Web Lab – bridging the divide between the online and in-museum experience

Dave Patten, UK


Museums are increasingly looking at ways to join up the in museum experience with the online experience, taking the museum experience beyond the boundaries of the physical building and allowing online visitors into the museum.

Web Lab is, we believe, the first complete exhibition that does this. A series of five physical installations (experiments) are located in Web Lab at the Science Museum. Visitors in the museum an online can interact together with these physical installations. Online visitors like museum visitors interact and control real physical exhibits at the Science Museum. Once the museum closes its doors the whole experience is turned over to the online visitors, creating a true 24 hour museum experience. As well as controlling the exhibits online visitors can see what is happening via Web Lab’s many webcams.

Every visitor to the exhibition, online and in the museum, is represented by a “Lab Tag”: a visual code that can be scanned at each experiment to let users keep track of their activity. Visitors can collect the artifacts that they make at each experiment and view them, again using the “Lab Tag”, when they get home.

Developed by Google and friends from the Science Museum London, Tellart, B-Reel, Fraser Randall, UDS and Bibliothèque. Web Lab is a new kind of museum experience. Open to visitors from around the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Whether in the Museum or online the experiments are controlled through a browser. Everything in Web Lab is written in HTML5 and pushes current web technologies about as far as they will go.

The team faced many challenges bringing Web lab to life. This paper will look at the development and installation of Web Lab and how visitors both at the Science Museum and online have responded to this ground breaking exhibition.

Keywords: internet, exhibition, internet of things, interaction, exhibit

How did Web Lab come about?

Web Lab was conceived by Google Creative Lab and Tellart. The Science Museum was approached early in the process with a view to joining the core team developing and delivering Web Lab and as a hosting venue for the physical elements of the project.
The aim of Web Lab is to inspire and enthuse young people with the increasingly diverse ways that the Web can be used and hopefully to encourage more of them to take up engineering, science and technology courses at school, leading to more people moving into careers in science and technology. It also aims to take people a little bit ‘under the hood’ of the way the modern Web works. We all use the Web and the internet all the time, but few people stop to think about how it works (until it stops working). The internet is a tremendous technical achievement that is changing the way we live, work and play and both the Science Museum and Google are keen to help people deepen their understanding of how it works.

The core objectives overlapped with Museum objectives and we were very excited about the project. As well as meeting some of our own objectives it allowed us to experiment far more quickly than would have been possible without this project. We have been interested in how we can meaningfully join up in-museum and online experiences for some time, and this project offered an opportunity to do this in a very interesting way: i.e. for an entire exhibition instead of a single exhibit (as would probably have been the case if the Museum had done this by itself).

What is Web Lab?

Web Lab is made up of five Chrome experiment installations. Each one brings an aspect of the extraordinary workings of the internet to life and aims to inspire people about the possibilities of the Web.

Figure 1: Web Lab

The installations are in a free public exhibition that will be open for one year (July 2012 – June 2013) at the Science Museum in London. Visitors can interact with the physical experiments at the Science Museum or from anywhere in the world through the http://www.chromeweblab.com website. Web Lab is open 24 hours a day to visitors coming to Web Lab via the website. Providing access to the physical experience 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for a year is, we believe, a first for museums. The exhibition at the Museum is staffed. As well as answering visitors’ questions about the Web and Web Lab, the staff help visitors use the exhibition, brief educational groups and give additional demonstrations to enhance the overall visitor experience. The internet is incredible. For many people it touches almost every aspect of their daily lives, from how we work and who we can easily work with, through to how we entertain ourselves. In less than 15 years the Web has evolved from simple text pages to rich interactive applications and experiences.

The Web was invented in 1990. (http://www.boutell.com/newfaq/history/inventedwebwhen.html) Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first Web browser program in 1991 and since then various people and companies have developed ever more powerful browsers, adding new features and increasing the browsers’ power. Web Lab has been developed to show off the most up-to-date features of a modern Web browser – including technologies such as Canvas, WebGL, WebSockets, etc. All of the software in Web Lab runs in the browser without plug-ins. Everything, both for the online interface and the in-museum kiosk interfaces, is written in HTML5. Web Lab pushes these technologies about as far as they can currently go.

The components of Web Lab

The five Chrome experiments are Data Tracer, Universal Orchestra, Sketchbots, Teleporters and Lab Tag Explorer (which actually contains two major elements the Lab Tag Explorer and the Lab Tag Writer). As well as the experiments in the physical exhibition there are also Lab Tag dispensers. These are all described below.

Lab Tag dispensers

The Lab Tag dispensers are not actually one of the experiments. They are the way visitors in the Museum can get a uniquely identifiable tag they can use to save the things they create at each experiment. Visitors can then explore their creations at the Lab Tag Explorer experiment as well as online when they get home.

At the Lab Tag dispenser, the visitor is invited to press a button and the dispenser produces a Lab Tag. This is a card with a unique graphic tag (the visitor’s Web Lab identity), a machine-readable code (which can be read by each experiment and at home via a webcam), a numeric code (in case the visitor has no webcam at home) and some instructions on how to use the Lab Tag. Visitors can use all the experiments in Web Lab without a Lab Tag if they wish, but if they do not have one they cannot save any of the things they create. Visitors to Web Lab online need to log into the site using a Gmail account.

Lab Tag Writer

The Lab Tag Writer consists of two main components: a large vertical screen and a horizontal glass wall. The large vertical screen acts as both an attractor and introduction to the exhibition. It is a large vertical projection screen visible from the ground floor of the Museum. It carries the title of the exhibition and a real-time count of the number of users who are currently online in Web Lab. The screen is visible from both sides and as it is important that Museum visitors can see this content from both sides, the text animates and frequently reverses so that people on both sides of the screen can read it easily.
Each time a new user joins Web Lab online, a unique visual tag is created. These tags are introduced at the top of the screen and drop down it to enter Web Lab, in the Museum’s basement (analogous to visitors entering the exhibition). The effect is to help draw physical visitors down to the exhibition and at the same time make them aware they are joining  something – although at this point they may not know what they are joining.

Figure 2: Lab Tag Writer

The online visitors’ tags created for the vertical screen flow into the large display that visitors at the Museum see before they enter the main part of the Web Lab exhibition space. This consists of a back-projection system and a large robot. Its projection system projects visitors’ tags and information about them – such as how many people are currently online, how many people are using a particular experiment, or how many people are online from a particular continent. The robot draws on the walls and is used to organise the tags in various ways. For example, the robot may draw an outline of Europe and then all of the tags of visitors who are from Europe will move into the drawn outline.
The key aims of the Lab Tag Writer are to help physical visitors understand they are about to enter an exhibition that is already being used by lots of people online, and to help them understand the global nature of Web Lab.

Lab Tag Explorer

Lab Tag Explorer lets visitors explore the things they have created in Web Lab. They can watch the video of  the Sketchbot drawing their face, listen to the music they helped make at the Universal Orchestra, see the their search from the Data Tracer and look at the snapshots they took whilst using the Teleporter. Visitors can also see everything that everyone else has created in Web Lab. Again this reinforces the fact they are sharing the Web Lab experience with lots of other people, both at the Museum and online. Lab Tag Explorer also prepares them for what they need to do to use their Lab Tags when they get home.

Universal Orchestra

Universal Orchestra is a collection of eight real physical instruments located in the Museum. Four of these instruments are dedicated to online visitors and four are dedicated to Museum visitors when the Museum is open. When the Museum is closed all eight instruments are available to online users.

Because there are only eight physical instruments, online users are given the option of joining a virtual orchestra (as many as necessary can be created to cope with much larger numbers of online users) or to join a queue to play a physical instrument in the Museum.

Figure 3: Universal Orchestra

Visitors, both online and in the Museum, play the instruments by arranging notes on a sequencer score. As a synchronised playback head moves across the score it triggers the selected note on an instrument. As well as seeing their own instrument on the score, visitors can also see any other instruments that are playing too.
Visitors who have tagged in are given the option to record the music they, and the other people in their orchestra, create, and to save it to listen to and share later.
In the Museum, visitors can see the country that each online user is playing from – helping to reinforce the message that they are sharing Web Lab with visitors from around the world.


The Sketchbots are eight physical robots located in the Museum. Four of them are dedicated to online users and four to Museum users when the Museum is open. When the Museum is closed, all eight Sketchbots are available to online users.
The Sketchbots take a photograph of the visitor’s face and then instruct a robot to draw that image in sand.

Figure 4: Sketchbots

Figure 5: Sketchbot drawing

Once visitors have taken their image, they can watch as the computer processes it so that a robot can draw it. To achieve this the computer has to do a number of things. It has to check that it has taken a picture of a face (and not something else), find the face within the picture, line up and crop the face, turn it into a black-and-white image, boost the contrast, find the edges and then turn the result into a series of lines that can be sent to the robot to draw. All of this – with the exception of checking if the image is actually a face – is done directly in the browser using a technology called Canvas.


The Teleporters look at how the modern Web allows us to visit faraway places in almost real time. There are three Teleporter cameras – custom-designed video cameras capable of videoing across 360 degrees, one in each of three locations around the world: Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg, Germany; the Two Oceans Aquarium in South Africa; and Amelie’s Bakery in the USA. These cameras allow lots of people to view their video stream at the same time, with each person seeing a different ‘window’ onto the stream.

Figure 6: Teleporter

In the Museum are three physical viewers, each showing the view from one of the cameras. These viewers enable visitors to pan around the remote video stream, and if they have tagged in at the experiment they can take snapshots to view and share later.
To help reinforce the fact that the in-museum visitors are sharing this experience with the online visitors, each physical viewer has an associated collection of tablets (of varying sizes) nearby where snapshots taken by visitors in the Museum and online can be viewed. Touching a snapshot on a tablet reveals where the person who took the snapshot was and when the snapshot was taken. The tablets are all Android tablets set up to run the snapshot viewing software automatically.

Data Tracer

The Data Tracer looks at how information moves around the internet. Most people do not give a second’s thought to what happens when they click on a link on a Web page or search for something in Google. How does your browser know where to go to get the information requested?

Data Tracer uses image searches to illustrate what happens. Visitors are given the choice of a number of images that can be searched for. These images are stored in different places around the world. When visitors choose an image they are directed to look at a large map of the world and the first packet of data is plotted on this map. This shows which computers, countries and continents the request has to travel through to reach the image.

Figure 7: Data Tracer

As well as seeing the trace of the image they have selected, visitors also see all of the other searches being carried out by people using the Data Tracer experiment both in the Museum and via the website. Again this helps reinforce the idea of doing something with lots of other people, some in the Museum and some online. When visitors do the search online they ‘fly’ across the world, following the trace route to their chosen image. If they tag in at this experiment the searches are saved for them to revisit and share later.

The Web Experience

The Web Experience has two modes of use. If you have visited the exhibition at the Science Museum you can ‘log in’ using your physical Lab Tag – either by using a webcam, if you have one, to read the machine-readable code on the Lab Tag or by entering the Lab Tag’s  unique serial number. Once you have done this you can explore the things that you created in Web Lab.

People who have not visited the exhibition can interact with all of the experiments through their browser. Web Lab has been designed to showcase the power of modern open Web browsers and works best when viewed using Chrome – although most elements of Web Lab work well under Firefox or Safari. Older browsers or more proprietary browsers such as Internet Explorer cannot view the interactive experiments but can see videos of them working in the Museum.

When visitors enter Web Lab, a unique tag is created for them. They can use all of the experiments, but if they want to save the things they create, they must log on with a Google sign-in (the Web Lab site will help those who do not already have one to set one up). Once visitors have signed in as well as saved the things they created with each experiment, they can share their creations with friends using Google+, Facebook or Twitter.

There are lots of webcams in Web Lab that allow visitors to see the actual experiment in the Museum they are interacting with. For example, when playing one of the instruments in the orchestra they can see a real-time video feed of that instrument so that they can see what happens when they play it. They can also use the webcams to see what is going on at other experiments in Web Lab.

As well as being able to interact with the physical experiments in Web Lab and watch the ‘how it works’ animations, visitors can also explore the browser technology that makes that experiment possible. For example they can see how the Data Tracer experiment uses WebGl to generate the 3D map they fly through when following their image search.

How It Works (explanatory animations)

As part of Web Lab, the Science Museum commissioned a series of five animations, one per experiment, to explain key concepts behind the experiments. The Museum created the content concepts and then worked with the agency ATP (Across the Pond) to develop the animations. These animations appear on screen in the exhibition by each experiment and also form part of the ‘how it works’ section of the website.

Bridging the divide

In order to bridge the divide between the online and in-museum experience, we wanted Web Lab to be a space that in museum and online visitors shared. To achieve this each experiment needs not only to work for in-museum and online visitors, but also to help visitors understand that they are sharing Web Lab and the experiments with other visitors, and that those other visitors can be either in the Museum or anywhere in the world online. This is dealt with differently online and in the Museum, and also varies from experiment to experiment. In the Museum, we tried to give the online visitors a physical presence, whilst online you can ‘see’ into the physical space via its many webcams.

Lab Tag Writer in the Museum lets visitors to the physical exhibition see a representation of the online visitors (their Lab Tags). These are constantly reorganised in various ways to give visitors a sense of where the online visitors who are currently in Web Lab are from and what they are doing. Its purpose is to give visitors to the exhibition a sense that they are about to enter a space and join in with people who are online. Online, Lab Tag Writer forms the introduction to Web Lab. Visitors see their Lab Tag created in the middle of the screen while other visitors’ Lab Tags flow down either side of the screen. Once visitors have created their Lab Tag they automatically move into Web Lab.

In the Museum both Sketchbots and Universal Orchestra take a similar approach: four devices for in-museum use with appropriate interfaces and four devices for use by online visitors. The devices being used by online visitors are clearly labelled and the on-screen interface tells the in-museum visitors where these experiments are being used from. Each instrument in the Universal Orchestra is colour-coded. When you are using the Universal Orchestra you can see your notes as large coloured circles on the sequencer timeline and all of the other visitor’s notes appear as smaller coloured circles.

The Teleporters use a collection of tablet devices located next to the Teleporter viewers to show snapshots taken using the Teleporters. These snapshots let visitors see where the person who took the snapshot is located.

Data Tracer shows all active trace routes on a large 3D projected map in the exhibition space. In-museum traceroutes are colour coded and online users’ traces are shown in grey. Online you can see the traces being made by both other online users and by museum users. You can also see a live view of the physical map in the museum via one of Web Labs many webcams.

The in-museum and online versions of Lab Tag Explorer are very similar, both letting visitors explore the things that other Web Lab visitors have created and where those visitor were when they created the artefacts.

It is really interesting to note that we have seen a number of people using their mobile phones to video conference with friends outside the exhibition so that they can coordinate their collaboration when using the Universal Orchestra.

The development process

The development process was highly collaborative and iterative, and included many design reviews as well as exhibit prototyping and testing. Given the time from concept to opening and the international nature of the team (with people working on the project based in London, Amsterdam, Rhode Island and San Francisco), it would have been difficult to complete the project without using collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Hangouts. Regular Hangouts were essential to keep everyone updated on progress and to enable them to take part in development discussions. Using Google Docs was for me a revelation – allowing everyone to collaborate in real time on documents, most notably on  the design brief.

Figure 8: Sketchbot prototype being tested at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Launching in beta

We always test individual exhibits during the development cycle, but often the first time we can assess how well exhibits work together within the context of an exhibition is when we open it to the public.

The team decided to open Web Lab in beta. This allowed us to see how everything worked together and to carry on tweaking software and changing physical attributes of both the website and the exhibition in response to visitor feedback (from both in-museum and online visitors). Online visitors could complete a questionnaire and a similar version of this was used by gallery staff to gather in-museum feedback. Responses were then analysed and changes made (within a set of priorities and budgetary constraints).

The future

The exhibition opened in June 2012 and has been very popular. In just six months we have had over 4.3 million online visitors to the exhibition online and over 200,000 people have visited the exhibition at the Museum.

The partners have continued to update and improve the software. We have commissioned visitor evaluation of the in-museum experience and this is being carried out in January and February 2013.

Museum staff are working on a number of demonstrations that support the experiments, helping to both broaden and deepen visitor understanding of the way the Web works.
We are also planning a number of experiments looking at different ways of using the exhibition, including facilitated live video linkups with educational groups (using Google Hangouts) to enable them to experience both the website and the physical gallery at the same time.

The team that worked on Web Lab are also exploring the possibility of making some or all of Web Lab open source – not just the code but the drawings and concepts too. There is a very strong desire from all involved to do this; we are just looking at how much additional work would be required to make the results of the project usable by others.

The Museum is looking at how it can incorporate all it has learned from this project in its ongoing practice: from the way teams can use collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Hangouts during the exhibition development process, to opening exhibitions in beta to allow final testing and development to take place before the big opening event. Web Lab has also given the Museum the confidence that moving its interactive development onto HTML5 is both achievable and desirable. We are currently reviewing our exhibition development process and looking at ways of incorporating much of what we learned whilst working on the project.

The project is far from over and the intention was always to use the exhibition as a platform to experiment with new forms of engagement. The visitor and online figures suggest the exhibition has been very popular with the public and we are looking forward to seeing the results of the formal evaluation, which is currently under way.


I would like to think that the exhibition could only have been realised by the unique combination of partners that contributed to the project. I wish to offer our special thanks to Google for inviting us to participate in this project. I believe the collaboration has done much more than just make a great exhibition. Working with Google was inspiring. The way they work is very different from the way museums usually work and we learned so much from the experience.

Web Lab was made by Google with some friends at:

Science Museum
Universal Design Studio
Fraser Randall
Karsten Schmidt
Weir & Wong


Cite as:
D. Patten, Web Lab – bridging the divide between the online and in-museum experience. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 4, 2013. Consulted .

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