Korean pop group BTS broke records when their virtual concert in 2020 reached a peak of 756,000 viewers, wrote Variety. Despite being in the middle of the pandemic, the musical group showed that technology could keep content flowing.

The National Heritage Board (NHB) of Singapore also had to adapt to engage its audience. It incorporated ‘phygital’ – a blend of physical and digital – experiences to create more immersive experiences for visitors. People-facing government services can learn from this journey.

Mohamed Hardi, NHB’s Chief Information Officer and Director of the IT Division, shares how the organisation is innovating to keep Singapore’s heritage relevant, and how other agencies may follow.

Creating phygital experiences

“We need heritage to remain relevant in the digital age,” says Hardi. Young people today are “very tech savvy” and familiar with multimedia, VR and gaming. In response, NHB looked to create ‘phygital’ experiences, where the digital and physical realms work in tandem.

One use of phygital experiences is to help visitors become immersed in exhibits without having to be in the museum. NHB introduced a digital twin of the permanent galleries of the Asian Civilisation Museum, which brought visitors along on VR tours.

The board also developed the Roots.sg portal to act as a “one stop digital concierge” for Singapore’s arts, Hardi says. The site uses AI to bring together information from Singapore’s National Library Board and Esplanade Theatre, two institutions in the arts and culture scene.

This allows the site to respond to visitors’ queries with additional information. For example, if a visitor searches for a musical artist, the system would display where the artist has performed previously and whether they are the subject of a film he shares.

AI is also used in the museum’s chatbots, which can accompany visitors as they explore the exhibits, says Hardi. Language processing will analyse visitors’ speech and recommend other historical topics related to their queries, he explains.

NHB is borrowing tech expertise from other public agencies to enhance its exhibits. For instance, it has partnered with Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to supply 5G and high speed connectivity in exhibits. This means visitors can interact with digital services around the museum without any lagging speeds, adding to the immersive experience, he explains.

The board also worked with GovTech to introduce IoT in museums. Sensors could pick up how long visitors stay at a particular exhibit, so curators may find out which ones are more popular, he notes.

Data for personalised experiences

Creating an enthralling virtual exhibit is more than a fun and flashy undertaking. NHB’s experiments with new tech may hold lessons for government agencies looking to engage citizens better.

Where previously “the digital bit has always been secondary”, technology now plays a key role in relationship building with visitors, Hardi notes.

Agencies such as the Central Provident Fund Board may not require immersive experience tools. But it’s still important for its customer service centre to access citizen’s profiles and check their account balances, he shares.

NHB uses visitor data to get a better idea of their “profile and preferences”. Having this information on hand allows the board to personalise interactions, like the kind of high-quality relationship building that is seen in private banking, Hardi explains.

Responding to the pandemic and future projects

Covid-19 was a “turbo boost” for the board’s digitalisation initiatives, says Hardi. During the circuit breaker period in Singapore where citizens were encouraged to remain at home, the board “had to quickly pivot to digital offerings” to take the content and experience online, he continues.

During that period, NHB’s DigiMuse initiative held an open call for local creatives to create bitesize content to celebrate Singapore’s heritage. One group created 3D AR models of artefacts, such as a locally made television show from the 60s, to celebrate Singapore’s heritage.

The board looks to create more phygital experiences in the future, inspired by Estonia’s ‘smart museums’. One example is the Adamson-Eric Museum which provides games and allows for visitors to see paintings come to life on tablet devices.

Singaporeans can expect to be able to interact with walls and glass panels rather than basic computer screens at the Founders Memorial building. The amphitheatre structure that honours Singapore’s pioneer leaders will be completed by 2027, according to the Straits Times.

The cultural and arts scene can learn from how NHB has incorporated phygital experiences into its traditional exhibits to create a unique experience. Not only that, but its strategy for strengthening relationships is something public sector agencies could follow.