bata shoe museum tour toronto

Bata's New Cellphone-Friendly Tour

I have a feeling that I was a bit of a strange kid growing up; I was probably the only one to actually relish the chance to visit a museum on my free time. After all, the thought of actually learning something while not in school was ludicrous, no?

Every time I went, I would have this strange urge to touch everything - displays, models, and especially those little audio tour buttons that would drone monotonous narratives at my young self. And though I'm many years older, I doubt little has changed.

New at the Bata Shoe Museum exhibit, is a series of audio tours installed throughout the building - but with a twist. There are no red buttons or audio booths to be found. In fact, all you need is probably already in your pocket.

A cellphone is the only prerequisite for the museum's recently installed tour system, explains James Cusack, project director with Tour-Mate Systems Canada, the company responsible for Bata's unique audio tour. Cusack, along with Jacqueline Nuwame of Eventide Media, took me through the museum as they explained the rationale behind the new system.

In some ways, using cellphones as a medium for audio tours seems like a natural progression in the way such tours are designed to work. In older museums, tours often rely on equipment that must be rented. In other cases, tour stations throughout exhibits are often stationary, and designed for only a small group of people. But now that cellphones have become so ubiquitous, Nuwame believes that they've become the ideal platform for this sort of museum interaction.

Scattered throughout the museum are small markers, placed next to exhibits of Bata's various shoes. At each marker, visitors can simply call the number listed, and listen to additional information and history regarding a particular pair of shoes.

At first, the interaction seems strange. As Nuwame points out, our phones are usually used as a means of two-way communication, something that is completely absent in an audio tour. But she believes this is another way in which we've begun to redefine the use of devices like cellphones in public spaces.

Yet a more important question is, will the system redefine how my cellphone contract works? My main concern going into the tour was the impact it would have upon my bill. My current plan has a very small amount of daytime minutes, and I could only imagine how those on pay-as-you-go plans would feel.

Both Cusack and Nuwame tried to quickly allay those fears. Cusack noted that the system was designed in such a way that the tour is based on a toll-free number, making access easy for out-of-town visitors or tourists. Nuwame, meanwhile, explained that each recording is generally between one and two minutes in length, also minimizing the impact on my mobile minutes.

Still, despite the obvious convenience of using a cellphone for these sort of tours, I was curious as to why this method was chosen above others, such as Heritage Toronto's podcast-driven tours I covered a few weeks back.

Cusack gave me a number reasons, the most important being that his company's cell-based tours are based around the idea of random access. In simpler terms, there's no track listing, like on a podcast or MP3 based system, and every section of the tour is independent from the rest; visitors can skip over entire sections of the tour if they wish.

Also important is the lack of issues with formats or files - any cellphone works.

But more so, the system has its advantages for the museum curators as well. For example, call lengths can be monitored to see which sections of the tour receive more interest than others, and thus, can be adjusted accordingly. Visitors even have the opportunity to leave messages via voicemail, providing curators with valuable feedback, encouraging a response that simply isn't possible with a podcast or similarly designed tour.

Caveats still exist, of course - for now, English is the only language offered, and as most can attest to, the quality of cellphone calls are vastly lower than an MP3 player, or other audio device.

Yet the museum is hoping that the systems unique features far outweigh the bad. There's no doubting the tour is definitely impressing, and it's always intriguing to see common technology employed in ways that we probably wouldn't expect. And yet, while Nuwame and Cusack are keen on redefining the way in which people use their phones in public spaces, I'm still one the fence as to whether visitors will feel the same.

Of course, I'm sure my eight-year-old self would approve. What's old is new again, and cellphone tours may just be the latest way for me to indulge my love of museums from a childhood past.

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