Monday, July 22, 2013

Home Brew Multimedia Tour

This is a project that I've worked on for a couple of years, almost as a hobby. To contract with an audio tour company for an exhibition tour is expensive. The last tour we did with an audio tour company had a development cost of $30,000, plus rental of the tour players.  A multimedia tour is even more expensive because of the greater labor involved in developing one. An app can be expensive, too. I once estimated that an exhibition would have to draw an attendance of 90,000 or more to break even on the audio tour costs, and we rarely see that kind of attendance.  As a result, we rarely can afford to have an audio tour, multimedia tour, or app developed for an exhibition. A cell phone tour is much lower in cost and fairly easy to upload and manage, but the audio quality is low.  So I've been on a mission to find an easy way to deploy tour content on a mobile website.

We use WordPress a lot. The museum website is actually a WordPress site, highly customized by Madhouse Creative, a local multimedia design firm. I created a social networking and training website for our docents using WordPress, and I've even created a visitor comment kiosk using WordPress. So I started looking into WordPress as a platform for multimedia tours. I think I'm about 90% there. If you go to on a smartphone, you see a mock tour page with content about an Egyptian statue in our collection. If you go to the same URL on a desktop computer, you get my rather lame personal blog.

WordPress was designed to be a blogging tool.  Note that I am talking about the free WordPress software installed on your own server, not, which is a for-profit company which sets up blogs on their server.  If you have web hosting with access to a control panel, you probably have the ability to install WordPress. Depending on your hosting service, you may even be able to have more than one installation of WordPress.  I can set up multiple subdomains for free and install WordPress in them, letting me set up special-purpose websites for as long or short a time as we need them.

The appearance of a WordPress site is governed by templates called themes. Functionality is added using plugins. Themes and plugins are added from the control panel of your WordPress site. There are thousands of free themes and plugins available to allow you to easily do virtually anything you might want to do with a website.

The switching between the desktop and mobile versions of my site is done automatically by a plugin called  WP Touch, which includes a mobile theme that is used when your site is accessed by a smartphone.  The video on the page was uploaded to Vimeo and embedded on the page. The text was copied from a gallery label. The icon for the audio element was something I created and uploaded to the site.  It links to an MP3 file I uploaded to the site as well. If this all sounds complicated, trust me it isn't. If you can use Microsoft Word, you can use WordPress.  The only mildly complicated part is installing WordPress, and with my hosting service that was pretty easy, too.

I would be very interested in getting feedback on this idea. I think it has promise. It lets small institutions deploy multimedia content at minimal cost, as long as they have wifi in the building. It would eat up a user's 3G bandwidth to take a multimedia tour using their data connection.  If you combined a site like this with QR codes on gallery labels, you would have a pretty simple and foolproof touring system without the need to purchase or rent tour players. The part I'm not completely happy with yet is the audio. Because the video is streamed from Vimeo, the viewer can start watching it reasonably quickly while the rest of the file downloads. The audio, however, must be completely downloaded to your phone before the file plays. I need a way to stream audio. The dumb solution would be to create a video with a single still image and the audio file  and upload it to Vimeo. But I would like to find an audio plugin that would handle things a little more elegantly.

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