Authors: Christine, Gloria, Mariana, Judith
We decided to explore how an audio guide can enhance our experience of the city. It was not difficult to find audio guides and tours online, ranging from fictional tours, ghost tours, historical or architecture based guides. Many are freely available online, however a good number are also only available for purchase.
We picked the London Garden Trust’s Self guided walk through Bloomsbury’s Squares (available here: http://www.londongardenstrust.org/guides/guide.php?tour=Bloomsbury).
The walk is described as taking 3 hours in total, so we picked a small section to do ourselves, in order to analyse and explore whether and how technology such as these audio guides can be helpful in understanding and experiencing spaces. We started out in Russel Square and finished in Gordon Square, having spent a good 45 minutes outside in beautiful sunshine, listening to a calm male voice underlined by classical music describe the squares’ histories to us. Bellow are some of our personal reflections on our walk and the experience of hearing about these places, whilst walking through, or standing inside them.
The audio guide provides a very special experience for people exploring London. Without it, you might only pay attention to the grass, the followers, the sunshine, and sometimes statues, and it is likely that you won’t look at them in detail. But you will have a completely different feeling when you walk or sit in the park listening to the audio guide. Firstly, the audio guide tells you the historical stories about the parks, involving several several celebrities. This gives you the feeling that you are enjoying the same park as those figures and you feel the gardens have their own special historical meanings. Secondly, music is included in the audio guide, which allows you to calm down and observe the nature and the people carefully. Your moods are also changed by the soothing music. The audio guide enable people to see the abundant social and historical context beyond the seen scenery.
However, I don’t think this audio guide suits everyone. This would be perfect for those who have interest in history and classic music. But as the contemporary background of the parks is not mentioned, those who care about the parks’ modern development might have no clues to them. My suggestion to the people developing city audio guide websites and software is that more guides focusing on different aspects should be available, from which people can understand city from different perspectives.
Upon entering the park and putting on the headphones to listen to the audio they gave us indications of where we had to go. While they were telling us the story of the statue that is there we felt a bit disoriented because the audio lasted longer than it took to travel the park. In the second and third park we chose to sit on the grass to listen to it, so we could be more attentive and observe what they were saying.
I think for a history enthusiast or even an architecture the explanations were really interesting but I see that it is focused on very specific topics. Maybe if they give you more topics options to choose, you are going to be able to choose the one that interests you and it would be more personalized and enjoyable for all types of audiences.
I also think it would be more interesting to apply it for other places which can be more practical such as the British Museum. This museum despite having the free entrance many people choose to hire a guide since the objects are distributed without any order that really makes sense, as not enough information is given to understand the objects. In this case, this application would be very useful, in my opinion even more than the audios focused in London parks.
London is a very touristy place so to improve this application, you could put the same audios available in other languages, I think this way more people would download them.
At the same time, I had already been in all the parks we visited on the tour and this has certainly been a new experience since I did not know the information they offered me and this helped me to understand those places in a better way and their history.
I would say that it provides a different experience that can be very enjoyable. It does helps people understand better the history of the place and to locate themselves in a city that if full of interesting facts all around. It is innovative since it certainly helps you interact with the city in a way you wouldn’t normally.
Nonetheless, i would say it is not an holistic way of approaching a city, it doesn’t give you the full picture of a place and it is clearly just a historical perspective. It won’t be enough just by itself, so i would recommend to listen to the audio but to also take some time to explore the city without the audio and see what you find interesting. This is also because the audio might be a little isolating and might distract you of the things that are going on around you. The format of the audio allows this perfectly since it can be used at any time adjusting to each person’s needs.
We all thoroughly enjoyed the experience of the walk, or rather the pauses in our walk, listening to the audio guide. However, as everyone has been evry positive, I would like to highlight a few more of the practical difficulties with using such technology, particularly in public spaces. It begins long before we even stepped outside. The Parks and Garden Trust website lists the walk and has all audio files freely available, which is great. There are individual files for each part, which is very useful, particularly if you want to explore only a section of the 3 hour walk. However the links to the files are also dispersed over the webpage, amidst blocks of text, making it a hassle to find the ones you want. Further the files must be downloaded, meaning there needs to be some preparatory time before going on the walk, unless you have massive amounts of mobile data. This may potentially hinder some people from using the guide.
Further, there is a lot of information on the website, designed to be used in conjunction with the audio guide, however it does not display particularly well on mobile devices, making it difficult to use on the go. It is possible that the guide and website hark from a time when people would have printed the photos and descriptions as well as the map, to accompany the audio tour.
Finally something should be said about walking through crowded London parks on a sunny afternoon with headphones in your ears, attempting to search for statues and house numbers around you, instead of focusing on the path. I almost tripped over a few people on a park bench! This problem is exacerbated further when listening to such audio in the streets, making navigating the pedestrian traffic difficult.
We also looked weird, standing and walking around in a little group, all with headphones in our ears. I think that perhaps these guides are more of a solitary activity. On the other hand, discussing what we had heard after the 5 minutes sound bites were over in each park, was really fun too!
Despite all of these minor annoyances with the technology and the practical aspects of using an audio guide, I found it incredibly fun learning about these parks that I have been to so often. Audio allows you to still observe what is going on around you, unlike text, and it requires far less effort and concentration. I am also a huge fan of audiobooks, so I am not stranger to the medium of audio storytelling. Perhaps to others to whom it is not as familiar the experience may be a little more uncomfortable.
All in all, we agree that there is something to be learned from the experience of listening to an audio guide in the city. Particularly in places you are somewhat familiar with, this medium and lense can show you a whole new layer of information. However, there are plenty of issues with it too, from the practical to a lack of interest in whatever theme is being explored. The Parks and Garden Trust guides are very historically focused, but there are guides out there for a number of themes and people, and perhaps everyone simply needs to find the one which interests them, to let a stranger’s voice lead you through the streets (make sure you still pay attention to traffic!), plazas and parks and explore sides of the city you did not know existed.