But there was nothing chaotic about their play. This was hard work, and it engaged every corner of their brains. Though the robbery was imaginary, the kids had to go through something akin to the real-world scientific process to solve the mystery-gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, challenging each other’s interpretations, and in the end, presenting the data to the judges to see how close they came to figuring out all of the case’s nuances.Klopfer’s museum experiment seems calm and contained compared to geo-caching, which one website calls “the sport where you are the search engine.” A treasure chest, containing a logbook and perhaps some rewards, is buried in some obscure location. The GPS coordinates are posted on the Internet and people come from all over, scrambling through the bush or grubbing in the dirt to try to track it down. When they find the cache, they take a memento, sign the log book, and leave a gift for the next searcher. Sometimes, the chest contains another set of coordinates, sending the finder scampering off for a new location. Geo-caching has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Many of the publishers of tourist guides are already experimenting with electronic versions of their texts. But they are underestimating the ways these devices can alter where we go and what we see. Take, for example, the History Unwired project-an initiative of Michael Epstein and Cristobal Garcia, entrepreneurial graduate students in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. This project is working with the tourism boards in Venice and in Alcala de Henares (Cervantes’s hometown) to develop new applications for handhelds. Venice may be a city with a rich history and a unique atmosphere, but most tourists experience it as a theme park ride-hop on a gondola and drift down the main canal. The local merchants and the city officials want use handhelds to lure tourists into other parts of the city to share the wealth and avoid the wear and tear on their fragile environment. The content of the tours is being developed at a grassroots level involving discussions with local community members.
Another initiative coming out of the MIT Comparative Media Studies department allows visitors to Paris’s Marais neighborhood to view old photographs and historic illustrations of the city. This project, called Flneurs Savants, was developed by graduate students Andrea McCarty and Rekha Murthy. While the program encourages visitors to engage with the area’s modern inhabitants, Flneurs Savants also invites people to scan the buildings and landscape for traces of a world that may no longer exist but that shaped how the neighborhood developed. You could imagine a tour that worked in the other direction, mapping onto the current city the speculations of urban planners and science fiction writers about what it might look like in 50 or 100 years.
Or imagine the ways these tools could help activists and urban planners to better understand the problems confronting a local community. The handheld could encourage people walking through the Boston Common at dusk to be more aware of the homeless people sleeping on the ground, or encourage amblers to look for signs of pollution as they cross the Charles River.
We can move through these environments at our own pace, look at what interests us, and access multiple layers of annotation. Of course, you can do that with a guidebook in your hand. But the handheld delivers a media-rich experience, enabling you to access photographs, sound files, and moving images that complement what you are seeing with your own eyes.
Some researchers believe that these devices may also become effective vehicles for storytelling. Last Halloween, MIT grad student Epstein organized Ghosts at the Granary in Boston. He worked with the Freedom Trail Foundation to produce a spooky tour of a local graveyard that combined live performers interacting with animated characters that appeared to visitors on their handhelds.
Creative artists have long been fascinated with trying to tell the multiple stories that unfold in the same community and the different ways that participants see each other. Imagine a digital artist doing in a real space what Edgar Lee Masters achieved in Spoon River Anthology, or mapping onto the houses of a small town the kinds of stories Sherwood Anderson spun in Winesburg, Ohio. As we look closely at the outside of the buildings, we struggle to figure out where fiction ends and reality begins.
Writing in 1959, Kevin Lynch, a founding figure in urban studies, proposed new ways to map our experience of the city. He wanted to create tools for explaining the life of the city-tools that enabled us to see the most common routes and best remembered landmarks, that allowed us to feel the “interconnectedness” of the urban experience, and that recorded “particular zones that for any one individual might be more intensely felt.” The location-aware handheld represents such a resource. These devices may wake us from the stupor with which we so often move through our neighborhoods. They may break tourists from the tyranny of the guidebook. They may empower us to move through the space with a purpose and invite us to look at each detail from a more informed perspective.