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.)

The Last Word from Australia: A Devil of a Time in Tasmania

Until this past week, my image of the Tasmanian devil, an endangered marsupial that lives on the Australian island state of Tasmania, was based exclusively on this Looney Tunes cartoon character. The poor Tasmanian devil, because of its obscure location and a perception of its unpleasant disposition, does not get much attention. (Interestingly, the New Jersey Devils hockey team does not get much attention for essentially the same reasons.)

On Tasmania, visual depictions of the animal are odd, to say the least. Because devils are unique to the island (they used to be all over Australia, but are now just on Tasmania), local organizations like Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service (pictured above) use them in logos, brochures, and other media. Rather than being portrayed as even vaguely likable, though, the devils are almost always shown as vicious little monsters with their mouths open and teeth bared.

Stuffed animals (or the souvenir slippers pictured above) found in gift shops have cuddly open mouths and bared teeth. Even this wooden sculpture atop a donations box at the Tasmania Zoo in the town of Launceston shows the animal in a perpetual state of ferocity. This sculpture is particularly strange to me because the animal is sitting, but still has its mouth open like it’s tearing apart dinner.

It seems to me that if you’re asking for donations to help protect an animal, you might want to show its softer side—or at least show it not being openly hostile—so that people might actually want to protect it. (For the record, we did not make a donation here, but we did later on.)

I still had never seen a live devil when I saw this and was starting to think they walked around with their mouths just hanging open all the time.

On our third day in Tasmania, we went to the zoo to see the devils in person. We approached this enclosure with trepidation, fearing for our lives when we saw this sign posted on a wall less than three feet high. But the moment we first saw the devils was a bit anti-climactic. They didn’t spin wildly like the Looney Tunes character, nor were they devouring some other animal’s carcass. They were roughly the size of house cats, and they all had their mouths closed.

They were actually a little bit adorable in an ugly sort of way, like Hugh Jackman or the original Volkswagen Beetle.

After five or ten minutes, we finally saw a devil open his mouth and bare his teeth. We snapped away with our cameras, though in fairness, I am compelled to reveal that this guy was just yawning. To this point, the experience was going exactly as I expected. It was a thrill to see a unique animal on its home turf, but the build-up related to the ferocity of the devil was impossible to live up to—until we learned a thing or two about them.

At 10:30 that morning, we witnessed a short interpretive presentation and a devil feeding at the zoo. A burly bloke carrying a bucket of what the devils clearly knew was their morning tea dodged and weaved as these adorable little Hugh Jackmans turned into the snarling monsters we saw portrayed everywhere. Suddenly we understood. While giving the devils a rack of kangaroo ribs that they devoured—bones and all—in short order, the interpreter explained that these scavengers have a bite 12 times stronger than that of a pit bull—only slightly less than that of a crocodile. One of these little guys could pull him from one side of the enclosure to the other with no problem.

The devils are facing a number of challenges and were listed as endangered in 2008. Sadly, the devils have been besieged by a virus that has wiped out 80 percent of the population and could go extinct if the problem is not solved. In fact, Mr. Burly Interpreter told us, the reason there’s so much roadkill on the roads in Tasmania these days is that devils play the important role of cleaning up these messes, and there are far fewer of them to do so now.

Before we left, we got the chance to give a baby devil a pat. The young ones don’t start biting right away, so this was a chance to create a connection (literally and figuratively) between the animals and the visitors. After telling the story of the devil’s plight and showing us a softer side of the animal, we did make a donation to help protect it.

This moment reminded us that no matter how they’re portrayed in logos or brochures, Tasmanian devils just want to be loved. Until they’re two years old. At which point they will gnaw your hand off if you give them the chance.

Our great Australian adventure ended this weekend, but as our kids spend the next six months recovering from jet lag and exhaustion, they’ll have the company and comfort of their new friend “Diablo,” a stuffed devil—with its mouth open and teeth bared—that we purchased as we left the Tasmania Zoo.