Navigating the World in an Internet of Things

Navigating an urban environment is easier than it used to be, thanks to smartphones, GPS and Google Maps. But these solutions presume that a traveler knows where they are and where they want to go. Locals and tourists alike switch between serendipitous wandering and focused transit. As the lines between the digital and physical world disappear, wayfinding and discovery in cities will evolve into hybrid experiences.

Yelp Monocle screenshot

Yelp Monocle screenshot (Mashable)

New York Wayfinding Signage

New York Wayfinding Signage (Pentagram)

For this project, I discovered three wayfinding modes that describe travelers’ attitudes toward surprises, studied technological innovation, and created prototypes of a multi-channel method of city discovery. This new experience, called hint, is a system of smart city objects embedded with proximity sensors that delivers unique suggestions of hyper-local destinations and nearby detours. Smartphone users can access supplementary content tailored to their location in the city.

Hint on the city streets in Chicago.

Hint on the city streets in Chicago.

Hint can show complementary content on a NFC-enabled smartphone that is specific to that hint story and location.

Hint can show complementary content on a NFC-enabled smartphone that is specific to that hint story and location.

The Journey to Hint

In thinking about technology and place early in my project, I focused my inquiry on two key questions:

  • What is the role of surprise in wayfinding? and
  • How might technology encourage urban exploration through the merging of the physical and digital world?

It would be difficult and time-consuming to wander a new city with multiple travelers, so I replicated the experience in an provocative game (or provotype). This enabled me to create on-the-fly (and sometimes outrageous) scenarios that travelers could respond to. I was then able to probe into their reactions, helping them recall stories from past trips.

Provotype rules and testing protocol

Provotype traveler map

Learning the Travelers’ Journey

Secondary research on wayfinding fundamentals and reactions to my provotype game elicited a variety of emotions and coping mechanisms. All of the travelers conducted research in the face of a surprise destination or decision point: they studied the location’s physical attributes, as well as, digital reviews and websites. The context of a “surprise” or detour also impacted their response: their schedule, mood, companions and more. It was a complicated juggling of variables that needed to happen quickly.

There's an overwhelming amount of information travelers weigh before making a destination decision.

There’s an overwhelming amount of information travelers weigh before making a destination or detour decision.

Using Personas

Interestingly, travelers also had embedded attitudes that affected their responses. To parse out these differences, I developed three personas that described each traveling mindset: Planned & Opinionated, “It Depends,” and Social & Inquisitive.

Planned & Opinionated travelers have very clear opinions and focus activities in small areas that are planned in advance.

Planned & Opinionated travelers have very clear opinions and focus pre-planned activities in small areas.

“It Depends” travelers go where the activity is and plan a few activities with free time to explore.

“It Depends” travelers go where the activity is and plan just a few activities, giving themselves free time to explore.

Social & Inquisitive travelers are open to surprises and gravitate towards activity and unique locales.

Social & Inquisitive travelers are very adventurous and gravitate towards activity and unique locales.

To direct ideation, I focused on the “It Depends” persona. This mode could be encouraged to take detours by leveraging context, while also supporting the “Social and Inquisitive” mode, which is quick to seek detours.

Brainstorming Beyond Orthodoxies

With this new focus, I used inspiring problem statements for ideation:

  • How might we offer short detours at more times of day?
  • How might we turn unplanned time into gained time?
  • How might we offer destination suggestions based on wayfinding context?

While conducting traditional brainstorming techniques, I also challenged wayfinding and navigation orthodoxies to reveal new opportunities. While reversing these orthodoxies may not make sense in all wayfinding situations, the reversal of some orthodoxies creates a wholly new experience.

Original Orthodoxy  Reversed Orthodoxy 
 Visual maps are most effective. Sound/touch is most effective.
 Being lost is bad. Being lost is good.
 Each city has universal landmarks.  Each city has many small landmarks.
 People have destinations. People need destinations.
 People want to take the shortest route.  People want to take the most scenic/nicest route.
Turn-by-turn directions are the best way to get somewhere. Directions don’t need to be exact.
 Signs identify common destinations.  Signs identify novel destinations.

To bridge physical and digital space, I explored how to leverage human senses other than sight, such as auditory and haptic feedback which is utilized by technology like iBeacons.

Estimote use case (Estimote)

Estimote use case (Estimote)

In general, research showed that technology and maps had revealed the spaces around us, but had not helped us chose which spaces to go to. GPS signals and proximity sensors offer opportunities for the city to know where someone is and serve them information tailored to that location. Right now, we rely on that information on screens, but sound could be a unique way of serving hyper-local tips to travelers on the street. I was excited to play with a new sense, but it wasn’t clear exactly where and how stories where shared.

To deliver hyper-local information, landmarks made the most sense since they stand out in a city. I saw an opportunity to challenge travelers’ concepts of landmarks by utilizing less-famous, but ubiquitous, landmarks like fire hydrants, planters and light poles. Who would expect a light pole to talk to them? This concept would give these silent elements in the cityscape a voice and a platform to talk about what’s around them.

Simple Hint scenario

The Idea

To build on my brainstorming, I drafted simple scenarios showing how the city’s infrastructure might serve as magical stewards. The most promise, both in terms of surprise and technological opportunity, was a solution called hint, which referred to the nuggets of information dispensed by the objects.

Hint is a smart object that is attached to other “dumb” city objects. Embedded in hint is an NFC reader, small screen, proximity sensor, Wifi router and power source. Travelers approach the city object to engage a series of audio scripts which include tips and stories about each location or nearby locations, landmarks and businesses. Meanwhile, the embedded screen projects the script in sequence with the audio clip for diverse audiences. A mobile website, accessed on an NFC-enabled smartphone, delivers complementary content and multimedia consumed at the traveler’s pace. At the end of the audio component and mobile site content, hint provides directions to a nearby detour within the traveler’s sightlines, or a 5 minute walk.

Users with NFC-enabled smartphones can tap the hint speakers to access complementary content.

Users with NFC-enabled smartphones can tap the hint speakers to access complementary content.

Articulating the New Traveler Experience: Scenarios & User Flows

Scenarios assisted me in creating user flow diagrams that revealed user entry and exit points and key interactions. The user flow diagrams enabled me to quickly develop wireframes for prototyping and testing. Now with a clearer sense of the “how,” I focused on what the content and speaker looked like. Without an “loud” speaker design that stood out, travelers might mistake the origin of the sounds.

Hint user flow

Building a Complete Working Prototype

To bring the idea to life, I developed a works-like, Wizard of Oz prototype that simulated three unique hint installations. The speaker head forms were carved from styrofoam and finished in a putty. An Apple iPhone and tablet that were connected via wifi played the roles of in-unit video player, web server, and proximity sensor. My sample content for the speaker screen was developed in Keynote and synced with an audio track, while the smartphone screens were developed in Photoshop and HTML.

Inside the Hint speaker
Hint speaker

The phone communicated via Wifi with an iPad streaming the synchronized audio and visual components.

Making the Content Real: Mobile Website Design

The mobile web component was an important in showing the breadth of content that could be experienced on the hint platform. The web experience needed to immersive to the time period and topic, so the visual design was customized to that. I chose to design a mobile web experience so that travelers could quickly access the content without downloading an app and content managers could easily generate more content with the knowledge of the more accessible HTML and CSS.

Below are selected screens from a mobile story on the origin of the Great Chicago Fire.

Hint Mobile Screen 1

The mobile site could include articles and historical resources.

Travelers can read articles and historical resources.

The mobile site could also include maps and point to nearby detours as a self-guided tour.

Travelers can also explore maps and begin self-guided tours of nearby detours.

Response to Hint

Hint was presented to graduate students and a representative of the city of Chicago’s tourism board. The audience was mesmerized by the object screen’s animations and audio component as the object seemed to “come alive.” The representative from the tourism board revealed that the department was beginning to research iBeacons and he was glad to see my explorations also.