Wi-Fi Drives Innovation in Tourism

By Jeff Goldman

August 05, 2009

From a game that leads you through the streets of Venice--and helps control foot traffic--to a Web-based audio tour of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Wi-Fi can make information available to tourists in a variety of innovative ways.

From a game that leads you through the streets of Venice to a Web-based audio tour of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Wi-Fi can make information available to tourists in a variety of innovative ways.

There’s a mobile phone in the pocket of just about every tourist these days—and cities and museums are just beginning to learn how best to connect to those travelers. Whether you’re wandering the streets of Venice or gazing at modern art in a New York museum, wireless technology promises to make your visit more insightful, less crowded—or just more fun.

On July 3rd of this year, citywide Wi-Fi coverage was launched throughout Venice, Italy. In conjunction with the launch, IBM introduced TagMyLagoon, a pilot project designed to guide tourists to lesser-known parts of the city. With the TagMyLagoon application installed on a Wi-Fi-enabled phone, users can connect to passive sensors located at points of interest in order to learn more about the city.

The offering is part of IBM’s broader Smarter Cities initiative, which covers everything from traffic management to public safety—and according to Nicola Palmarini, manager of the IBM EMEA Human Centric Solutions Center, traffic management (in this case, pedestrian traffic) is a key issue in Venice. “It is a very delicate and fragile environment, and they have, more or less, 25 million visitors each year,” he says.

And so part of the aim of TagMyLagoon, Palmarini says, is simply to direct tourists away from the better-known (and overpopulated) parts of the city and towards less trafficked areas. “The City of Venice asked us if there was any innovative way to manage the flow of people in the city… so we designed, with the City of Venice, a path that aims to divert the flow of people from the main direction,” he says.

Along that path are a series of tiles with QR codes on them. Open the TagMyLagoon application on your phone, take a picture of a tile, and the application responds appropriately. “You receive some… cultural and architectural information about the area, and then you receive some suggestions on how to reach the next point of interest,” Palmarini says.

The application can be installed on Symbian phones, Android phones, and iPhones—and it’s designed to run on the City of Venice’s open Wi-Fi network, ensuring that tourists aren’t hit with 3G roaming fees. The pilot will run until October 3rd, at which point IBM and the City of Venice will evaluate user response to the service, and will consider adding new locations and paths through the city.

Part of the challenge in a deployment like this, Palmarini says, lies simply in making the public aware of its existence. “We’re starting to educate people to interact with the city through their devices,” he says. “And one of the main points is to communicate to them that there is this opportunity… we’re [working] with the City of Venice to put this information in a pervasive way wherever they communicate to the end user.”

Future plans, Palmarini says, include possibly replacing the QR code system with optical character recognition. He also notes that the system could easily be adapted to work in a wide variety of locations, including airports, malls, and museums—in fact, a similar project, called Tag My Museum, was installed earlier this year at the Mercati di Traiano in Rome.

Travel as a game

At the same time, the Italian game design company LOG607 has been exploring a more playful way to help tourists explore a city. LOG607 last year launched whaiwhai (named after the Maori word for ‘to search for’), a solution that creates a customized treasure hunt, via a combination of a pre-printed book and a series of codes sent via text message, in Venice, Rome, Florence, or Verona.

To play the game, players first purchase the book for the city they’re visiting. Within each book, the pages are jumbled and cut into strips, making it unreadable without a code telling you which strips to match to each other. “You get the code when you solve the first enigma… and by getting the code, you are able to put the strips in the right order so you are able to read the story,” explains company CEO Tomas Barazza.

The story then tells you where to go next. “Each story refers to a single place in the city… and when you get there, you get another text message that gives you an enigma to solve… like finding some dates, an inscription, numbers, shapes, something that certifies somehow that you are in the right place,” Barazza says. “You send, by text message, the answer—and if it’s correct, you get another code for another story.”


The game, Barazza says, is designed to feel as interactive as possible. “Everything is done in a non-mechanical way, because you’re supposed to be within an adventure,” he says. “Before starting the game, you read a couple of pages, so you can immerse yourself in a story. For example, in Venice, you are trying to help an old professor discover what happened to a magical scepter called the Ruyi… and you are supposed to interact by text message with the old professor.”

And so it’s not simply a matter of texting codes back and forth. “It’s more like a conversation with a  person,” Barazza says. “Even if it’s done by a computer program, it’s something that’s humanized in terms of the quantity of possible answers and the way it interacts with you… everything is done because we want people to think that they are within an adventure.”

Each player can choose how long the game will last, from one to nine hours, by sending a text message at the start of the game. “They can also set their starting point, in terms of the north, south, east, or west side of the city, they can set the level of difficulty of the enigmas they need to solve, and they can also decide to play alone or against someone else,” Barazza says.

And this is just the first version of the game, or as Barazza describes it, the “analog” version. An iPhone app is in the works, which will allow users to play in any city without having to purchase a book or send and receive text messages—simply “getting the stories one after the other when you solve the enigmas,” Barazza says.

The company plans to launch a version for Milan by early 2010, and Barazza says they’re looking at a number of other locations, as well, including museums. “We are developing some projects for two large museums in Italy, and we have also been called in the past by the British Museum… a museum, I think, is one of the most interesting possibilities for developing our format,” he says.

Wireless audio tours

One museum that’s proactively making use of wireless technology is New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which last year launched MoMA WiFi, a full-featured audio tour accessible on smartphones via the museum’s Wi-Fi network. The mobile site is extremely straightforward: just enter the three-digit code listed next to the work of art you’re looking at, and you’ll hear an audio description.

Allegra Burnette, MoMA’s creative director for digital media, says the museum wouldn’t have been able to offer a free audio tour via Wi-Fi if not for the fact that its portable audio players were already being made available for free through a grant from Bloomberg. That enabled MoMA, she says, to explore all possible forms of distribution, including offering the audio as a free download on iTunes, as well.

Like IBM’s Palmarini, Burnette says one of MoMA WiFi’s biggest challenges simply lies in making people aware of the offering, via brochures in the lobby or additional promotion on the museum’s Web site. “We do have some signage, but there’s a lot going on in the lobby when you’re trying to get materials… so what we’re trying to do is focus on ways that we can let people know about it once they’re here,” she says.

And Burnette is quick to note that several other museums are pursuing similar offerings. “The San Jose Museum of Art, which is a much smaller museum, is offering a tour… and in their case, you can actually just pick up an iPod touch and use it there…and there’s an iPhone app that the National Gallery in London just came out with, that’s essentially several stops of their audio tour available as an app,” she says.

Burnette says MoMA is wary of offering an iPhone app for fear of alienating, say, BlackBerry users. “We’re trying to take advantage of the cool, fun, specialized features [without] losing sight of broader access,” she says. “Somebody with a BlackBerry walking in, are we going to penalize them because they don’t have an iPhone? Hopefully not, but we might give them some alternate way of accessing content.”

And so the real challenge for MoMA (and for anyone offering wireless information to visitors) is to provide access to content in as broad a range of formats as possible. “What are the different ways that you make the content available, whether it’s before you come to the museum, when you’re at the museum, after the museum, or if you can’t come at all—we’re trying to think on all those fronts,” Burnette says.

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. He lives and works in Southern California.

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