This is part of a series of posts looking at how cultural institutions are using apps and the mobile web to engage their audiences. Here, I’ll take a look at the ‘mobile revolution’ and consider the challenges and opportunities of the mobile web.
9 October, 2012
For several years, we’ve been living through a mobile revolution; this is the tipping point. In 2011, across the world, internet capable mobile devices began to outnumber computers. This year, they may well outnumber us.
Most of us are already used to the idea of using our phones to access e-mail, share photos, watch a video, or bag a bargain – all activities involving the mobile internet. It’s estimated that by 2013, mobile phones will also be our browsers of choice. The increasingly central position that smartphones occupy in our day-to-day lives is matched by their growing ability to offer efficient, absorbing, media-rich experiences. So it’s no surprise that these experiences of the mobile web have profoundly shaped user expectations of what’s possible – even desirable – in digital handheld interpretation.
But there’s further change afoot. Friends of iPhone users will have noted the degree to which their lives seem impossible without access to an array of apps; according to Wired, apps may now have the edge over web browsers as our favoured method of accessing content and services over the internet. Apparently, a sleeker, simpler – and narrower – experience is the order of day, one where content is delivered directly to the user, rather than one in which the user has to go out and search for it. Whether this is to be welcomed or lamented, it is clear that the ability to package content into a neat, saleable, piracy-resistant bundles has huge practical and commercial advantages.
For many organisations in the cultural sector trying to get to grips with emerging mobile technologies, the pace of change, the burgeoning array of platforms, the new skill-sets required and most of all, the sheer cost involved, are understandably daunting. Even professional content producers are often uncertain. But the opportunities outweigh the challenges.
Let’s think about what the mobile web has to offer. Despite Wired’s revolutionary prediction, there’s much more to mobile than apps. But before we delve into details, it’s helpful to step back and take a quick look at the bigger picture, starting with the evolution of the World Wide Web itself. From conversations with technologist and all-round digital genius Becky Hogge, that picture looks something like this: Since 1991, when the first website was put online by Tim Berners-Lee and the team at CERN, the web has come a long way. In its formative years, it was about individuals sharing information and accessing services, (think search engines such as AskJeeves, Google, etc). Now we have the networked web, where the collective intelligence and social capital of groups of users is harnessed, not only in order to recruit further users, but also to build on their contributions (think Wikipedia, Amazon, Facebook). What it seems we’re moving towards is the ‘sentient web’, where the web will ‘learn’ and then predict what we’re seeking by applying complex algorithms to a variety of sensory, as well keyword, inputs. And all the indications are, that even more than with the networked web, the sentient web will be delivered predominantly by mobile technology.
O’Reilly and Battelle’s seminal Web Squared report provides clear and convincing description of this trend, but one example is the Google Mobile App. Built for iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Nokia S60 and Windows, it uses the built-in motion and proximity sensors to detect when the phone is moved towards your ear and automatically goes into speech recognition mode. It uses the microphone to pick up your voice, which is decoded by a speech recognition database and matched to the most frequently searched terms. It then uses the GPS location sensor, as well as your distance from the nearest phone masts to bring up the most relevant result and before you can say “cell-tower triangulation”, you’re having a dialogue with the sentient web.
Taken together, these cumulative developments that constitute today’s mobile web offer institutions an impressive range of opportunities that are only beginning to be explored: the worldwide distribution of their collections and interpretational content, the ability to increase audience through the power of social networking, the delivery of rich, dynamic experiences through podcasts and apps, the provision of multi-layered learning through geo-location tagging, augmented reality and gestural computing, and before too long, the ability to connect data in new and meaningful ways through the sentient web.
Even more, I would argue that cultural institutions are uniquely placed to exploit these opportunities. Museums, libraries, archives and even music labels are full of interesting, varied, high-quality content. They often directly manage the rights to this content, either through ownership of curatorial interpretation, or image, sound and video libraries. They tend to have strong, trusted brands that are able to engage diverse audiences. They understand the value of social networks. They recognise the importance of enhanced learning and are often expert in the provision of person-centred, multi-layered information. Cultural institutions and the mobile web; surely a match made in heaven?
One recent success story was the Museum of London’s hugely popular Streetmuseum app, of 2010. Designed for the iPhone and now available for Android, it opens onto a Google Map of London festooned with pins (geo-location tags), which contain an historical photograph from the museum’s archive, together with a brief description. If you’re in one of the locations and connected to the internet, you can also use the camera viewfinder to see the historic image overlaid onto reality. For example, sweep your phone towards Buckingham Palace gates and a ghostly, black and white image of a suffragette being dragged away by a policeman appears.
While some of the functionality could be smoother, I think Streetmuseum is an inspirational piece of mobile web-based interpretation. It’s genius lies in its immediate emotional impact, its playfulness and its deceptive simplicity, qualities also present in more recent releases like Streetmuseum Londinium, where you can ‘excavate’ buried objects from Roman London and watch gladiators fighting near St Paul’s Cathedral, or Soundtrack to London, where you can experience music and archive photographs on location, specially developed for the Nokia Ovi store.
Developing the Streetmuseum app was a challenge, both for the Museum of London’s Marketing department and for the developer, creative agency Brothers and Sisters, who came up with the brief. At the time of development, augmented reality was an emerging technology; according to project director Helen Kimber, the dedicated project team spent hours pounding the pavements to ensure that each geo-location tag was as precise as possible.
The hard work certainly paid off. According to the Museum of London’s Vicky Lee, so far, the app has yielded 400,000 downloads and generated a degree of national press coverage that far outstripped what could have been achieved through a similar spend on media space. While it’s impossible to estimate how many Streetmuseum users had never previously set foot in the Museum of London, or whether they subsequently did so after using the app, the feedback given to the museum suggests that at least some constitute that holy grail of all outreach efforts: new audience.
Not every institution can necessarily hope to replicate the scale of Streetmuseum’s success, which was, in large part, due to its timely and imaginative use of augmented reality technology, then cutting-edge and the subject of great interest. But there’s always room for inspiring and unique content. And it’s up to us – whether producers, software developers or content owners – to continue to seek ways to engage and move our audiences as technology evolves.
In future posts, I’ll suggest ways in which cultural institutions might leverage the power of mobile technology to benefit their audiences. As a producer, presenter and consumer of apps, I’ll start by reviewing what it means for institutions “to app”.