Monday, 2 September 2013

Street Museum and Soho Stories

While in London, I tested a couple of locative apps to get my head around ways archival material from the State Library could be published/made available off site – beyond the physical library and the online catalogue. There are too many locative apps to bother mentioning, I chose Streetmuseum and Soho Stories because these two treat archival material in a manner that seems relevant to the Visible Library project.

Museum of London's Streetmuseum app

Produced by the Museum of London, in collaboration with agency Brothers and Sisters, Streetmuseum allows users to "bring the past into the present" by superimposing historical photographs, postcards and paintings from the Museum's image archive onto present day London street scenes, using a smartphone. The app's interface is 'live', using Augmented Reality and Location-Based Services to direct users to nearby historical/cultural sites, where the user holds a smartphone up to a particular view and images from the Museum can be viewed in situ.

Screen grab from Brothers and Sister's YouTube clip.
The app has been downloaded over 350,000 times and is reported to have generated over £1.4m of PR coverage and tripled footfall to the museum. These stats suggest this is a profitable collaboration between the Museum and a design/development agency. According to Vicky Lee, marketing director of the Museum:
The partnership was mutually beneficial, generating media coverage for both parties and new business leads for the agency. Using images from the Museum’s collections meant that all the content was readily available so this kept costs down. Licensing agreements on certain images made it complicated to charge for the app, however it was always our intention to launch this free in order to reach the widest possible audience.
Directly outside my apartment, a red dot pops up to show Tolmer's Square is covered by the app. I wander into the square, following the street signs.

According to the blue dot (which is supposed to be me), I am not in the correct location. I keep walking, watching the blue dot lag and jump around the red dot. I do a full circuit of the block, walking painfully slowly through the square twice without seeing the red and blue dots align. This is not the rambling process of discovery and enlightenment I'd hoped for. When technology doesn't deliver immediately on a simple promise, my patience is short.  Frustrated, I give up and don't use the app again. The potential pros associated with this technology working 'live on site' are outweighed by the frustration of the technology not working reliably.
The demand for instant gratification is an important consideration for cultural institutions investing time and money in apps and other interactive media as a way of accessing and promoting their collections. It only has to fail once, or partially not work, to alienate the user.
Streetmuseum works on a similar principle to Historypin's 'street view' function. I came across Historypin during our first presentation with SLNSW (where Kate and I presented our research and Library staff talked through current innovations and systems in April 2013). I was impressed and excited by the way the Library is engaging with the Historypin project, including a locative  walking tours of Building the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Historic Pubs of Sydney; building collections of images around themes such as Theatres in NSW and of most interest to me, Sydney: An Alternate Universe – a collection of sketches showing what Sydney would look like if rejected building proposals had been built:



The diversity of content the Library has made available through Historypin will attract users with different interest. The 'Alternate Universe' also shows how Library staff can suggest innovative and creative ways to tell new stories from the Library's collection, hopefully triggering the public to explore innovative ways to use the digital collection too.
From this experience, it seems more sustainable for the Library to piggyback on available platforms (such as Historypin) rather than developing new apps. Historypin manages the software development and interface design – meaning that the Library can use the service without investing in or maintaining its development.



Soho Stories, supported by the National Trust.




Soho Stories is a GPS-based audio tour app. Rather than a website, the only information outside the iTunes store is hosted on a Facebook page (which seems sensible – less unnecessary websites and blogs can only be healthy for the internet):
60 years of Bohemian Soho is brought vividly to life in this unique audio tour, narrated by Soho entertainer Barry Cryer. Soho Stories knows where you are, what street you’re on, and whispers its hedonistic history in your ear. With stories from legendary 'Sohoites' such as Molly Parkin on boozing with Francis Bacon; Janet Street Porter on Damien Hirst, 'Enforcer' Frankie Fraser on the rise of the gangster and Wee willie Harris on the birth of rock 'n' roll, the National Trust Soho Stories App brings to life 60 years of history from one of London’s most iconic districts.
From the moment the narration kicks in, I'm sold. Barry Cryer's tone is perfect – irreverent and cheeky, he sounds like a drunk but loveable uncle taking you aside during a family event to amuse you both with stories from his youth. The stories are vernacular, driven by the characters doing the telling. They are social rather than historical yarns. The script is deceptively simple; obviously well researched and expertly written. The richness of the narrative and charm of the narrator carry the experience – the same content would have been less engaging if less well handled. Careful editing of the script and using professional actors – as in the TouchPress apps – significantly impact the experience. I'm more likely to continue with a slickly produced app than something that feels cobbled together with the resources on hand – slickly produced doesn't mean over-designed,  but well considered for the content and audience.


Despite the bawdy content, the design is subtle. The audio is intuitive – if you wander too far past a point of interest, the audio fades out slowly rather than abruptly stopping, if you retrace your steps the volume slowly rises. Once switched on, you can wander the streets slowing down and speeding up, guided by the fading in and out of the audio without stopping to look at your phone, which makes it more desirable to use. In this area, constant checking of your phone could make you appear either utterly lost, or anxiously seeking a particular service/shop, neither ideal.





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