On Monday 2nd August, which seems some time ago now, we (Kate, Dan & I) made our way, via lots of rock art, to the National Trust’s Cragside House. Our trip was not simply a nice detour (sadly we didn’t manage to see inside the house, as it is closed on Mondays) but to explore their latest visitor tours.
Matthew Prodger from Black Ridge Technologies along with Andrew Sawyer from the National Trust met us to show us the Armstrong and Talking Trees trail. The trails use BlackRidge’s SecondSight Viewer software, which runs on Sony PSPs with cameras fitted to them and some Nokia SmartPhones. Once the viewer software is loaded, you can download the specific ‘Experience Pack’ you need, in this case the Armstrong and Talking Trees trails. Armed with your PSP or Nokia phone, you are then free to follow the trail! Because all the content is loaded onto the device, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a mobile phone signal.
The trail is marked with special signs which you look at through the camera on the phone or PSP. The software recognises the marker and launches the appropriate media content. This could be an audio file, video clip or 3D augmented reality character. To get a feel for what it’s like take a look at this video on SecondSight’s website.
The main thing I liked about this was the simplicity of using the PSP when the software is running. You don’t have to press any buttons, or scroll through any menus. Just point at the marker and wait for the content. I say wait, but that was the other really nice thing about it, you don’t have to wait. The content launched virtually immediately with no noticeable lag. On the phone there was a bit more of a delay but it still provided a perfectly acceptable and usable experience.
We played around with different sets of marker codes and the PSPs in the office before heading out into the decidedly grey afternoon to take at look at the codes in the wild. They were set up temporarily (Cragside House is the National Trust’s pilot trial for this technology) using matte laminated paper attached to a simple wooden plinth for the Talking Trees trail. We crowded round, holding our PSPs and aiming them at the code.
I suppose that’s one of the downsides of this technology, only one person at a time can realistically get physical access to the code at one time. With video and audio it’s not too much of an issue, once the footage is playing you can walk away from the marker code and it continues to play (at the moment functionality in controlling this is limited – no pause/rewind functions). Yet with the 3D avatars, you have to keep the camera focussed on the marker code. As far as I know, there is no getting away from this technically, the angle of the camera to the marker dictates which view of the 3D object you can see. A potential problem arises if you imagine a group of school kids all trying to see the code at the one time. There are obviously ways round this (for example, staggering the groups so that some children view the tour in a different order, that is, reducing the amount of poeple trying to access the content at any one time), but it is something that has to be managed.
Whilst I’m on the slightly critical tack, let me just say, that for this project to be a substantial success at Cragside House (which I think could be entirely possible), visitors need to have a way to access the tours onsite, rather than simply downloading beforehand. As Matthew told me, the key challenge they face at the moment with this project, is raising awareness of it. How do people find it? If they could hire PSPs with the material preloaded from the ticket office then I’m sure lots of folk would try it out. Admittedly, this is simply a trial scheme but I think it’s something the National Trust should seriously consider.
But enough about Cragside, what did we learn from the day that we can apply to the Rock Art Mobile Project? Primarily for me, the anticipated but unpleasant fact that mobile signal is non-existent for some networks, meaning that whatever technical solution we develop cannot rely on signal. This means that preloaded content is needed, either from a website pre-visit or downloaded on site, probably via BlueTooth or wifi.
Ah well, back to the research then. Let’s see now, Bluetooth transmitters…