For three weeks this April, visitors to Vancouver’s Granville Island will be able to take part in an experiment fusing mobile computing with tourism that may shape the way we use portable devices to interact with our environment
in the future.
The re:call project is a research study by Mobile MUSE (for Media-rich Urban Shared Experience), a collaborative, industry-driven group that with federal government support is examining the ways people can use mobile applications to share information and get where they’re going.
Julie Zilber, who heads Mobile MUSE’s memory team, said her team was asked to look at what memory means in the context of a mobile, location-aware, media-rich application. They identified personal memory, as well as shared, collective and professional memory.
“We wanted to make an application that would incorporate memory in all of those senses into an experience that would enhance people’s sense of being in a particular place at a particular time,” said Zilber.
They came up with a mobile application and decided to test it at Granville Island, a popular destination for both tourists and residents with a wealth of artistic, cultural, dining and historic attractions, in the heart of Vancouver.
During a three-week trial, visitors will be able to borrow a PDA and use it while they explore the island. They’re using the HP iPaq 3715 with a larger screen size, built in camera and Wi-Fi capability that Zilber said isn’t yet available in Canada.
Zilber said eventually people will use their own PDAs, but since they’re thinking five years down the road and didn’t want to limit features for the trial they’ll need to borrow one of Mobile MUSE’s PDAs.
Wi-Fi hot spots have been installed throughout the island, so the device will always know where it is located, and will offer features to the user based on location. If there’s something interesting nearby the device will point it out and offer more information, including a multimedia presentation. The team worked with a local historian to develop the historical content.
There’s also more practical content, such as restaurant and play information, like the nearest place to get a cup of coffee.
“The assumption, and it’s part of what we’re testing, is that if someone wants a coffee they don’t want to have to walk far to get it,” said Zilber. “What does nearby actually mean in a mobile context?”
There is also an interactive component. People will be able to leave audio or text comments on attractions and restaurants, give star ratings, and all that information will be available to other visitors. Photos can also be taken with the built-in camera, and each picture will be stamped with time and location, and linked to presentations on attractions that were nearby. All this information will be available online in a personal Web journal that people can access later.
From a technical point of view, Zilber said Granville Island presented some challenges. One thing they didn’t consider at the start is the fact most of the buildings there are clad in metal.
“That of course played havoc with our estimation of how may access points we were going to need to make this happen,” said Zilber. “It was probably one of the most challenging venues we could have chosen from a technical point of view.”
Still, content-wise it’s a great location and Zilber said they’re looking forward to getting the results of the study and taking it to the next level.
“We have some interesting ideas,” said Zilber. “We’d like to develop the community of interest, sharing, what that looks like in a mobile environment and what makes it different then, say, logging online.”
Granville Island programming manager Gloria Loree said they turn down a lot of commercial requests to test products on the island, but the technology here really interested them.
“This is a very different type of request,” said Loree. “When we looked at the various players supporting it, both financially and professionally. It’s a real power-house team behind the project.”
Loree said they’re looking forward to seeing how technology can help them deliver their own information services. They have an information centre on the island that has gotten less and less foot traffic over the years, while hits on the Web site keep rising.
“We know people still want to receive information; they just don’t want to walk over to an information centre,” said Loree. “This type of technology seems able to bring a wealth of information to the client wherever they are on the island, and that’s very exciting.”
What’s also exciting is that it’s not just static information, but can be as dynamic as the content developer. It’s the next generation of the museum audio tour, but instead of following a pre-set tour people can choose their own path, and interact with other visitors past and future. They can also take home a record of their visit.
Loree said bringing these ideas to mobile devices seems to be a natural progression.
“We’re excited and we’re eagerly looking forward to what develops,” said Loree. “The possibilities seem pretty vast, I’d like to see how it can get tailored for destinations like Granville Island.”