Fire, Ice and Beacons Converge at Eldheimar Museum

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Icelandic startup Locatify has developed a content-management system that allows museums or other organizations to create their own audio tour guides for Bluetooth-enabled smartphones or tablets, using beacons as location-based triggers.

In the early morning hours of January 23, 1973, on the island of Heimaey, part of an archipelago off the coast of Iceland, the Eldfell volcano erupted. The event lasted for an astounding five months and, as a result, the island grew by 2.1 square kilometers (0.81 square mile) in size and rose by 200 meters (656 feet) in height. But the event also marked a tragedy for the island's more than 5,000 inhabitants who were forced to flee. In the end, 400 homes and businesses were covered by lava or ash.

The event, often called the Pompeii of the North, is memorialized at the Eldheimar Museum, which was built around one of the homes exhumed from the volcano's ash. The museum opened its doors in May 2014, along with a beacon-based interactive tour developed by Locatify, a startup based in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland, a coastal town south of Reykjavik.

The museum loans each visitor a smartphone loaded with an audio tour and a pair of headphones; an app then triggers audio and graphic interpretations of the excavated building and other exhibits. (Photo: Locatify)

Locatify has created a content-management system (CMS) that is designed to help non-programmers develop location-based guides and game applications by leveraging Bluetooth or GPS technology, for indoor and outdoor use, respectively. The Eldheimar Museum was its first customer to create an indoor guide using the Locatify CMS. It installed 55 Bluetooth beacons, made by Kontakt.io, throughout the museum.

The user interface of Locatify's CMS is similar to that of Wordpress or other website-building platforms. "The key was to make it easy to set up," explains Steinunn Anna Gunnlaugsdóttir, one of Locatify's co-founders. "So we focus our CMS on floor maps. The user uploads a map and identifies the stations and associates each station with a beacon [in the CMS]."

The beacon-based audio tour guide is built into the CMS. The museum administrator starts by creating and naming a floor, and uploads a map image of that floor—in either JPG or PNG format—into the CMS. He then keys in the floor's dimensions, in meters. If the map image shows more than just the exhibit area in which the audio tour will take place—that is, if it also includes stairways or other details along the edge of the image—then he can set the margins in the image to match the dimensions he has keyed in, using the CMS's cropping tools.

In addition, the administrator can upload background music to play when the user enters that floor; he can choose to run the background audio on repeat, or have it play from beginning to end only once. He then selects the language(s) in which the tour's textual information will be available to visitors. The CMS supports English, Estonian, German, Icelandic, Italian, Suomalainen (Finnish), French, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Latvian, Faroese, Dutch and Portuguese.

The CMS user can upload an audio file to welcome the visitor to the floor, which would play over the background music. The user would then build out the stations on the map, by clicking an "add station" button, dropping a station icon on the appropriate part of the floor map, and adjusting the station's size on the map. He can upload an image and key in the name of the station, along with a short, text-based description of it, all of which will appear on the visitor's smartphone or tablet when that person arrives at the station. Then, the user uploads the pre-recorded audio tour for that station, in MP3 or MP4 file format.

Each station requires at least one Bluetooth beacon, which detects the app user's presence and activates the tour content (both audio and visual). A museum employee registers the beacons into the CMS by clicking an "add beacon" button and then keying in the beacon's universally unique identifier (UUID), as well as its major and minor number (provided by the manufacturer). The CMS user drags and drops the beacon icon onto the map to match its location in the space, and also sets the size of the field around the beacon at which it should trigger the tour content. In other words, the museum can decide that the tour will trigger once a visitor is within, say, 5 meters (16.4 feet) of any beacons associated with the station. Or, in a more crowded space containing multiple stations, a shorter range might be required. The audio tour and visual elements associated with the station in the CMS will play whenever a guest, running the app on his or her phone, comes within a beacon's set range.

This process is repeated for each floor, as well as for every station on each floor. The museum can set the tour for each station to launch automatically based on a visitor's location, or set the application to send that individual a push notification on his or her device, to which the guest would need to respond before that tour segment would begin.

The museum can set the tour for each station to launch automatically, based on a visitor's location. (Photo: Locatify)

A total of 55 beacons are installed throughout the Eldheimar Museum. Gunnlaugsdóttir and her Locatify co-founder, Leifur Björn Björnsson, say the installation was a good learning experience that has helped them to avoid bumps in subsequent installations at other museums. (They have also begun offering a service to build temporary beacon networks and tours at conferences and expositions.)

The pair say they have found that a beacon's placement is an important consideration. The physical material behind a beacon can impact how well or poorly that beacon's signal propagates, especially when a user holds the smartphone or tablet close to his or her torso, since a human body can weaken the RF signal. "We find that if we keep the beacons mounted high up—and on the ceiling, if possible—that works best," Björnsson says.

What's more, the expected battery life does not always match the actual battery life. One of the Kontakt.io beacons installed at the museum stopped functioning one year into the battery's expected two-year lifespan. Locatify suggests that museum personnel periodically walk through their facility equipped with a phone or tablet running the Locatify CMS in administrative mode. This would allow them to open the audio tour app and view the map with all beacons highlighted. They can also test each beacon to make sure its battery is still operating, and that no changes in the museum (a repair to an exhibit, for example) have impacted any beacon's ability to detect a user's Bluetooth signal within its set range.

After installing the beacon network at Eldheimar Museum in time for its opening, Gunnlaugsdóttir and Björnsson left for a vacation but then received a frantic call and had to cut their trip short. A security system had been installed after the beacons were in place and tested, Björnsson explains, and that system included motion detectors that were operating in the same RF spectrum (2.4 GHz) but not following the same communication protocol as the beacons. To resolve this interference issue, the burglar alarm provider had to replace the motion detectors.

"Now, when I start work in a new museum, I go in with an RF monitor and map the environment," Björnsson states. The staff must also be aware of infrastructure changes that could affect the beacons' set range.

The Eldheimar Museum decided not to offer its audio tour via a public-facing app that visitors can download on their own devices. Rather, the facility loans each visitor a smartphone loaded with the audio tour and a pair of headphones. As he or she walks throughout the museum, the app triggers a number of different audio- and graphic- based interpretations of the excavated building and other exhibits. The museum depends heavily on the audio tour to guide visitors, Gunnlaugsdóttir says, and uses minimal printed signage.

During the first year of the system's use, the museum found that 95 percent of visitors who utilized the application listened to the entire audio tour.

According to Gunnlaugsdóttir, some of the other museums with which Locatify has since begun working are also restricting—at least initially—the audio tour to devices that staff members hand out to visitors. Others plan to offer their app for public download on Android or Apple devices.

Locatify asks museums to purchase the beacons of their choice. Björnsson notes that beacons with replaceable batteries can remain in the CMS indefinitely, whereas if a beacon's battery dies and cannot be replaced, then the museum must not only physically install a new beacon, but also access the CMS and enter its UUID and other data in order to commission it into the system.

Museums play a flat initiation fee, plus a monthly subscription fee based on the number of stations on the tour (Björnsson declines to provide exact pricing). A museum can evaluate the CMS by building an entire audio tour in test mode (providing its own beacons) before deciding whether to commit to launching the app.

Locatify's CMS also enables users to create outdoor (GPS-based) audio tours, as well as GPS-based treasure hunt games. Additionally, a museum could use the CMS to build out all of these functions into a single museum application.

Unlike Dutch startup Muzze, Locatify is not creating a single application that visitors could download and use to access audio tours for multiple museums.