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Published: March 15, 2001.


In the Wireless Economy, the World is Listening -- To What It Wants to Hear

Chris Tellis, Nancy Proctor, Antenna Audio, USA


In the face of press and industry hype around new media, it is often difficult to understand what recent developments in digital technology mean for the cultural sector. Just what is new under the sun, and what is the same old marketing speak in new clothes?Today I'd like to boil the techno-babble down to two important developments that are already effecting major shifts in how cultural tourists access and experience information. These shifts are prime opportunities for museums and cultural institutions to extend their audiences and the reach of the museum message while generating new revenue streams. The main technological development impacting the cultural sector today is the rise of audio as the medium of choice in communicating information through mobile devices. The second issue I'd like to address is the new freedom that tourists have in shaping their experience of cultural destinations thanks to content syndication across a range of digital platforms.

I. Mobile Information and the Cultural Sector

The doyens of dot com might think of themselves as pioneers, but those with a more historical view can recognize the 'new media revolution' as being a very old phenomenon indeed. Early in the 20th century, the social and cultural landscape was transformed by the advent of something that was popularly referred to as 'the wireless'. Bringing news and entertainment into people's homes, offices, cars and handheld devices, the radio continues to broaden audiences and reach vast audiences today.

Now 'wireless' has become a buzzword again, this time referring to a major transformation driven by the advent of digital technology. The digital age has rendered audio a completely fluid medium, capable of being accessed across a variety of different platforms. Consequently, the cultural sector has the ability to provide far more extensive programming, reaching out to a much broader audience via personal computers, handheld computers and personal organizers, and mobile phones than ever before.

The emphasis in this new technology is mobility: people want all of the tools and convenience of their personal computers while on the go, and increasingly they are able to take their digital media with them thanks to developments in wireless technologies.

However, there is a major difference between these new wireless platforms and the 'wired' personal computer: unlike the PC environment, in which the user interacts with screens of text and images, the person on the move cannot usually spend much time looking at a screen. The person walking through a building or city, or driving through a landscape, cannot navigate those spaces very safely if their eyes are glued to a screen! So in the wireless world, audio rather than visual media is the basis for communication.

Museums are in a prime position to capitalize on new media's preference for audio, as all major and most smaller museums and galleries now provide audio interpretation of their exhibitions and collections as a matter of course. These archives of audio content, enhanced where appropriate with related text and images, are ripe for repurposing for digital platforms, allowing the museum to reach new and larger audiences outside as well as inside its walls. Furthermore, since museums are the conservators of vast archives of images, their own holdings complete the loop of image and audio required to distribute rich media products.

The proliferation of handheld appliances now on the market - including cellular phones, personal organizers (PDAs), 'palmtop' computers such as Casiopeia and the Compaq iPaq, and portable MP3 players -- are 'converging' to such an extent that PDAs can now make telephone calls and store a music library, while cellular phones can access the Internet and play games. The evolution of high speed, high volume data transfer rates, global positioning ability and higher storage capacity for these devices are giving rise to a wide range of applications that are revolutionizing the way the cultural tourist experiences the world. Yet at the basis of communication across all of these mobile devices is audio - the truly cross-platform medium.

The downloadable MP3 file represents the first step towards making audio more freely available to this wide range of mobile devices. MP3 compression technology allows sound files to be delivered across digital platforms relatively quickly and easily. Distinct from '3G' technology that allows audio files to be delivered from the Internet to cellular phones, MP3 files can be downloaded or copied from the Internet onto a computer or computerized handheld device and stored on it for reuse, much as a word processing file can be copied from one computer to another. The MP3 file has rocked the music industry as audiophiles swap songs across the Internet, and built a booming industry for makers of MP3 players -- the gift of choice this past Christmas.

Antenna Audio has recently created two digital MP3 tours that tourists can download from the Internet onto a Visor, Diamond Rio or other MP3 player, take to the gallery and experience on their own handheld device. Both the Cleopatra exhibition at Palazzo Grassi in Rome until July, and the 'Life of Christ Trail' through the permanent collection of the National Gallery in London, can now be downloaded from the Internet, together with gallery maps. These tours will be available from a variety of websites and portals to maximise publicity for the exhibition and galleries, and extend access to this cultural information even to those who cannot visit the galleries in person. At the time of this writing the Cleopatra tour is already available at the site. By March and April you will be able to visit any one of these additional locations on the web to see how the MP3 downloadable tour works:

[Demonstration of a portion of an MP3 tour available on the web.]

As the capacity increases of handheld devices to store and receive rich media content from either downloads or live broadcasts, the complexity of content that tourists will be able to take with them on their travels will naturally increase. Soon, high definition tours of both an educational and commercial nature will be experienced not just on desktop PCs, but also on screen-based handhelds. 'Virtual tours' on the Internet have suffered in the past from the slowness of download of information to computers, which has led designers to compromise on quality of image and audio. Great strides have now been made in rich media technologies in the 'wired' arena, such as this 'virtual poster gallery' that Antenna Audio has produced with MuseumShop and the 3-d modelling software specialists, RichFX.

[Demo of 'virtual poster gallery'.]

It is only a matter of time before such virtual tours will be available not only to the would-be tourist in Deli who cannot attend the Cleopatra exhibition in Rome, but also to the cultural tourist planning his/her trip and downloading all sorts of rich media information onto their handheld device to accompany his or her travels.

Clearly the next step is to provide this information 'on demand' via intelligent systems that recognize where the tourist is, either inside a museum or travelling through a city, and make information on cultural landmarks in the immediate area available to the tourist's handheld device. Though it will be some time before this technology is ready for use in museums, Antenna Audio is currently conducting a trial with a personal area network developers to demonstrate how the cutting edge of wireless technology will transform the cultural tourist's experience yet again within the next three years.

II. Syndication and the Cultural Tourist: Information on Demand

With information increasingly available to cultural tourists' personal digital devices, it is inevitable that tourists should seize the opportunity to become their own tour guides, compiling information from a variety of sources to take with them on their travels. If the 'wireless world' is listening, then it's listening to audio of its own choosing.

Other than radio and television broadcasts, the distribution of information in the past has been relegated to pre-recorded content that is packaged in various storage media in order to be sold as cassette tape, CD-ROM, video, or the like. This pre-packaged content necessarily involved an editor or program director who decided its format, length and components. Thus the music industry decided that albums would contain 10-12 songs, and that only 1-2 of these would be available for single purchase as 'singles'. Similarly, publishers have compiled collections of essays, forcing the scholar to pay the price for the entire book, even if they only wanted to read one small section.

Not only have consumers traditionally purchased information in combinations and formats determined by others, but doing so has generally required them to visit the store or other venue where the tape, CD, or video is sold. The information industry seems to have offered an ever-increasing choice of products for sale, but very little choice in how and where consumers can get the information they want.

The real revolution of the late 20th century, then, is not just mobile communications: all sorts of informational media, ranging from the radio to the daily news have been 'wireless' for, in some cases, millennia. What is truly new about the latest 'new media' is that for the first time consumers can access just the information they want, when and where they want it. We are now at the dawn of the age of information on demand, where consumers can be liberated from both the editorial dictates of publishers, and the physical commerce in tapes, CDs, videos, etc. The face of publishing and distributing information is being irrevocably changed, and with it the very concepts of the book, the magazine, the album, and the audio tour.

Never before has the demand been so high for cultural institutions to respond to the needs and interests of the individuals who make up their audiences. Just as you can sell individual artworks rather than entire exhibitions, information on those artworks can now be syndicated across digital platforms to allow cultural tourists to compile their own editions of text, images, audio and video about the objects, people and places that interest them. Increasingly cultural tourists want to dip into catalogues and other information sources in much the same way as they chart their own tours through the museum space itself, choosing to linger over some works while passing others by.

The cultural landscape from the point of view of the new media tourist resembles the now much-imitated cartoon map of New York City, where only the buildings of greatest interest are emphasized and space between them is collapsed to render the image a mental 'map' of the city as popularly imagined.

For the cultural tourist, the city is mapped by a few key destinations that are icons for that city. S/he does not distinguish between items of cultural importance to be visited within museum walls, and those destinations that lie elsewhere in the city. The cultural tourist to Paris simply knows that s/he must see the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, and Notre Dame. Thus the cultural tourist wants a guide to Paris that can provide information on all of these cultural landmarks in one convenient package. The modern cultural tourist is sophisticated and wants authoritative commentary on all of these, but doesn't want to carry around a catalogue to the Louvre, a book on19th century iron engineering, and Pevsner's guide to medieval cathedrals in order to get the most out of a visit to Paris.

For the first time, cultural tourists can now compile their own guides that draw on the expertise of a range of sources thanks to digital media syndication. From the perspective of the museum and cultural destination, this is an unparalleled opportunity to pre-market their cultural assets as part of a syndication network, to encourage people to enter their institutions as part of a wider city tour and discover new icons and landmarks.

The museum can now supply its audio commentary to cellular phones and handheld devices, for example, as part of an 'information on demand' network that tourists can use throughout a city or region. This network would include not just cultural information, but practical advice and suggestions on restaurants, hotels, theatres, transport, etc., with each area of information covered by experts in the field.

Antenna Audio has recently recorded an audio tour of central London which combines information about exterior landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column with messages about artworks and the exhibition program within the neighbouring National Gallery. The tour is designed to lead tourists up the stairs of the National Gallery and into its exhibitions and permanent collection. [Demonstration of a portion of this tour.]

Currently, this audio tour can be heard on premium rate phone lines connected to the uB-mobile WAP portal, making it a demonstration of what will be possible via telematics rather than a practical and economical source of cultural information for London right now. However by undertaking such pilot projects. The telematics industry is an extremely stormy sea at the moment with telcos, network providers, handset manufacturers and content portals battling it out for market share. Antenna is attempting to tread water in this shifting market by keeping tabs on the various trends in the new media industry so that we are ready to take the audio tour to the next stage as soon as technology and the market are ready.