A beacon that's about the size of a smoke detector, hidden in LACMA's Coffee & Milk cafe, emits signals via Bluetooth. If you're sitting at the cafe and using LACMA's app on an iPhone or iPad, you might receive a notification, which will tell you you're near Jesús Rafael Soto's sculpture Penetrable, those long yellow plastic tubes suspended from a steel frame. Kids run through the tubes regularly, but they might not know, say, that Soto was from Venezuela and started making interactive sculptures in the 1950s, though he made this particular one in 1990, when he was nearing 70. The app explains this.

But if you tried looking for that alert, wandering around the sculpture with your device of choice, you might not have any luck.

“It can be tricky to do it that way,” says Tomas Garcia, the museum's web content manager, who installs and maintains the beacons, which LACMA has been using since last spring. The alerts are supposed to come to you. In the cafe, the idea was that people would be relaxing, wondering what to do next, maybe sitting with their phones out in front of them.

Amy Heibel, LACMA's vice president of technology, says the museum can control the radius of the alerts; often you have to be within a few feet of a beacon to receive a notification. “It's pretty precise in that way,” she says.

Visitors can't see the beacons; they're under counters or inserted into walls. “We don't want clutter,” Heibel says. And there are only about 15 to 20 on campus right now, which, given the museum's sprawling size, isn't many.

“People shouldn't feel like they're being pummeled,” Heibel explains.

They should feel instead that they're being nudged, pointed to features at the museum almost seamlessly. “We don't want people going around staring at their phones,” Garcia says.

Pass by the ticket booths and the alert announces, “You are standing in the museum's main public plaza. Did you know the LACMA campus includes great outdoor sculptures you can see for free?”

The Guggenheim Museum in New York has its own beacon program under development, and other museums that don't have beacons, notably the Dallas Museum of Art, have been encouraging people to check in at different on-campus locations, so that museum administrators can better track visitors' traffic patterns.

LACMA has adapted a version of the Dallas program, too, for its children's membership group, NexGen, offering kids and families a chance to earn points by participating in learning activities via their phones. But LACMA is a pioneer of the beacon technology, which is new to the corporate world as well as the museum world, and feels especially sci-fi because the notifications come unexpectedly.

LACMA began working with its proximity-sensing program, called Gimbal, during its testing phase. Its developer, Qualcomm, had been trying Gimbal in sports stadiums: It installed beacons near the gift shop at the Miami Dolphins' stadium, for example, to tell people with the DolphinsPass app that certain merchandise was on sale.

Heibel met Peter Marx, then the head of Qualcomm's research and development department, when both were participating in a program at USC's Annenberg Innovation Lab a couple years ago. She wanted to improve LACMA's mobile website; he was interested in trying out his technology in different contexts. So Qualcomm donated beacons and the Gimbal program to the museum. (Gimbal is now its own company, run by former Qualcomm staffers, while Marx is the city of L.A.'s first chief innovation technology officer.)

Urban Insight, the company that had worked on LACMA's app and collections website, tweaked Gimbal to fit LACMA's specific needs. Those needs included an ability to update the technology to give alerts during specific times — if, say, a workshop or lecture was going on one day — or to fit specific exhibitions. When “Van Gogh to Kandinsky” was up last fall, the museum installed a beacon to alert people entering the show that a mobile tour was available. Urban Insight developed a web interface that LACMA's tech team could use to make quick updates.

But why have such an in-depth mobile presence at a museum? Why not let people ask gallery attendants if they have questions, or go on docent tours if they want more information? Doesn't fiddling with an iPhone distract from your museum experience?

“We're responding to our audience,” says Scott Tennent, LACMA's director of social media, standing in the museum's BP Pavilion, near the Urban Light sculpture.

Credit: Courtesy of LACMA

Credit: Courtesy of LACMA

Tennent doesn't work with the beacons directly, but he knows mobile technology and museums better than most. When he arrived at LACMA eight years ago, the museum barely had a Facebook presence. Now LACMA uses Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and, most recently, Snapchat, creating fleeting memes for its followers by, for instance, superimposing Beyoncé's lyrics from “Single Ladies” over the photo of a male nude sculpted by Rodin.

“People used to walk around with phones in their pockets,” Tennent notes. Now they walk around with phones in their hands. He points out someone who's probably sending a text. One guy has a tablet in his hand while the woman he's with examines the menu at the Ray & Stark bar across the way. “At a certain point, it became an extension of people,” he adds.

Tennent's department interacts with the people responding to the museum — tweeting about their visits, posting pictures. But, he says, “They're not tweeting at us saying, 'Where's the European art collection?'”

The LACMA app, which launched around 2011, was meant to help with wayfinding, as signs, maps and wall labels would. Typically, several hundred visitors each day have the app, Heibel says.

Her department can track whether these people engage with the alerts the beacons send and, through the beacons, get a better sense of which parts of the museum they visit. (None of the data they receive identifies individuals.)

When LACMA started using the beacons, some of the biggest problems were not with the software but with the physical buildings. The beacons could send signals through concrete and rebar, so an alert meant for just the third floor of a building might get sent through the floor if the range of the beacon was even slightly too large. Signals also could go haywire if they came into contact with sheet metal — at one point, an alert meant for the Ahmanson Building ended up reaching visitors in the Art of the Americas building across the courtyard.

Those kinks are mostly worked out, and Gimbal has improved the software so that it can detect a faulty signal. “The failures are invisible,” Heibel says of the current version. “If the technology doesn't work, the only thing that really happens is you don't get an alert.”

The museum is preparing to incorporate the beacons into the Android version of its app, which means Garcia has been out on the campus with up to six Android phones at once, seeing how long it takes each to get the right updates.

Every few weeks, the tech team will walk through the museum, discussing whether people would want alerts about certain artworks, events or tours. “Most people will,” Heibel says. “It's what they're doing in a museum.”

Catherine Wagley on Twitter

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