iPhone. It may not be ideal, but it’s there. The mobile phone industry are already planning to add RFID readers to handsets. So the visitor will interrogate the innocent plant with her next-generation mobile. Museums can rent out readers to the diminishing number of low-tech dinosaurs.

Step 3: Write software that will allow the RFID code to trigger a pageful of visitor information. This would work roughly like this: when you go into the museum, log on to a special information web page and enable the RFID function. Find something interesting and zap its RFID-tagged label. The code returned triggers a script taking you to a web frame or tab with detailed information. For a plant, this could include the name, place of origin, uses, the (scientific) discoverer, relatives, garden potential and a picture of the flower if any. Throw in a weblink to a technical flora like this; [update] better, a page in the Encyclopedia of Life, E.O. Wilson’s vision of a biological OED. [/update]

I have no idea whether the scripting can be done with existing Java or whether the core HTML standard would have to be modified to enable RFID links; but even that should be doable.

Notice how flexible my Big Idea is. The same plant RFID tag could take the garden staff to a maintenance page with instructions on watering, feeding and pruning; a botanist to a page of technical data on the plant’s accession, taxonomy, and bibliography. You can apply it to every kind of large collection. Ultimately every one of the London Natural History Museum’s 24 million insect specimens could sit quietly next to its RFID tag. And I’m sure the idea could be useful in shops and warehouses.

Gentle reader: I don’t usually bleg, but if you like this, pass it along to someone who could make it happen. If they also wanted to donate a few million to me or the RBC for the idea, we’d be glad to supply bank account details. At least, remember that you saw it here first.

Previous posts in the museum thread: Michael, Mark, me, me again.

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