I recently had the good fortune to join the University of Manchester on a field trip to Castleton and Mam Tor. The purpose of our visit was to test out ‘Discovery Geology’ – a recently developed augmented reality field trip. The experience was co-developed by a cross departmental team that included Mimas, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Faculty and Manchester Museum.
Augmented reality is something we’re curious to explore as part of Collections in the Landscape. As soon as this trip came onto my radar, I knew it would be a valuable exercise to see what other people were already doing digitally, out there in the Peak District.
But before we pull on our walking boots, what was ‘Discovery Geology’? And how did it work?
In the developers’ own words:
The app allows the user to enhance their walking experience, learning more about the geological history of the Hope Valley with expert academic commentary and insight. Other functionality includes:
- Feature finder identifying fossils, oil deposits and minerals such as Blue John.
- Location based Points of Interest (POI) along the way navigating your journey.
- A compass allowing the user to find their bearings, to compliment the audio commentary.
- Geological ‘Beneath your Feet’ diagrams illustrating the geological make up at points along the route.
- Dynamic navigation informing the user of the closest POI.
- Route finder – audio directions to the next POI…. and many more.
The trail is hosted on the Junaio app, an AR browser which allows users to create, explore and share information by layering this digitally onto the real world. This is viewed through a device’s camera, hovering over a real-time view. Alternatively a map view can be used.
This video by the developer shows some of the capabilities of the browser:
So did it work…?
Starting in the car park by Castleton Visitors Centre many users experienced difficulties accessing the app, mainly due to poor signal in that area. Fortunately this was the worst signal spot on the whole route and so once the group moved off things improved.
Being unfamiliar with Junaio many people had difficulties finding their way around the app at first (myself included!). However, once I’d got to grips with the layout, capabilities and design I found the tour pretty easy to interact with. That said, some users did give up due to the tempting paper versions of the tour handed out to everybody before the walk started. This just goes to show how inclined people are to take the easiest option!
In general, audio, images and texts loaded fairly quickly. Once or twice I had to wait for audio to buffer half-way through but this was not common. So long as GPS is functioning it was simple and straight forward to interact with points of interest through camera view or via map view.
Each point of interest typically contained the following content:
- One or more audio commentaries describing geographic features in the landscape. For example at POI 9 – Top of the Ridge, there is a ‘Look North’ and ‘Look South’ option, each linking to an audio guide explaining the view and underlying geology.
- ‘Beneath your Feet’ opens up a page with a geological map with the walking route laid over the top. The POI is marked on and users can see what type of rocks they are currently standing on.
- ‘Route’ links to a short audio instruction to give the users directions to the next POI. Live View or Map View are not detailed enough to show pathways etc.
- Some POIs had more specialised content, for example POIs 10 – On the ridge, and 14 – Windy Knoll, had links to images of nearby rocks and prompted the user to locate fossils or other interesting features. The ‘Feature Finder’ at Windy Knoll is a particularly good example.
The main problem encountered was battery life. The phone was fully charged that morning but constant use of GPS and frequent use of my phone’s camera on Live View drained the battery very quickly. I had a flat battery by around 3pm. This can be saved by maximizing use of Map View and using Live View as little as possible but that sort of negates the point using of AR in the first place.
Bright sunlight was also problem in places, making the screen difficult to read. Another slight hazard was the temptation to walk whilst looking at/through the phone screen. This caused more than one near trip or stumble.
Overall the app and content functioned well in the landscape and, save for a couple of black spots, signal was good and content was fairly quick to load. Problems such as signal or battery life will probably resolve themselves as technology progresses and as phones/tablets get more and more sophisticated. It may be advisable to limit trail lengths until battery lives significantly improve.
The app did look better and seemed easier to use on tablet devices. That said, it was not difficult to use on a smart phone. This is more of an aesthetic comment although clearly the quality and size of photographs on a tablet make visual information more accessible.
The app turned a pleasant hike into a more enriching experience with only a couple of technological hiccups. Although this tour didn’t utilize museum collections it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to insert this type of content into it. I’m definately keen to explore the possibilites of AR as part of the project…
Don’t just trust my review!