[Yes, this post may seem familiar to long time readers. I’ve edited it and reposted it because, a) its a good post, and deserves to be read; and, b) I’m submitting this version for publication. Forgive my hubris.]
Lets cut to the chase. There are a LOT of companies out there selling (or trying to sell) smartphone based apps for visitors on site. The allure of mobile apps is difficult to deny. The museum/heritage site doesn’t have to lease expensive proprietary technology, dedicate space to storing and charging the same, or have infrastructure/staffing in place to hand out and collect these expensive bits of tech. Not only that, if everybody is bringing a screen with them, the museum can save money on screens around to the galleries to display video. Those little screens can be used to augment reality. They can adapt to offer everything from simple kids trails to in-depth information. Audio can be piped directly to the visitor’s ears, without speakers and ambient music adding noise pollution to the list of things that irritate other visitors.
And surely most enticing of all, the museum can make use of archives, oral histories and content that there simply wouldn’t be space for, in the physical realm. Without having to spend on the hardware, cultural heritage sites can invest in putting their hidden stories, collections and archives into user’s hands, creating compelling content.
But is mobile content that compelling?
I’m not denying that some people want to use a smartphone (or Google Glass) to enable a better understanding of a place. But I am saying the majority of visitors really don’t want to use a smartphone or any other mobile device when they are on site. And why would they? They have travelled to, and are immersed in one of the most significant/beautiful/interesting places they know. Why would they want to look at any part of it through a four (or five, or six, or nine) inch screen?
It turns out that smartphones (and tablets, but from now on, just read “mobile devices” when I write “smartphones”, or even “phones”) are not seen by their users as a cheap and personal way for people to interact with the space they are in. Look around you, wherever you are reading this. If you are on a train or bus, you’ll see people passing time reading, watching or playing with their phones. If the conversation is flagging in a social situation it may be that people have their phones out and are checking twitter or Facebook. They are using their phones to transport themselves away from the place they are in.
From the moment Alexander Graham Bell said “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” phones have always been a method of teleportation – into the next room in Bell’s case, but nowadays back to our homes or places of work, closer to absent friends, around the globe, and even into virtual worlds. Even the act of taking a photograph (which some might argue is an interaction with your surroundings) is an act of transportation, whether it’s to your friends’ sides as you Tweet the image, or back to your home where you are already in the future, remembering this scene.
There’s nothing wrong with using your phone to remove yourself from a space of course. This isn’t a rant against mobile devices. I have no problem with people using their phones at concerts (which seems to fill some others with irrational hatred), or at cultural heritage sites, if they want to take a photograph or remove themselves to the great reference library that is the internet, or to tell a friend what a great time they are having. But lets make no bones about it, when a visitor to a site uses a phone, even if its to hear Stephen Fry (or some equally capable voice talent) tell them a story about the place, they are removing themselves from their surroundings*.
And most people don’t want that. They have come to this place (they may even have used their phones to help transport them to this place – with on-line bookings or GPS route-finding) to be in the place.
So why do we offer them an app on a device that transports them away? Because of the interactivity? The ability to chose what you want to read about, listen to, or watch? Even the most passive visitor interacts with a place simply by choosing how to wander around it. Our visitors are making choices all the time. Their day is full of choices. Very, very rarely do we ever get feedback from a visitor along the lines of “I really wanted to make more decisions.”
The interactivity is inherent in the cultural heritage visit. Museums shouldn’t need to spend money on technology to make the visit more interactive, what they need to work on is making the place more responsive.
So when the phone user does want to take his phone out to look something up, a responsive site makes it easy for him (or her) to connect to the internet, to find the information s/he needs (however unpredictable his/her needs may be) and to download it. Custom apps for smartphones are sold to heritage sites for tens of thousands of pounds. It would surely cost a lot less simply to make sure there’s a pervasive wifi signal and a pointer to the place’s website and/or on-line catalogue.
Once that’s in place, then we can build something that works with visitors’ phone to enable the site to be even more responsive, while keeping the visitors firmly immersed in the place, and their phones in their pockets:
A phone regularly sends out a little signal that says “I’m this phone and I’m here.” Recent developments in Bluetooth LE only add granularity to that message. It only take’s the visitor’s consent and the site’s IT infrastructure to turn the signal into “I’m this visitor, and this is where I’ve been.” And that information enables the site to be far more responsive, relevant, to understand the visitor’s interests, to make connections with what they’ve already seen, to tell better stories.
To better connect the visitor with the place.
Which is what we’re all here for, isn’t it?
*There’s some strength in the argument that an audio tour is better at not getting between the visitor and what they are looking at – if only because our ears are behind our eyes, so with headphones on it always sounds like Stephen Fry (or whoever the presenter might be) is standing just behind your shoulder.