Reality Check

On a few occasions we have had guest bloggers on IBD. We have done our best to keep it from happening since these “guests” just make us look stupid. Today is one of those days. We have a guest blog from IBD readers Colin MacArthur and Fabio Fraticelli. They were members of the 2010 Acadia National Park Youth Technology Team, a Friends of Acadia sponsored effort to envision the technological future of Acadia. Today Colin and Fabio are also principals at Almond Consultants.

So, by employing a tactic that I learned in high school, I will do my best to neutralize this perceived threat by undermining their presence by making comments under my breath or in today’s case in parenthesis and blue. It has worked well for me in past keeping me from being beat up 7 out of 10 attempts (two times I ran, and one time I got hurt). See how that works, it’s easy.

Seriously we are glad to share their expertise and experience here (plus it keeps you from having to read another one my irrelevant posts). I like this article because I think it will get some of you personal interpretive purists worked up.

Augmented Reality: Necessary Science Fiction?

When I first introduced the idea of augmented reality (also known as AR, not to be confused with the State of AR where Shea lives in a perpetual state of AR) to one of my older interpreter colleagues, she furrowed her brow and replied: “Augmenting reality, isn’t that what we already do every day?” She pressed on, “All these booklets we write, all this signage we design, all these exhibits we compile. Aren’t they augmenting reality? What’s the point of augmenting reality with a cell phone?” The techno-interpreter in me fumbled as I realized I couldn’t justify using a multi-thousand dollar cell phone app to identify the plants a 50 cent booklet could. (As with most of my conversations with women, I would have said because it is really cool and I like it, and run away cackling. Don’t knock it until you try it.)

To hear some, augmented reality enabled visitors will soon replace my uniformed colleagues, their signs and classic plastic tubs of interpretive props. (Why is it that most everything I do, like, or use today considered “classic” or “vintage”?) Smartphone armed visitors will train their phones on everything along the path to be greeted with interactive explanations, video clips and related social network postings. The National Mall’s new app. previews AR’s capabilities. When visitors point their iPad or iPhone cameras at monuments and buildings, they are annotated with their name and links to relevant information. (My mom taught me that it isn’t nice to point.) And apps like Peak Finder match illustrations and diagrams with the surrounding landscape.

But why spend hours creating AR tools? Interpreters spend hours planning and creating experiences for visitors. AR is one of a growing number of technological tools that helps visitors create experiences for themselves. Instead of following the guided booklet descriptions or reading a wayside sign, visitors using augmented reality find out more about whatever piques their interest. The media itself rewards curiosity and adventurousness. In short, AR creates opportunities for visitors to investigate what interests them instead of what interests us.

Augmented reality tools can also lower the cost to delivering personalized visitor experiences. For example, an AR app for Acadia National Park could let visitors pick which spots they learn more about. Some visitors could opt to explore cultural history, others geology. (By the way, that geology guy is a hoot to party with.)

How could you augment reality in parks to mold experiences to visitor preferences? We’ve thought about creating augmented reality tools that show:

● info about flora, fauna and culture resources of a specific landscape with detailed images and videos;

● past pictures of buildings for example history pin; (not to be confused with Pinterest which is great for the craft challenged.)

● pictures of landscapes in different period of the year which is good for phrenology;

● comments of other visitors about a specific resource which is good for social interaction;

These opportunities come at a cost. Not only a cost to parks, but to the visitor. (Okay, personal interpretive purist, here’s your chance.) Augmented reality enabled phones constantly use both internet and GPS signals ickly lose battery life. And until someone comes out with a set of useful “developer toolkits,” that the cake mix developers use to speed up their time developing complicated applications, augmented reality will remain extremely expensive.

But you can still try it at home! An increasing number of low-to-no cost services allow you to experiment with augmented reality. All you need is your smart phone and an internet connection.

The list of “off the shelf” augmented reality tools is long and increasing. We tried Layar, “an industry pioneer, which hosts the world’s leading mobile augmented reality platform with thousands of developers and content layers, and over 10 million installs of the Layar Reality Browser.” Layar ships with many Android OS devices, so it’s got a built-in, large audience.

Layar lets you view augmented reality information from many different sources. Each source is a “layer.” Here’s the good news: because Layar is so popular, many third party tools can help you creating information layers compatible with Layar. For example, Poistr provides an easy to use editor for adding points of interest to a map that appear as augmented reality spots in the reader. You can attach descriptions, images and relevant websites and even have animations or videos automatically appear when users encounter certain places. (I knew dancing baby was going to make a comeback.) Once your layer is created, you can export it and all the Layar’s users will be able to integrate it into their browsers using just a link.

Layar’s undeniably cool, but still limited by the battery life and connectivity of devices. How likely is it that new developments will overcome these limitations? Quite likely. Devices will continue to use power more efficiently and have longer lasting batteries. And many companies are working hard to offer AR browsers that requires no connectivity (cell phone connection or wi-fi): Layar says they’re very interested in this kind of feature. Some open source AR browsers can create apps that use data stored locally instead of remotely (and thus, require no internet). AR will be available everywhere and all the time. (Thanks for the contribution guys. I’ve got to make it to Acadia one day. But I’ll probably leave my phone in my pocket.)

5 thoughts on “Reality Check

  1. Colin and Fabio are spot on that location-based digital delivery is on the rise as more and more individuals carry around mobile devices, and it offers a number of significant advantages for sites that may be spread too thin (by geography, cost, or staffing) to reach new audiences.

    However, I would add that AR is just the tip of the iceberg on this one. While it may be the future of digital interaction (once Google releases those cheap AR goggles!), there are a number of similar technologies that are far more accessible for both interpreters and visitors right now. A few options with pros and cons:

    QR codes: Interpreters can freely print special QR codes that, when scanned by any smartphone, can take visitors to a website, video, or call a number. If you already have the media online (e.g. fact sheets, interpretive audio/video), this is a quick free way to add interaction and interpretive opportunities. It doesn’t use GPS or data-heavy AR files, so its more versatile. However it requires that you are able to maintain the various QR codes around your site. Paper print-outs and rain don’t get along! Get started at

    Google Maps and KML layers: If you can edit a spreadsheet, you can make an interactive Google Map or Google Earth layer that visitors can access thru the Google Earth mobile app on most smartphones. This is a bit more data and resource intensive for the visitor, but a great way to provide location-based trail maps, points of interest, or mapping (e.g. watersheds, flora/fauna ranges). To get started on that, go to

    GPTrex Scavenger Hunts, Guides, and Checklists: This is a shameless plug now for something that I developed based on my experiences as an interpretive manager with an itty-bitty budget always looking for ways to connect with wired audiences. Rather than just provide geo-tagged info, I wanted to engage visitors with a story or a goal. To do this we built the GPTrex app that combines the GPS abilities of Google Maps and a flexible platform that allows each location or checklist item to provide both static content (text, images, audio, etc.) and interactive content (e.g. questioning, proximity). It is basically a checklist format that can be used to make scavenger hunts, trail guides, or checklists. The app does require data and GPS (if using geo-tagged locations), but it is an easy, low/no cost way to offer a branded adventure on-site. Learn more at

    Are there other cool ways to offer location-based mobile interp and site interaction?

  2. I can see AR having greater staying power than QR codes. Already, people are connecting QR codes with advertising, and there are issues with people placing fake codes that redirect visitors to, um, spam sites. (To use a euphemism.)

    AR is much more intuitive and immediate. I use Star Walk fairly frequently, and I’ve recently been experimenting with EveryTrail. I would use a peak finder, but I haven’t checked to see if one is available.

    What I’m really looking for is a good app to assist with trail planning – something that will plot my photos of potential sites on a map that could be stored locally, rather than on-line. Should I be using Google Maps for this?

  3. Thanks, Brian and Joan, for starting the conversation!

    Brian, you’re right, there are lots of ways other than AR to bring visitors location-centered information on their mobile devices. QR codes are certainly low cost and darn easy. But our research turned up lots of examples of visitors a) not knowing what QR codes are and b) not wanting to go to the effort to download a reader, fire it up, get a good scan and then look at the content. MuseumNext wrote a great article to these ends:

    In my opinion, GPS-based tools are useful for a slightly different type of content. Augmented reality can help you identify what you’re looking at (or pointing your camera at), while location-aware apps tell you what you might be seeing in the area. Both useful in different contexts.

    Joan, I absolutely agree with your assessment of QR codes. And I’d love to send some recommendations your way for trail planning. Are you simply looking to associate photos with locations on a map, or are you looking for something more complex?

  4. Nice article. A simple way to get your stuff on AR is to make sure your Wikipedia entries are accurate and have spacial coordinates – then use an app like Wikitude. Another good one is Hearplanet – turns Wikipedia entries into audio guides.

    And Joan – the best (by a long way) trail guide logger and creator is Everytrail. Create you guide/trip on line or on your mobile device – and share it. Maps, Points of interest, text, audio, video and you can download the lot and use it offline.

    Check it out at

  5. For folks looking at QR codes but concerned about spam or audience, I would recommend 2 items to consider. To avoid “unofficial” QR codes, you can easily brand your QR codes by placing your logo over it. This is quick work in any graphic or word processor. The QR code has built-in redundancy, so cover a little area is not prohibitive. Just be sure to test it first! Some pretty cool examples:

    In my own experiences using QR codes, you do have to be realistic about the target audience – “KA,” I believe, in the NPS equation. If you are trying to engage the “digital natives” that already have their smartphones out and are tweeting about their visit, scanning or snapping a pic is a natural motion. If you’re trying to engage folks that aren’t already using technology, then your results will be quite limited. Some neat stats:

    @Joan – I use SkyView, which I imagine is similar to Sky Walk, and love it! I recommend it for any amateur skywatchers out there that want to play with AR in their backyard!

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