Go your own way

Personal wayfinding used to mean an unwieldy map and getting lost, but digital technologies mean that signs have the potential to become interactive. Costs are still high, reliability needs addressing, and privacy remains an issue. However, three nascent projects reveal the potential, finds John Stones

HOW WE get to where we want to go has recently changed. Set off in a car, and you are now as likely to rely on in-car satnav as you are on the hotchpotch of road signs to get you to your intended destination. Once science fiction, then an infuriating, unreliable and very expensive ‘extra’, satnav is now increasingly taken for granted. Set off on foot for a meeting, and you will probably be clutching a print out of Google Maps or have them (or Nokia Maps) beamed to your mobile en route. And if you are lucky enough to have one of the latest Apple iPhones, you will have GPS to guide you on your way.

Personalised wayfinding, as opposed to public, fixed graphic signage, is increasing, and a raft of established technologies, such as RFID (radio frequency identification), Bluetooth and GPS (global positioning system, the satellite technology behind satnav), means that signs have the potential to be come highly interactive.

Issues of cost remain, as do reliability (witness the repeated and embarrassing failure of Transport for London’s RFID-based Oyster system). Storing data on people’s journeys, where they have gone and when, means that privacy will always be a contentious area, as will the desire of advertisers to hijack these sites

Of course, to talk of an ‘interactive sign’ is an oxymoron or a tautology, depending on your point of view. Without interaction of some sort or another, a sign cannot be a sign. What we mean here is the application of technological interaction to signage, something talked about but rarely put into practice. Here are three projects where a start has been made.

Visitor attraction/exterior – Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

You can now walk around the lovely, 120ha botanical gardens at Kew in west London without bothering to look at a sign. Instead, all you need is a GPS hand-held device to guide you around.

It is called the Kew Ranger, and was ‘soft launched’ at the end of July. For £4.95, it allows you to choose a preset tour where you can see yourself on a map as you walk around the gardens, or it can be set to alert you when you walk past a tree or plant of particular interest. The robust handset, developed by a company called Node, is designed for outdoors with a screen that brightens in sunlight.

The Kew Ranger was initially developed to enrich visits to the attraction with video content. But given the size and navigational issues that visitors experience at Kew, GPS technology got the nod over a simpler system using mobile phones.

The Kew Ranger does not interact directly with signage (a cheaper solution would have been to have signs with numbers that could be dialled up on a mobile phone for information), and while Mike Saunders, head of digital media at Kew, believes that this kind of locative technology will become more prevalent, it will be developed in parallel with traditional signage rather than replace it.

The Kew Ranger offers games with location-based cues to interest children and more detailed video content for adults, something Kew is looking to develop further. ‘We hope at some stage people will be able to stand in front of a plant and be able to get all the information they want about it,’ says Saunders.

While research showed many people were open to technological aids, other visitors come to a ‘natural’ attraction such as Kew to get away from things. ‘We wouldn’t want to interfere with those people’s experience,’ adds Saunders.

Visitor attraction/interior – The Public

You walk around a very different kind of tree at The Public, the ambitious community art centre in West Bromwich. Housed in a building designed by Will Alsop, it is a project that has run into numerous, well-documented difficulties – perhaps unsurprising given its innovative nature, evident in its wayfinding as much as anywhere else.

Once past the conventional signage at the entrance, by Casciani Evans Wood, and you are into the first of several ‘glades of trees’. These are colourful structures, designed by Ben Kelly, that house screens with information about the space and its permanent interactive exhibits. You then walk around the space with an RFID tag around your neck, recording personal data, which gets used by the various interactive displays.

Nick Cristea, strategy director at All of Us, the consultancy responsible for the interaction design on the project, suggests this offers a quite abstract form of wayfinding. ‘Virtual date bodies at various points capture and reflect the different places a visitor has been,’ he says.

While this gives you a visual record of your encounters with the various interactive installations (which you can have printed out on a mug at the shop), that would not necessarily help you find your way, say, to the toilet. But the legibility of the interior space, essentially a descending ramp, means that the wayfinding aspect to the interactive signage can be relatively simple and traditional. ‘It’s more about interpretation than information,’ Cristea says. ‘In a space like the Tate, we would have introduced other elements, such as suggesting where a visitor might like to go, but that wasn’t necessary here.’

One of the interactive art works has a navigational element all of its own – Marie Sester’s installation allows you to track other visitors to the gallery and throw a spotlight on them.

Urban navigation – Legible London

As part of a pilot scheme for Legible London – the ambitious pedestrian wayfinding scheme being developed by Applied Information Group – new street signs around Bond Street, W1, that ‘speak’ to your mobile phone, have been in place since the end of last year . It is an attempt to introduce interactivity without adding complexity and expense to the sign, which does, however, have a panel that could be replaced to house an interactive screen in the future.

An analysis of mobile phone features on the pilot signs is currently under way, but AIG creative director Tim Fendley believes technologies just round the corner will allow mobile phones to play an increasingly important role in finding your way around. But he is not a fan of GPS in built-up areas. ‘It has a fundamental flaw – it can take three to four minutes to find you, and can be inaccurate by 20m,’ he says.

Introducing interactivity remotely is a cheaper option than powering up the sign itself. ‘It can cost £23 000 to provide power to a sign as the road needs to be dug up,’ explains Fendley. ‘It’s phenomenally complex and it can be difficult to justify the expense [in relation to the benefit].’

Glass LCD touch screens are also heavy and frail, but Fendley says the new digital plastics currently in development by companies such as Sony could transform signage. ‘The whole sign could become a touch screen, showing you where to go, giving opening times and so on,’ he says.

Fendley believes this is an area that is developing fast, but will be limited by expense. ‘I think we will only see them where they are really needed,’ he says. ‘They will perhaps be in the form of a digital table, or something more social and dependent on context.’

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