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Tennessee Aquarium Uses Beacons to Engage Visitors

The system, using technology from CloudBeacon, enables visitors to utilize their smartphones to locate animals and play the role of researcher.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 24, 2015

The Tennessee Aquarium, in Chattanooga, is employing Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon technology to allow young visitors to play the role of scientist, by sending them alerts via the aquarium app on their smartphones. When a phone comes within range of the beacon mounted at nearly two dozen of its exhibits, the app receives a card asking the child to take note of a certain animal and its behaviors. The system was taken live two weeks ago.

The Tennessee Aquarium is a non-profit organization with a limited budget, says Thom Benson, the aquarium's senior marketing and communications manager. So management counted it especially fortunate when Tennessee Technological University's BusinessMedia Center donated its services last year to develop an app for the aquarium, and when, at the end of 2014, Chattanooga technology startup CloudBeacon provided beacons and related content-management software and services.

Tennessee Aquarium's High-Tech Animal Tracker app
The result is the High-Tech Animal Tracker Program, which the aquarium released last week. The aquarium app, available for download at both Google Play and iTunes, provides visitors with information before, during and after their visit, such as where to park, hours of service, scheduled daily events and details regarding the animals living at the facility.

With beacon technology, Benson says, the aquarium wanted to add role-playing to the app that would allow children—or even adults—to act as citizen scientists. (Citizen science is a form of research conducted by amateur or nonprofessional scientists.)

Thaddeus Taylor, a Tennessee Aquarium learning specialist, says that from the onset, the aquarium sought to engage its visitors, rather than simply interrupt them with unnecessary content as they moved through the exhibits. "We didn't want this to just be a fact dump," he says, noting that many people do not read printed panels on exhibit walls, rather prefer to simply look at the animals themselves. "We wanted to create a more game-like interaction."

For the beacon functionality in the app, the aquarium created five wildlife biologist characters. After a user downloads the app, when he or she arrives at the aquarium, that person's phone will receive transmissions from beacons in the vicinity (provided that its Bluetooth and notifications functionality are turned on), and the phone will then access content specific to the animals exhibited at that beacon location. Participants receive information about specific animals from a team of five avatar biologists, each specializing in a different animal group—fish, birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians.

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