The grand halls and sweeping galleries of museums and castles around the world have become a commercial battleground. At stake is the right to provide a seemingly innocuous bit of technology: hand-held devices that provide commentary on the exhibits.
On the one hand are large hardware-based companies such as Antenna Audio Corp. and Acoustiguide Inc., both based in Britain. Their strength lies in proprietary designs and offices that cover the globe. The downside: Buy their systems and you are locked into their hardware.
On the other hand are such content companies as Ubiquity Interactive Inc. of Vancouver and Hillmann & Carr Inc. of Washington, D.C., which design exhibits and prepare informational material for such institutions as Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology and Washington's National Portrait Gallery. Their goal is to partner with technology companies to snatch the business held by the hardware firms.
Enter tiny Flick Software Inc. of Kanata, Ont., with a made-in-Canada compromise solution. It has created open standard software that lets museums, galleries or, in fact, any tourist attraction recycle existing paid-for content and deliver it on any personal digital assistant (PDA) or hand-held computer.
Better yet, while the hardware companies focus mainly on audio content, the Flick software allows museums to deliver audio, video and text -- and in levels of complexity to suit any visitor's need for information.
Flick's Interactive Guide grew from an idea brought to the company three years ago by the IT department of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The museum wanted Flick to create a simple, affordable hand-held guide.
"They had money in the budget, and it had been there for two years already by the time they came to us," says Jason Flick, founder and president of the company. "That is what started us going."
Museums and art galleries face a major challenge in informing and engaging visitors. Items on exhibit usually represent only 3 to 6 per cent of an institution's collection, says Stacy Wakeford, director of exhibits and programs at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, where the new guide was tried recently. Visitors wanting to dig deeper into a particular exhibit are either out of luck or have to pay for additional materials in the gift shop. At the same time, institutions often have a wealth of material on hand, from brochures to videos, created for past exhibits or promotions.
The Flick software, when paired with a PDA from Intermec Technologies Corp., creates the interactive guide. In the case of the trial at the Science and Technology Museum it also involved a pair of cartoon characters -- Tera Bit, a purple-haired skateboarding teen, and Gig A. Byte, a robot that had been created for a previous exhibit -- that helped humanize the experience, Ms. Wakefield says.
The trial coincided with the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Science Centres. Of the 185 delegates, 44 used the device, and it drew rave reviews. A poll showed 90 per cent of the users thought it was easy to use, and 80 per cent said they would be likely to use a similar device when they visited any attraction that offered it.
"We have been working with Flick two years already and the reason we staged the trial was that I wanted to nudge the process along a bit quicker," Ms Wakefield says.
But positive reactions are unlikely to prod museums into adopting new technology with any speed, she says.
"There are a lot of things that still have to be worked out. For example, would this be a free service or would people be willing to pay for it? Where will the funding come from? What material would we put on the device?"
For Mr. Flick, the long march from concept to actual sales has been frustrating. He understands, however, that for his company to make the leap from 12-person custom developer to full fledged tech company it has to offer products as well as services.
He focused on an open standard approach that would allow his software to work with any off-the-shelf hand-held computer. He wanted institutions to be able to get into bidding wars among suppliers to drive prices down.
The problem with existing audio guides is they use basic hardware anyone could buy at Radio Shack for about $200, but the companies charge three times as much for it, he says.
Finally the software had to be flexible so institutions could use it should they move to wireless systems or if new applications were created to enrich the visitor's experience.
"That is one of the features I like," Ms. Wakeford says. "It is open ended software, and that would allow us to explore future possibilities."
While to date Flick Software has sold systems only on a pilot basis to the Science and Technology and Civilization museums, Mr. Flick says he is in negotiation with 15 more. "Just today I got an e-mail from Italy asking about the product," he says.
The Flick guide has also found another client in an unrelated field. St. Jude's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., has bought the product and uses it to power hand-helds provided to parents of children with cancer. The computers allow parents to understand what their child will experience as treatment progresses. Like the museum guides, the information is layered according to need for depth of detail.
For Mr. Flick the next step is a giant leap. He is searching for venture capital to fund efforts to sell his software. "It is really an angel we are looking for," he says. "To date we have been able to finance innovation internally, but now that we have a product the big challenge is not innovation, it is growth."
How it works
The Flick Interactive Guide allows museum visitors to decide how much information they want about what they're looking at. The screen displays numbers that correspond to numbers on exhibits. Visitors punch in the number and a menu offers layers of information -- seven in the case of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, where company founder Jason Flick uses the device, left. Visitors can then choose the level of detail they want. For instance, push 1 and the user gets an overview, push 2 and the content delves a bit deeper. Presentations may include video, slides, audio or text.