Technology Helps People Experience AIDS Quilt in Person and Online

By Mitra Sorrells July 11, 2012, 2:57 PM EDT

At the AIDS Memorial Quilt display in Washington, visitors can learn more about the quilt's 25-year history by using an interactive timeline displayed on a touch-screen monitor.

Photo: Photographs by Sherry Moore. Used with Permission

Organizers of the AIDS Memorial Quilt display in Washington this summer are using technology to add interactivity to the event for both in-person and virtual attendees. The Quilt 2012 Digital Experience includes a mobile app, a tabletop browser, and a multimedia timeline, all intended to give people a more personal experience with the quilt that now measures more than 1.3 million square feet and includes 94,000 names.

“The use of social media and mobile Web apps is kind of an expected part of people's experience in public spaces now,” said Anne Balsamo, director of the Quilt 2012 Digital Experience Project. “It goes along with the ubiquitous nature of smart devices. We are augmenting the viewing of the physical quilt and expanding the reach to those who can’t see it in person.”

The technology debuted last month when 8,000 of the 48,000 quilt panels were displayed during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The remaining 40,000 panels will be on display July 21-25 on the National Mall and in 50 venues around the city for an event known as Quilt in the Capital, which coincides with the International AIDS Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. This is the 25th anniversary of the quilt and the first time it has been displayed in its entirety since 1996. The events are sponsored by the Names Project Foundation, the nonprofit organization that maintains and displays the quilt.

The newest interactive platform is the free AIDS Quilt Touch mobile app, which enables users to search for a name on a panel and contribute comments to a digital guest book. For people viewing the display in person, the app provides the location of panels laid out on the Mall.

“The generation we might refer to as the millennials have grown up with an expectation that things are not only available on the Web widely, but that anything that they encounter gets them to the Web easily,” Balsamo said. “When they are out in the world, they expect things will talk back to them and give them an opportunity to access more information. And they also expect that they can engage in social practices—commenting, reading others’ comments, sharing, liking, passing along information.”

The tabletop browser also allows users to search through quilt images but does not include the ability to leave comments or locate panels on display. Visitors will be able to use several tabletop browsers and a 70-inch touch-screen monitor displaying the interactive timeline, which teaches about specific events that have happened in the quilt’s 25-year history.

“We are going to develop this further when we get additional funding to add additional user experiences like being able to zoom among different levels of altitude,” Balsamo said, “from a bird's-eye view of the entire virtual quilt down to the image of a single panel, along with additional search options.”

After the Washington events, the AIDS Quilt Touch mobile Web app will continue to allow people to browse the entire collection of quilt panels, read the stories that have been shared, trace the travels of any single panel, and participate in crowdsourcing information about individual panels.

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