In 2012 UK many heritage organisations, government funded bodies and NGOs have seen dramatic budget cuts. What this probably means for traditional interpretation is that the days of costly A0 sized interpretation boards may be numbered, as mobile interpretation takes over.
These budget cuts have been coupled with the rise in smartphones as the everyday device that people use to manage their whole lives and to network with friends. 54% of people in the UK now own a smartphone, and an estimated 6 million more smartphones will be sold this Xmas. I think it’s inevitable that mobile apps and mobile scanning will become even more popular and a major factor in future interpretation over the next few years (the average person now has over 40 apps on their mobile and spends 90 minutes PER DAY using apps). Most people now have their mobile with them 24/7 and 81% of people keep them on 24 hours a day!
Whilst it’s true that digital rather than traditional interpretation is closer to my heart, it’s also true that the number of calls received in the last 3 months out of the blue has increased almost exponentially. These calls have been mostly from heritage organisations seeking to understand more about mobile interpretation options. I think the key reason for this interest is simply cost, as developing half a dozen mobile web pages or a mobile App for visitor points of interest, scanned from a QR code or NFC Tag, can be created for about the same cost as one big interpretation board.
QR codes are still gaining in popularity (almost 90% awareness), and are now starting to appear more in outdoor trail environments, such as the South Downs Way, Montgomery trail and Ashdown Forest walking routes. The future of QR codes looks bright as an easily underdood simple link to online or text based content where there is no mobile signal.
NFC Tags are a little more problematical, as Apple decided not to include NFC Tag scanning in their latest iPhone 6. However, Apple DID include NFC payment with Apple Passbook. With an estimated 150,000 UK stores taking NFC enabled mobile payments within the next 3 months (Tesco, Waitrose and Boots included), then NFC is sure to take off in the next two years, especially as NGC Tags are cheap and waterproof and content links can can be locked. They can also be programmed to do complex stuff such as open pre-installed apps, open up GPS, switch on mobile Wi-Fi search etc, all from one NFC Tag!
Augmented Reality (AR) is the big newcomer to interpretation. Geo-triggered AR is a bit too complex and costly currently, but simple visual AR is winning out in interest. Visual AR will be featured on the South Downs from Xmas 2012, as it only requires an AR app and mobile camera, and therefore works just like QR code scanning that mobile users are already accustomed to. Start building QR code, NFC and AR readers into new mobile trail apps and this will gain even more appeal with smartphone users.
It’s not clear yet whether QR codes, NFC Tags, AR or another mobile technology will dominate by 2015. However, by providing a combination of all of these on attractively designed interpretation signs, plus text and information for non mobile users, then at least there is a good chance of future-proofing mobile interpretation materials that naturally allow low-cost coverage of many more visitor points of interest not currently covered.
Mobile connectivity remains an issue in more remote areas. However, by using text only options for mobiles, such as a quiz or geocache trail where no mobile signal is required, then mobiles still have a place. For this reason mobile Wi-Fi booster solutions (including wind and solar powered) are also gaining in interest to help improve mobile signals in remoter areas. The recently launched 4G network will also help mobile connectivity as it rolls out to 98% of the UK population over the next two years, with a mimimum 4 mile range from most mobile masts.
Finally, the fact that many mobile phone providers are offering a smartphone, talk plan and decent mobile web browsing from £5 per month, means even the poorer sections of our communities can also be included in the digital interpretation revolution.