You're at the museum checking out the woolly mammoth exhibit. You're keen to know more: what were its origins, what did it eat, what might it have sounded like? Or maybe you're elsewhere in the museum, looking at, say, Kwakwaka'wakw ceremonial masks, and now really want to find that woolly mammoth. How do you get there? With new technology launched Wednesday at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, your phone can not only tell you more than you've ever wanted to know about the prehistoric tundra dweller – it can take you right to him.
"It's pioneering stuff; I don't know of any other systems like this," says Tim Willis, the museum's Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience. "The big leap for us in this app is that it's a navigation system as well. So you can actually find the mammoth in the museum; your phone will lead you there."
Museum use of mobile and digital technology is exploding, with museums and art galleries offering all kinds of apps to enhance the experience. But an indoor navigation system – think of it as GPS for the indoors – is rare. The American Museum of Natural History in New York launched its Explorer app two years ago, touted as the first of its kind.
But this made-in-Canada technology is groundbreaking, in that it's a software-only solution, using wifi hotspots to pinpoint visitors' locations through their smartphones (rather than a hardware-based system like the Explorer, which requires users to associate with a network). So visitors with Android devices can map their way through the facility, and dig deeper on subjects that interest them. Eventually, the app may even allow them to buy books on the subject while they're standing there getting all excited about it. (The iPhone offers a more limited experience, and the app is not available for the BlackBerry.)
The technology was developed by the Victoria-based firm Wifarer. Its intended use is not limited to cultural institutions, but the inspiration came from an art gallery visit.
"My first frustration with indoor positioning – or lack thereof – came in a museum," says Wifarer founder and CEO Philip Stanger, who is from the UK but currently lives in Victoria. "Back in London at the National Portrait Gallery, I had a very frustrating experience – a bad docent, while there was a good docent nearby who was providing completely different and much more stimulating information. I kept on wishing, gosh, was there a way one could standardize this?"
He found one. Stanger has spent three years and a budget "in the seven figures" developing his Wifarer app, which does not require museums to install, maintain or update any single-use hardware, but leverages existing wifi, which is becoming ubiquitous.
When the company approached the museum a couple of years ago, the institution was instantly interested.
"Audio tours really, I think, opened up a new world," says Willis. "They seem clunky now, but they opened up a new world to museums, that you could deliver content not just on the walls of the exhibit, but personally into somebody's ears. And ever since then there has been this conversation about which technology do we invest in, do we go with?"
Willis notes that this technology allows the content to be instantly updated: so if you're visiting the Ocean Station exhibit and a major environmental event has occurred overnight that affects B.C.'s coastline, that information can be conveyed through the app.
The app is in the pilot stage in almost two dozen places around North America – including Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology, the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver International Airport. But the RBCM is the first to launch it officially.
It's free, and the download will work at any Wifarer location. So the same app that tours you around exhibits at the Royal BC Museum can help you find the store you're looking for at a shopping mall a few blocks away.
"What we have tried to do is provide the venue with an ability to be able to standardize and contextualize content," Stanger says. "To alleviate anxiety, to inform, to educate, to delight."