New ways of seeing

Tate Modern is using PDAs as exhibition guides. But can they add anything to the art? Sandra Vogel tries out the multimedia tour

I've just spent an afternoon at Tate Modern in London with a Compaq iPAQ handheld computer hanging round my neck. I was viewing the Still Life/Object/Real Life exhibition. Or, rather, I was viewing, listening to and on occasion interacting with it. The iPAQs are on trial at Tate Modern for three months. If they pass, they could one day replace the audio guides commonly found in art galleries and other attractions throughout the UK. Goodbye, narrators talking at you to explain this and that about the exhibits. Hello, multimedia, interactive, sound-and-vision-rich interpretation.

The use of multimedia in museums is nothing new. The earliest examples are simple texts put adjacent to works indoors, and on "interpretation boards" outside. Audio guides are a more modern notion and allow the blending of speech, music and sounds to deliver information and context.

But the Tate Modern's iPAQ multimedia tour is a first in several ways. As far as Tate Modern's interpretation curator Jane Burton is aware, this is the first time multimedia has been beamed across a wireless (802.11b) network to deliver content relevant to an exhibit. Software on the iPAQs communicates with the data servers across the network, telling it where you are. Then when you tap the screen it sends the information to the iPAQ.

The company that developed this tour, Antenna, has also experienced a first. It has a long history of producing and managing audio tours, and its clients include some of the biggest names in the museum world, but the company had not worked with a wireless PDA before.

Loan of the iPAQs is free, but users must complete a questionnaire so that Burton can gather information about what works and what doesn't. Nine works have had the multimedia treatment. This is a small proportion of the exhibition, but enough to let Burton try out various approaches.

For example, while I was trying to accept that a urinal was art, as Marcel Duchamp would have me believe, I tapped at the iPAQ, which gave me a narrated background to his approach, and a few examples of other works. It was a relaxed first stop – really little more than audio guide stuff plus a few pictures. Moving on to another room I looked at Georges Braque's Cubist painting Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece, and was able to get an animation on the iPAQ showing how elements can be brought together to make a picture in the Cubist style. It made understanding the art form and the picture a little easier.

Sarah Lucas's "in-your-face" exploration of gender stereotypes benefited from a number of video vox-pops, while Damien Hirst's Pharmacy was discussed by a real pharmacist as I clicked on a 360-degree panoramic view of it, and (as an homage to Eduardo Paolozzi's collages) I was able to make my own audio collage by selecting various sounds and putting them together.

There were glitches. In some cases the streaming video failed to get to the iPAQ, leaving me with a "pink screen". On other occasions narration failed to get to me. The causes are difficult to pin down – is it the way Macromedia's Flash for Pocket PC works? Maybe. Problems were often put down to the way Microsoft's Pocket PC 2002 operating system hangs on to memory it has used rather than releasing it for re-use. The annoyance could be greater for those with their own wireless Pocket PCs: my Toshiba e570 with its Socket WLAN Compact Flash card couldn't piggyback on the system because of security concerns and the need for the client software that enables location sensing. The user interface is not all it could be, either – the tappable icons don't always have the clearest meaning.

But the multimedia tour has potential.The learning curve is steep, both in terms of what non-techie users expect, and of what the technology can deliver. There is a mismatch between the two due to the technology's shortcomings, but that won't last for ever. In the short term, a move to newer iPAQs running faster Intel XScale processors is likely, as is a user interface redesign. Later, faster networking and improved software will doubtless help iron out the problems. By next year I expect things to be vastly improved. And in case you're wondering, thanks to the contextualising and explanation the iPAQ delivered, I've decided Duchamp's urinal might be art after all.

Visit Tate Modern's Still Life/Object/ Real Life exhibition before the end of September for a free trial of the iPAQ