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In February 2011 we suggested that a possible solution to intrusive onsite ‘interpretation boards’ could be to utilise volunteers to create web site entries that could have non-intrusive pointers at heritage sites to allow access via mobile phones utilising a QR Code scanner as part of the then relatively new ‘Big Society’ idea.

It now appears that such a system already exists, is in use successfully in France and Belgium, and is rapidly spreading to other countries. That system is iBeaken.

We met recently with Jo Van Hove, one of the founders of iBeaken, and his UK representative Jenny Ridland, to discuss the merits of the system. Here at Heritage Action, our primary focus is on the Pre-Roman sites of Britain, but the iBeaken system can be applied to a much wider range of applications.

The system works off a collection of ‘beacons’, short entries (up to 250 words and one photo on a free ‘Lite’ account) created against a map. Each beacon provides a ‘story’ about a location, or an object at that location. At it’s heart is a simple content creation system and a mobile enhanced (.mobi) site to access the content when out and about. Once the entries have been located, the fun begins! Each beacon is given a unique code within the system to aid retrieval.

Content creators are free to download the QR codes for their own content and use the codes and mobile site in any way they choose, in their own literature or signage or whatever. Alternatively, iBeaken can provide robust physical signs in various formats which include a printed URL to the .mobi site, a QR code, and an optional NFC tag (NFC: Near field communications – similar to an Oyster travel card or the new contactless bank cards. These tags can be read via an app on new generation smart phones). Interestingly, Jo mentioned that to date, less than 10% of people are actually scanning the QR codes, most opting to type in the URL to a mobile browser.

A sample iBeaken sign, showing the URL, NFC and QR Code to access the location story.

A visitor onsite, upon seeing an iBeaken sign has the option of using any of the three methods to visit the .mobi site (enhanced for mobile visitors) to read the story for that location. Research has shown that visitors are not generally too interested in being overwhelmed with information for a site, a short, snappy tidbit of information suffices in most cases, although the higher levels of account for content creation allow for inclusion of video and audio files, as well as multiple photos. But these come at a cost to the user of waiting for mobile downloads on possibly slow connections. Content creators also have the option of providing transalations in multiple languages if desired, which the visitor may then select.

The real beauty of the system though, comes via an API. This allows beacons to be included into existing mapping web sites. This was demonstrated to me using the Cirkwi website which allows users to create their own routes, and has incorporated the iBeaken system into its design. To see an example of this, go to the Cirkwi website for a walk through the City of Brussels. Select the ‘Around the Tour’ tab on the map, and select the iBeaken checkbox. Return to the map and zoom out. Multiple iBeaken icons now appear on the map. Click on an icon to see the attached story.

This API has the potential to allow content creators to create guided walks, with audio at each location to describe what the walker is seeing. The API has already been included as a layer in the LAYAR augmented reality mobile application.

Content creators have the option of three different levels of membership to the system:

  • LITE – The LITE account is absolutely free of charge. No annual fee, no set-up. You can make an unlimited number of iBeakens, but only one photo can be included in a story.
  • PRO – For the PRO account you need to pay a ‘small, reasonable annual fee’. This fee differs from country to country, and allows a wider range of content including multiple photos to be included in the stories, as well as allowing stories to be ‘locked’, requiring e.g. an email address to open them up, thus allowing marketing opportunities.
  • PREPAID – Earn money! The iBeaken PREPAID card has been made especially for museums and outdoor sites that want to monetize their iBeakens. Visitors must purchase a card and enter a code to access the stories.

Created beacons can be given a Category to aid searching and filtering, and Sub-Categories are currently being planned. We can envisage many uses for such a system, and not just within our own field of interest. Jo mentioned that many small village councils in Belgium have used the system for general tourism, putting up signs in their location (often sponsored by local businesses), and the system has spread. Many museums are also using the system for in house display, attaching the iBeaken codes to display cabinets allowing visitors to see additional information about the items. The potential for the system is immense, and we can only hope that heritage organisations, museums and local councils in the UK take up the idea, and that iBeaken signage becomes a recognised part of the heritage landscape.

iBeaken will have a stand at the Museums and Heritage Show, at Earls Court on the 16-17 May 2012, where they will be happy to demonstrate the system to interested parties.

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