AR mythbusting – why is AR right for your heritage project?


5 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Managing Director

Arts & Culture

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

AR mythbusting

AR isn’t a mysterious, trendy piece of sci-fi future tech: it’s being used to great effect by heritage organisations in the here and now.

The best heritage apps are sophisticated but simple. They’re easy to use, and they aren’t burdened with gimmicks. They’re not made for the sake of having an app: they exist because there’s a role for them in a greater project. They’re justified by careful thought about cost, provable return on investment, future-proof design and simple execution.

If you’re having trouble selling your colleagues on an AR project for your heritage site, read on…

Cost and ROI

It’s not always easy to demonstrate the return on investment in a heritage app. When you’re trying to create a particular kind of experience for visitors, your goal is qualitative. Therefore, it’s hard to correlate your sense of success with the strictly quantitative input of time and money.

The best way around this obstacle is to define your success in terms that you can measure. Your app may be designed to create an intangible experience, but that positive experience should yield tangible results regarding footfall, feedback, repeat visitors or donations. Choose one of these as a quantitative key performance indicator for the app. Measuring this gives you a concrete sense of how AR is working for your site. For instance, staff at Tower Bridge London tell us that children are spending more time at their exhibit since the Family Trail app rolled out in May. Greater engagement with the exhibit? That’s a concrete benefit.

It also helps to remember that an effective app doesn’t need to cost the earth. Lots of factors affect the development price of mobile software. Do you want users to create accounts? Will the app need to run from a database? How many tools and options do you want users to have? The main thing to remember is that less is more. Focus on what your app needs to do its job, and build that to work well.

Tech and knowledge

Think about problems with apps and bad signal will surely come to mind – bringing to mind images of users standing around, not interacting with your site and becoming more disappointed by the minute. It’s not appealing.

Fortunately, you don’t need to depend on mobile data or GPS to create an effective placemaking app. Beacons are one solution. Essentially an indoor GPS, system, these systems generate a mobile signal on-site, removing mobile networks from the equation. Beacons are especially useful for large indoor sites like the National Theatre since they provide a local trigger for events inside the app and they don’t rely on a signal which can be cut off deep in the building. You have many options when building an app – your developer should be guiding you.

On the touchy subject of tech – don’t be put off if you don’t know much about app development. Your team don’t need to know the ins and outs of development to provide visitors with a rich app experience, and you only need to answer a few key questions at the start of development. Getting the app to work on-site is the developer’s responsibility. Developers should visit your site when building the app and its content, gather user feedback and make adjustments based thereon, and use on-site and off-site testing to perfect it.

Whys and wheres

What you do need to know is why you want an app. Think about the anatomy of your site, and how people interact with it, and you’ll have the beginnings of a powerful design. To persuade reluctant colleagues, use a success story from a site similar to yours. That’ll help you prove that AR can bring something to your organisation. Once again: they don’t need to know the technical details, provided they know what the app’s designed to do, how it’s going to prove its success, and how to present the app to visitors.

If you have one location with many stories to tell, you have the makings of a trail, like Boardwalk Stories from Sandy. This app works because it attaches the living testimonies of survivors to the places where they happened. If you’re managing several sites and you want to collate user input from all of them, an app like Heritage Eye is in order – something simple, efficient, and directly connected to your database. If the appeal of your site is cultural and there’s a lot of local talent to draw on, consider something like Belfast Soundwalks – something that brings the extraordinary out of the ordinary. We have dozens of case studies on our site – check them out and share them with your team.


Featured image from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters on Flickr, under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

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