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Next app frontier: ‘Where’s the washroom in this place?’

Victoria’s Royal British Columbia Museum began offering visitors the option of downloading an app from WiFarer to guide them around the three-storey museum.


If you've flown through Toronto's Pearson International Airport recently, you may have noticed interactive kiosks offering directions to gates, washrooms, shops and other facilities.

Officially launched last June, the system is the work of Jibestream Interactive Media Inc., a four-year-old Toronto startup that has signed some prominent customers, including the U.S. Veterans' Administration, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Pentagon.

Its interactive NovoMap system helps people find their way around large buildings such as airports, hospitals and government buildings. They are just one example of a technology called wayfinding – an indoor extension of our increasing reliance on digital devices to tell us how to get where we're going.

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At one of Pearson's new kiosks, a traveller can type a gate number and be shown where his or her flight will be boarding. Then the passenger might decide to stop for a coffee en route. Type "coffee" and the kiosk will highlight those places where a caffeine fix can be had. Or passengers with a brand preference could type "Starbucks" or "Tim Hortons," says Sergio Pulla, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority's senior manager of advertising and partnership.

Mr. Pulla says the kiosks can also direct people to washrooms, elevators and other amenities. And they can display advertising relevant to what a traveller is asking for – which is where the payback is.

But Jibestream is not an "advertising model," says its founder and chief executive, Chris Wiegand. "We're really focused on creating efficiencies and integrating with work flow."

For instance, this year the Veterans' Administration will pilot Jibestream kiosks to help patients find their way to appointments at its large hospitals. One feature will allow the patient to swipe an identification card and be told where his or her appointment is and how to get there. At the same time, the system notifies staff in the destination office that the patient is in the building.

The VA estimates it loses $1.5-billion a year because of missed appointments, many of which are the result of patients getting as far as the hospital building but not being finding the doctor's office in time, Mr. Wiegand says.

Solving that problem isn't as simple as mounting a printed map on a wall, as Matthew Kenney knows. Mr. Kenney is the project manager for implementation of Jibestream's NovoTouch wayfinding system at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. Doctors and clinics change constantly, he says, making static maps obsolete as fast as they can be produced.

Part of the St. Michael's installation will be a "virtual concierge" at an unstaffed main entrance, allowing visitors to video-conference with a live person at an information desk.

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Ads will be more common in other locales. Installations in shopping malls, for instance, not only can help shoppers find what they're looking for but present promotions to visitors based on their location and destination.

In the future, Mr. Wiegand says, Jibestream could interact with mobile devices, updating directions as the customer moves through a building. At Pearson, work is under way to make the same maps that the Jibestream system displays available online to mobile devices.

A Victoria company, WiFarer Inc., is focusing on mobile devices now. Its wayfinding app is designed for Android and Apple's iOS. The Android version uses WiFi signals to triangulate the user's location within a building. Since Apple doesn't make the necessary WiFi data available to application developers, iPhone users must tell their phones where they are, but they still get the mapping and other features, explains Philip Stanger, co-founder and chief executive of WiFarer.

Last spring, the Royal British Columbia Museum began offering visitors the option of downloading the WiFarer app to guide them around the three-storey museum. Besides displaying maps and giving directions, WiFarer can provide additional information on exhibits in text, audio or video form.

And by providing maps and directions to visitors' phones, "it allows us to customize your visit, so for example if you just want to see highlights of the museum it will give you a route," says Tim Willis, the museum's director of exhibitions and visitor experience. Or, he adds, WiFarer could offer families with children a custom itinerary based on what kids will enjoy.

So far, about 6 per cent of visitors who have smartphones are using the app, but feedback from those who try it has been positive, Mr. Willis says. Replacing specialized audio players that many museums and galleries offer visitors for self-guided tours with a smartphone app could also save the institutions staff time and expense, he says.

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WiFarer is being implemented at the Vancouver International Airport, Mr. Stanger says, and the company is working with other customers around North America.

The main advantage of a wayfinding system based on mobile devices, Mr. Stanger says, is that "your phone gives you that information when and where you need it, versus a kiosk, which you've got to find in the first place."

On the other hand, consulting firm Deloitte estimates that fewer than half of Canadians own smartphones, but anyone can use a kiosk. The best choice is probably some combination of the two.

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