Many visitors to tourist sites find the experience sterile and unimaginative. In the past few months, I have visited Rome and Paris and ‘done’ the sites. It’s often a battle of attrition – pictures and statues merge into one, and when you have seen one headless, armless statue you could argue you have seen them all. Perhaps I am a Philistine, but I often find the visitor experience lacking in terms of context and imagination.
In Rome, the most striking experience was reading translated inscriptions from gravestones about freed slaves; of which there appeared to be many. I wished to know more about how Roman society operated and why so many slaves became freed men and women. When I visited the Roman Forum, I really wanted to have an insight into the vibrancy of the area, the commerce and the market traders and goods – the hustle and bustle and the story of everyday life. I found it difficult to visualise these aspects from the site.
I wonder why, given the range of new technologies available, museums and galleries fail, so often, to design an exciting and engaging experience. With the massive revenues and profits available in the tourist markets, there are huge opportunities to enhance the visitor experience to add that unique selling proposition. I believe we all want to ‘meet’ historical figures and for them to come alive as humans. One award-winning author, Terry Deary, has managed to engage children and adults in ancient societies through his ‘Horrible Histories’ book series, including titles such as Vile Victorians and Rotten Romans. The illustrated history books are designed to involve children (and indirectly adults) by concentrating on the unusual, gory and unpleasant. The author has written more than 60 titles in the history series, selling more than 25 million copies in 40 countries and Horrible Histories have recently been adapted for television; its theme being that no matter how disgusting or vile the material is, it is all true.
So it shows that ‘augmenting’ a product and offering customers additional benefits and experiences can provide competitive advantage and enhance the customer experience. For tourist attractions, this may be the deciding factor in drawing in visitors who have a raft of other choices on which to spend their disposable income.
Certainly, new technologies can enhance the user experience. Google has announced plans this month to create a revolutionary new mobile device – a pair of glasses that sends information straight to the eyes. ‘Project Glass’ aims to build “augmented reality” spectacles, which can be controlled by spoken commands, as well as small flickers and twitches of the eye. Project Glass forms part of Google X, a secretive department within the company based at its campus in Mountain View, California, to test potentially world-changing ideas. The company has hired some of the leading minds in artificial intelligence, robotics and future technologies to work on the projects. “We think technology should work for you – to be there when you need it and get out of your way when you don’t,” the company said.
To illustrate its futuristic vision, Google released a video showing people in New York waking up and putting on the glasses. They are instantly connected to the internet, and able to access text messages, e-mails and maps. If the user wants to take a picture they don’t have to reach into my pocket and take out a phone or camera, they simply press a button at the top of the glasses.
Google is not alone in developing new technologies to enhance the traveller’s experiences. Apple, one of Google’s fiercest rivals, has a patent on a head-mounted display system using a pair of glasses fitted with small screens and Babak Parviz, of the University of Washington, recently built a contact lens with embedded electronics.
When I took my family to Paris, we spent many hours being herded around the rooms at the Louvre along with the masses. Being too mean to pay for commentary headphones, we passed through endless galleries none the wiser about most of their content and my memory of the experience is very limited. Possibly it is a sign of the times and my own deficiencies, that I was not prepared to read about what I was visiting beforehand which, combined with my limited attention span, rapidly led me to look for the way out. However, my experience of the Louvre, and that of its other 8.9 million annual visitors, may be about to change. Last week, the games designer, who invented Mario, sat alongside the Louvre’s managing director to announce that the museum has bought hundreds of handheld Nintendo consoles to replace its audio guides.
The Louvre is the latest establishment bidding to engage and excite audiences, who increasingly expect more than crackly commentaries, dodgy headphones and printed factsheets and labels (often only in one language). The handheld consoles offer a good mix of basic (700 commentaries on famous art works, an easy-to-check map) and more advanced technology (3D models of sculptures). Equipped with a small screen, the devices provide over 35 hours of audio content, including art lectures and interviews with Louvre curators – plus high-resolution images of the works you can expect to see. For those who have lost their bearings in a building, whose labyrinth of hallways, rooms and chambers can be disorientating, there is a function that will ferry them around the must-see highlights, including the Mona Lisa. For those more advanced technology users there is an additional smartphone app available, as well as the museum’s sleek website.
While the Louvre has gone for a high-profile hardware update, other museums have different ideas about their digital offerings – although all have a take on technology and its role in engaging visitors. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, Malcolm Sutherland, head of digital projects, has discovered that in creating a range of exhibition-specific apps for visitors to download, as well as a free monthly “What’s On” iPad app, the benefits go beyond guiding visitors around. “It helps connect us to audiences who have devices anywhere in the world and it’s a powerful tool to use in the museum itself.” Another venue that sees keeping up with tech as its mission is London’s Science Museum. It is working on a major exhibition that opens in 2014, prototyping transparent LCD screens, so content can appear in front of the object or behind the object and is always in the visitor’s field of vision.
What I am hoping is that next time I visit the Louvre, the Forum or the London Science Museum, I will leave with more lasting memories and a greater understanding of, and insights into, the events, technologies and people that underpinned our society and forged our lives.
Put your students into groups which each select a different tourist venue or attraction they have visited recently and identify ways in which new technologies could have advanced and improved their experience and enhanced their memories of the visit. Technologies may include those that provide information during the visit and also those that help record the experience in one form or another. Students may wish to consider aspects, such as video and images and apps, such as Instagram (recently acquired by Facebook).
Having identified and explained how technology can add value to a visitor’s experience, each should design a marketing campaign to sell their ideas to potential customers and present this to the rest of the class.