Archive | August, 2011

What is the TourSphere App Builder? (video)

31 Aug

Click “play” to see how you can build your own smartphone app.

The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House Mobile Tour App

30 Aug

The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, located in Gross Pointe Shores, Michigan, have published an awesome web app and iPhone app. The web app works on any mobile device with a full Internet browser – just go to or scan the QR code at the bottom of this post.

We loved writing the script, creating the videos, and designing the app. But the most amazing thing about this app, in my opinion, is its use of the archival video footage of the Ford family. You can stand at the swimming pool, for example, and on your smartphone you can see the Ford children splashing in the pool. It’s almost like they are right there, in front of you. Until someone invents a time machine, this is about as close as you can get to going back time.

This app received a 2011 Leadership in History Award from the American Association of State & Local History.

We’ll be doing a special webinar in the near future with Christopher Shires, Director of Interpretation at the Ford House, where he will share his experience of creating an app, as well as lessons learned. Stay tuned!


Experience The Ford House Tour on any smartphone. Go to or use this QR code.

Touring the Mobile Market

23 Aug

Are Native Apps the Solution for the Mobile Universe?

Museums & Mobile Marketplace Today

As museum visitors become increasingly connected with smartphones, iPods and other mobile devices, museums have begun feeling pressure to develop mobile applications that will allow the visitors to self-tour with their devices. While this opens up educational opportunities for museums, it also means a flood of new costs, most significantly application development. But before an organization makes the decision to invest tens of thousands of dollars on application development, it’s worth considering the diversity of the mobile market and how a museum can best meet the needs of the majority of visitors.

The ubiquity of mobile devices and the increasing use of apps on smartphones is undisputed. Since 2009, the sales of smartphone devices have increased nearly 100 percent, according to a Gartner study. The mobile market has more than 4 billion subscribers and access to the internet has never been less dependent on location than it is today. Gartner predicts that by 2013, mobile phones could surpass PCs as the way people access the web, with the number of smartphones and web-enabled phones worldwide reaching 1.82 billion and continuing to climb.

With growth, the smartphone market is becoming increasingly diverse. Several platforms exist for mobile phone apps, including Apple, Symbian and Android. The market is well divided, with no one platform maintaining a monopoly. iPhones make up about 16.7 percent of the world’s smartphones with Androids at 25.5 percent, according to Gartner. While the iPhone is typically considered the gold standard for apps in the U.S., a glance at the worldwide numbers shows us that when we include foreign visitors in that number, the iPhone is much less prevalent.

But just because smartphones are popular does not mean that all owners are taking advantage of their features. About 35 percent of U.S. adults have software applications on their phones, but only 24 percent of adults use them. In fact, 11 percent of cell owners don’t even know whether their phone is equipped with apps. On the other hand, 38 percent of adult users use their cell phone to access the internet, making web browsing via smartphone a more familiar and popular use than apps.

The increasingly diverse mobile phone market and the low usage rate of apps among adult cell users (as opposed to the higher rate of smartphone web browser users) pose a problem for museums developing mobile tours. With no single platform dominating the market, it’s difficult to make a decision about which type of app to develop, and expensive to develop applications for more than one. Some organizations have combated this issue by having mobile devices on which their patrons can access their apps available on site, but this solution requires a large investment of resources, both to purchase the devices and to secure them from theft. As organizations try to cater to an increasingly smartphone-enabled audience, the question has become how they can do it efficiently and cost-effectively. The answer may lie not in traditional, single-platform apps but in tours that exploit the familiarity and ubiquity of smartphone web browsers.

Snapshot of Smartphone Market as of July 2011

The Current State of Native Applications

Applications developed for a specific platform, such as an iPhone App, are regarded as native apps. They are programmed specifically for a particular platform and only work when downloaded to that platform. Until now, native apps have really been the only feasible way to create an interactive tour that can be accessed on a handheld device or smartphone. Among their advantages are the fact that native apps match in style the other features of their phones, an effort to make users comfortable with the look and feel of the apps.

That said, native apps are cost-prohibitive for many organizations, especially smaller ones. Forrester estimates that a basic, no-frills app can cost $20,000, with a sophisticated app running as much as $150,000. The cost is for a single platform—say, the iPhone or the Android—and is repeated if apps are being developed for multiple platforms to allow the full spectrum of visitors to access them.

TourSphere’s programming team estimates that a typical iPhone app will cost $30,000 to $40,000 to develop, but the costs don’t end there. Any changes to the app and regular maintenance require a programmer, with an estimated cost of $5,000 to $8,000 per year. Developing a native app also requires the developer to go through the app store submission process on each platform, which can be time-consuming and frustrating. Each update made by a programmer requires another submission through the app stores. This particular step of the process is difficult to control and often riddled with delays.

Because the app is downloaded directly onto a phone, there are a number of disadvantages. There is no bidirectional data exchange, so while there is visibility into the number of downloads, there is no way to track user experience or ask survey questions. And because native apps are software downloads, there is little control over updates. Should a visitor return to retake a tour six months later, without downloading a new version of a native app, there is a strong chance that he or she will be working with old information, and little the museum can do to control that.

If Not a Native App, What?

Until now, the only flexible alternative to a native app was a hybrid app, which allows programmers to grab information from the web and insert it into the native app to create updates. While hybrid apps are more flexible than native apps, they don’t avoid any of the costs associated with native app development. Those costs can be prohibitive for many organizations and take an unnecessary bite out of other areas of the budget for others.

The launch of TourSphere presents a new option for museums in developing mobile, interactive tours. App development is put in the hands of nonprogrammers, allowing curators, interpretation directors, or educators to develop a single app that will be compatible with any Internet-enabled device or smartphone. TourSphere is a revolutionary App Generator and Content Management System that builds highly dynamic web applications that work on almost any Internet-enabled smartphone or tablet device. No matter your role at the museum, TourSphere is the ultimate tour creator—no programmer needed.

TourSphere apps are browser-based, meaning that users view them through the web browser on their Internet-enabled devices. TourSphere’s cross-platform application avoids a couple of issues for museum tour creators. First, the type of smartphone a museum visitor carries becomes irrelevant. Because TourSphere apps work on any web-enabled phone, only one app is required for all the possible platforms a museum visitor could be utilizing. Secondly, because TourSphere apps work via web browser, they combat the unfamiliarity that many adult cell users have with their phone apps. Far more smartphone users utilize the internet over their phone than utilize apps, so the TourSphere platform is in fact more familiar to a majority of visitors.

If a museum makes its tour as an Android app, 75 percent of smartphone users will be left in the cold. As an iPhone app, the numbers are even worse: despite the iPhone’s popularity, around 84 percent of smartphone users don’t have one. These numbers are further exaggerated in the international market, where iPhones are not nearly as ubiquitous as in the U.S. TourSphere also allows for multiple languages (without creating separate tours) and accessibility accommodations, addressing the widest possible audience without the development of separate apps.

Visitors don’t have to download anything to take a tour; they simply point their browser to the proper site and the app launches. Special customizations through TourSphere mimic the app styles of the user’s phone, so the application looks and feels like one of their native apps, not a web browser.

TourSphere also addresses the cost issues associated with native app development. Developing a TourSphere app is free, and even the hosting fees are a fraction of native application development costs. TourSphere has created a free content management system that allows anyone to create a tour of anything on an easy-to-use platform. Users can upload photos, video, and text, create tours in different languages, and create tour maps from original illustrations or Google maps. The process is simple and user-friendly, but most important, it’s free to create and test a TourSphere app. The museum pays only when they are ready to turn the app “on,” so to speak, or to procure a public slot for your TourSphere app. TourSphere apps can be turned on and off at will, similar to a utility.

In this Web 2.0 age, visitors expect a user-centric experience, and studies have shown that standard audio tours often fall short of expectations, and it’s the content, not the technology, that’s a problem. TourSphere apps allow for free, frequent and instantly delivered updates and changes, providing museums with the flexibility to create tours that visitors want. This flexibility—both in the speed with which the update reaches the user and the fact that updates are free—presents large advantages over the static state of native apps.

Because TourSphere is accessed through a web browser, it also allows for bidirectional information flow. The organization hosting the tour can collect valuable data about the tour downloads, from which types of devices are being used to when and how the users are accessing the application. TourSphere also allows the organization to set up a survey at any point in the tour that allows them to ask information about the tour itself or about aspects of the exhibits. Because TourSphere also allows for the free development of complementary kiosk applications, the tour itself can extend into the museum and beyond just the smartphone with the integration between the smartphone tour and the kiosk application.

TourSphere is hosted in an elastic cloud computing environment, which means it has unlimited scalability. For places that are inundated by visitors on a particular day or season, or for whom there is an event that requires a huge audience be able to sign on at once (such as, perhaps, a TourSphere app in Washington, D.C. on inauguration day), this is essential. Users will not experience slower response or less functionality on the app simply because large numbers of them are accessing it at the same time, providing another layer of flexibility for organizations using TourSphere apps.

Since TourSphere apps are web apps hosted by TourSphere, there is no app store with which to contend or approval process to undergo. It’s a monthly subscription that you can start or end at anytime, and because there are no long-term contracts, an organization can simply turn the app off if they are undergoing changes or are closed for the season. Updating your TourSphere App is free and seamless, should changes take place.

But if a native app is important to a museum’s program—perhaps a supply of mobile devices already exists or access through an app store is important—TourSphere can handle that as well. For an additional fee, the TourSphere team can convert your TourSphere App into a native application for the iPhone, Android, or any other platform. There are still no programming fees, and the TourSphere Content Management System gives the freedom and flexibility to develop a tour without the assistance of a technical staff.

This article was originally published in April 2011. The full article can be downloaded from:

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Mobile App

18 Aug


Historians believe that over three thousand miles of Underground Railroad trails existed in Ohio alone. Small wonder then that one of the nation’s most notable museums of conscience sits beside the Ohio River, whose crossing once signified freedom for millions. Since 2002, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati has become a national destination…a powerful, unambiguous tribute – not only to the struggles of the past, but to modern efforts to abolish the slave trade and human trafficking in the present.

The Freedom Center’s comprehensive mobile tour app covers remarkable ground, guiding the user through forty-two sites with multi-perspective accounts from slaves, slave traders, and conductors.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center TourSphere App



Experience The Freedom Tour on any smartphone. Go to or use this QR code.

Funding Your Mobile App: Grants, Sponsors & Private Donors

18 Aug

One of the most stressful issues facing museums is: What to do with all of those extra funds lying around… right.  If you’re like most organizations,  the first question that usually comes up when you begin thinking about a mobile app for your museum is, “How on earth are we going to find the budget for this?”  So I thought I’d share how some of our clients have funded their mobile apps.

The good news is, if you want a mobile app for your museum, you can find a way to get outside funding to make it happen.  Grant sources are out there and they want to help museums and cultural organizations embrace technologies that attract a new generation of visitors.

Private donors:

It may come as a surprise, but this is actually the most common way our clients have  funded their mobile apps.  Here is how it usually comes about:

The Education or Interpretation team gets really excited about getting a mobile app for their organization.  They present it to the Executive Director or a Sr. Executive and everyone agrees – this would be AWESOME!  So, now you have internal buy-in.  Typically, the concept is then presented at a Board Meeting.  When making this presentation it is imperative that you make a solid business case for it – it’s not just about using the latest technology trend in your museum.  It is the fact that Mobile Apps engage visitors on a deeper level, keep them in your museum longer, appeal to the 18-35 audience and tell your museum’s stories in an awesomely emotional format.  You can also mention that launching a mobile app often results in lots of PR and media coverage (here, here, here and lots more…).

If you want to give your Board a real feel for an app, you can even create a demo app. You can create one for free using TourSphere in less than an hour, and then let your Board play around with it themselves. In our experience, giving them a real, functioning demo is way more effective than saying “it’s gonna be so cool”.

There are usually 1-5 people on the Board who LOVE the idea and say, “We NEED this.  Let’s find a way to make it happen.”

Ask your Board to get the word out to their network of benefactors and/or donors to see if anyone would be interested in funding this project.

In our experience it’s not uncommon for a Board Member, a patron, or even a volunteer to get passionate about the idea and want to underwrite the entire thing.  The cool thing is that you can then put the donor on the tour as part of the content (either as the donor or simply as a “lover of the arts”) and you can give them the option of being recognized or not in the audible credit, “This mobile app is made possible by the generous support of….”

Grant sources:

If you’re in the early planning stages of your app and you need a big budget, a grant is an option for you.  Most grant organizations require a lengthy application process, but if you’re thorough, patient and diligent, it can pay off.  Here are a few grant sources which our clients have used to fund their projects in the past:


Although corporate budgets are tighter these days than they were a few years ago, mobile media is an exciting industry and many organizations are willing to put a portion of their advertising or sponsorship dollars towards mobile initiatives.  Sponsors can be integrated into the app in a variety of ways (without hijacking your visitors’ experience):

  • Short video clip within the app
  • Logos on appropriate screens within the app
  • Audible mentions at the beginning or end of an audio tour
  • On maps and brochures accompanying the mobile app
  • On earbuds or lanyards

You get the picture. You can be as creative or as conservative as you want in finding places to promote your sponsor without disrupting your patrons’ experience. Your marketing department is usually aware of the larger, generous businesses in your area.  I recommend getting together with your marketing department, sharing the mobile app concept with them and working together on a plan to approach appropriate organizations in your area about a sponsorship.

So, there you have it.

Getting outside funding is not only possible, it is very common – and can be a great career-booster.  You bring an awesome project to fruition and learn about accessing outside funds – something that (in my experience) is useful no matter where you work or what you do.

If you are interested in more details and hearing exactly how some of our clients have funded their tours – give me a shout and I can connect you directly to our clients so you can ask them yourself.

Boston Public Garden Mobile Tour App

18 Aug

Every day, children come to play with Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings in the Public Garden, as they have for over twenty years. Nancy Schön’s bronze sculpture recreation of the characters from the Caldecott Award winning classic, Make Way for Ducklings, could easily be the Garden’s most popular attraction, and not just for the little ones.

Let the artist herself tell you why. This mobile tour app doesn’t just give you the information behind each site, it’s like a shortcut to your own childhood.

Henry Lee, founder and longtime chairman of the Friends of the Public Garden, narrates. With his comforting Boston Brahmin accent, experiencing this one hour tour takes you way back, out on a stroll with your grandfather, meeting his old friends along the way. They all have a unique story to tell and they want to share it with you – without all that pesky cheek-pinching. Now that’s a good kid, go on and play – the Garden is all yours.

Boston Public Garden TourSphere Mobile App

Access this mobile tour on any smartphone. Use this QR code or punch in the URL

Access this mobile tour on any smartphone. Use this QR code or punch in the URL

Welcome to our Blog! (and apologies to George Washington)

18 Aug

When I was 5 years old, my dad took me to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.

I wanted to be a good son, so when we took a guided tour of the estate, I didn’t complain. In fact, I was in awe, imagining the Leader of the Revolution strolling through the halls.

“This is the bed where George Washington slept,” the tour guide said with reverence.

“Wait,” I whispered to my dad. “Where does George Washington sleep now?”

“Well, he’s dead. He died 200 years ago.”

What?! Nobody had told me George Washington was dead! This was appalling news. If he died 200 years ago, what did that matter to us now?

It’s funny. I think my question as a 5-year old kid is the same question today’s visitors to museums and cities and historic sites (rightfully) ask:

“Why does it matter?”

Our job as curators and technologists and educators is to answer that simple question.

We want to help give visitors an experience that widens their eyes, fills their hearts, and takes their breath away. We want to tell stories.

I’m excited to gather round this digital campfire with you. Please join in, speak up, and be welcomed into this gathering of kindred souls.

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