App shows your way around museum

There's more to the Royal B.C. Museum's woolly mammoth than its impressive dental work and rockstar hairstyle, and a local high-tech firm has developed software to let museum visitors peek behind the shaggy beast.

Yes, there's now an app for that.

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Victoria-based Wifarer has developed a software system that works with handheld devices to provide what is essentially indoor GPS system.

Wifarer has partnered with the museum to create a customized, downloadable app that serves as a map, way-finding tool and a means for the museum to offer information as visitors pass exhibits.

When loaded onto a smartphone, the app - which officially launches today - downloads the museum's maps and information, identifies a user's location in real time and draws a path to exhibits.

At the mammoth exhibit, for example, once visitors have launched the app either by downloading it or scanning a code in the museum lobby, they can click on an information icon that offers multimedia information about the mammoth and its history.

"The nice thing about this is it's totally customizable - we can load any information or content we want on it," said Tim Willis, the museum's director of exhibitions and visitor experience.

"Theoretically, should something happen in the news, say a mammoth is discovered in the Inner Harbour, we could post that instantly."

Unlike traditional audio tours, which require museums to maintain the equipment, Wifarer takes advantage of visitors' own smartphone devices.

Willis said it also allows visitors to get behind the scenes and tailor their museum experience to their own tastes, digging as deeply as they like.

The museum has been testing the system, which works via pattern recognition based on Wi-Fi signals within the building, for a few months.

There has been no promotion of the application, other than a sign in the lobby, yet it has already been downloaded 500 times.

"This plays into the current way people interact with the world, as though it was a game," Willis said.

While the Royal B.C. Museum is the first museum to use the product, the system was introduced at the Shops at Prudential Center in Boston and is being tested at some of the largest hospitals, airports, convention centres and stadiums in North America.

The app will also be introduced in the next few months at the Bay Centre in Victoria and Vancouver International Airport.

Philip Stanger, Wifarer's chief executive, said the company makes money by selling the software to venues and believes the enduser should not have to pay for the app.

"It's a service the venue provides the user for engagement," he said.

Stanger said there has been a lot of interest in the software since it started testing, and the company, which has 15 employees, is looking for more personnel and larger offices.

The app works seamlessly with Android phones, and Wifarer is in discussion with Apple to improve performance as not all functions currently work with the iPhone. It does not support BlackBerry use.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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