The always-stimulating Mysteries and Conundrums blog has a post that’s well worth reading for anybody interested in historic site interpretation. John Hennessy looks into the near future at what wireless devices might bring to public history.
Some NPS sites are already taking advantage of the ubiquity of cell phones to incorporate them into their educational efforts, as I’ve noted here before. It’s a handy, unobtrusive way to do an audio tour. Now that wireless devices capable of handling images and video are becoming almost as common as basic phones, visitors can also access pictures, maps, movies, GPS, and any number of other types of information, all while standing on a battlefield.
Hennessy notes one implication of all this that I hadn’t considered. As people find that there are opportunities to generate such material for visitors to access (sometimes for a profit), the NPS and other preservation/interpretation agencies “will be in the position of having to compete for our visitors’ attention, even when they are physically within spaces we manage.”
Imagine ten or twenty visitors standing at a tour stop, each one with a wireless device, accessing completely different types of information from independent sources. Some of these sources won’t be as reliable as others, of course, which is cause for some concern. But the possibilities of a scenario like this are still pretty exciting.
Visitors bring their own needs to a site—some people need basic orientation, while others will want more in-depth coverage. If each visitor has access to whatever information they want while they are at the site, then they can tailor their own interpretation to their level of knowledge and interest.
Personally, one of the things that excites me the most is the possibility of mixing GPS with visual and audio data. If you had a handheld device capable of both taking a GPS reading and pulling up images, text, or audio information keyed to particular locations, then you could have as many tour stops as you wanted, each one packed with reams of information, and the device could access all this automatically. You could even orient it to the direction the visitor was facing. And it wouldn’t require any intrusion into the landscape of the site at all, since the information would be transmitted invisibly through the air and into a visitor’s iPhone, iPad, or whatever.
Check out the Civil War Augmented Reality Project to see some of what might be possible.