Where am I, what can I do here and where are the toilets?
Every visitor to an unfamiliar environment will need to satisfy themselves as to the answers to at least some of these questions. Addressing these basic information delivery requirements is a primary service provision for the nature tourism provider.
Current best practice user accessibility guidelines also dictate that this essential information should be equally accessible to people on a multi-lingual – 24/7 basis.
Previously managers had to accept that this solution simply wasn't possible to deliver and hence they had to accept the limitations of both their technology and resources.
Every trailhead couldn't have its own visitor centre staffed by an array of multi-lingual translators providing free detailed orientation material to visitors irrespective of the date or time of their arrival.
Visitors bring the technology with them ...
Today however it is possible to deliver just such a resource within the operational constraints of even modest park management budgets. This breakthrough has come about thanks to the fact that an overwhelming proportion of park visitors now arrive on site carrying their own technology to deliver this in the form of their tablets and mobile phones.
Managers no longer need to consider whether or not they need to install technology such as speaking posts or touch screen kiosks. All that is needed now in areas with internet coverage is for them to publish orientation content online as a webapp/mobile website.
From there it can be accessed in HTML format and instantly translated on the fly by settings configured in the users own internet browser.
If the activities on offer to people are going to take them into areas with no mobile coverage, they can simply download a PDF smartphone guide to embed the content onto their phones for use in their travels.
If there is no phone coverage at the trailhead, the manager has two options whereby this product can still be substantively delivered.
The first is to provide public wi fi to the venue. This is appropriate for major destinations in remote areas.
The other is to set up a simple local area network driven by a small, phone sized solar powered Raspberry Pi server. While this will this will not be able to offer the option of translating content on the fly, it can still deliver all of the other collateral including specially translated versions of the PDF smartphone guide.
The role of downloadable apps ...
Within this construct the question then arises as to what role downloadable apps can play in this setting. Here it is significant to note that these have had two core functional qualities to date.
The first is to effectively bundle up content in a coded package that allows this information to be embedded into the mobile device for use in areas remote from internet coverage.
The second is to deliver key functionality such as geotracking where your location is actively used to chart your progress across the landscape.
As a result of the development of webapps, local area wi fi hubs and smartphone PDF guides, we no longer need to rely on downloadable apps purely to deliver standard HTML content. Rather the role and functionality of apps increasingly lies in them delivering user experiences that lie outside of the standard HTML envelope.
Third party apps for enthusiasts like mountain bikers are commonly available for popular nature based recreation areas. Augmented and virtual reality apps will also increasingly become more integrated into the park experience as the sophistication and utility of these resources increases over the coming decades.
Visitor centre considerations ...
With regard to the utility of visitor centres in this setting, it is valuable to note that these have a traditional place in the overall makeup of important gateway precincts. Many people still value them as an expression of the significance of the venue being presented.
Just as their traditional role as the one and only orientation portal for the user has been diminished by the technological innovations going on alongside them, so too has their standing as a critical piece of interpretive infrastructure lessened over time.
When one considers the origins of the park visitor centre model in America from the 1950s onwards it is apparent that this was the only ready means of conveying supporting heritage narratives to users apart from them taking part in a guided walk.
The technology to deliver long wearing outdoor signage was limited to screen printing and timber routing. Containing display material indoors in a sheltered environment was hence the only real option open to park interpretation.
Today modern printing technologies deliver all weather, long lasting full colour signs. These can then be supported by QR codes that allow the visitor to simply activate their phone camera and link directly to a location specific, deeper underlying digital narrative including video. This means that the messages once addressed inside the confines of the centre can be equally shared out in the field as people encounter the material being discussed in real life.
This in situ model of talking about things out in the very landscapes that contain them is a potent approach that has had the effect of lessening our reliance on visitor centres to deliver a destination's core interpretive collateral.