Evolution of the audio trail
In the March 2013 issue of Interpret Wales we were asked to write an article about the evolution of the audio trail. Here is that article:
In 2006 if you typed ‘audio trails’ into the world’s most popular search engine you would have returned few results relating to outdoor audio guides. Repeat that exercise today and you will receive over 16 million results. Each one, page after page, promotes an array of audio trails that cover every corner of the UK and beyond.
Audio trails provides an unobtrusive method of interpretation to help visitors engage with their heritage across the country from towns and villages to castles and former coalfields.
In its simplest form an audio trail contains a pre-recorded narration and as directions are given at the end of each MP3 file to guide visitors to the next point of interest, interpretation can be very focussed and multi-scensory. The audio can be enhanced with oral history excerpts, characterisation, poetry, music and sound effects. In fact just about anything that is audible can be used to bring your audio trail to life, and encourage listeners to explore and discover.
So what is at the heart of a good audio trail?
Good planning throughout the project is vital. When we worked with Forestry Commission Wales to produce five audio trails we were given mini-interpretation plans for every site. Each single-page document focused everyone on the job in hand and covered topics such as site significance, reason for action, existing and new audiences, interpretive objectives, the organisations key message(s) and the overarching theme.
“Young women from a variety of backgrounds from all over UK came to help the war effort by working in the forests of Wales”
In response we sought out historical and contemporary accounts of women’s experience both at Tan y Coed and further afield to create a fictional character, and used real events to tell her spellbinding story.
From the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority we had equally conscientious clients and our oral reminiscence and character-based (Goblin Gwladus) trails are still used as examples of best practise five years on.
Another key aspect is your enthusiasm. We like to capture the initial spark that prompted the creation of the project and draw on the passion of those who are involved in its creation.
I recently completed writing a script for Radnorshire Wildlife Trust. We didn’t see the otters, salmon or water voles my guide had told me about, but his infectious excitement for the reserve poured into me and this reflected positively in the way I approached and wrote the script.
In each example the projects weren’t shoehorned into a particular media technique; an audio trail was chosen because it fit the aims of the project.
Have audio trails evolved?
Our first audio trails had tracks lasting from two to five minutes and were listened to by walkers on relatively long moorland walks. However today we aim to keep our audio short and sweet. 60-90 seconds may not sound long, but you would be amazed at how much information can be conveyed in that time. It is equal to a similar number of words you would put on a well-structured interpretation panel.
With the evolution of smartphones, audio trails have become even more streamlined as they allow us to use GPS to automatically trigger content related to the visitor’s position. Furthermore, audio can be enhanced with text, photographs and video. Interactivity can also be incorporated through Social Media, quizzes and games.
At the beginning of 2012 smartphone ownership in the UK passed the 50% mark and this figure continues to rise. Statistics show that 74% of 15-64 year olds own a smartphone. If children who don’t own a smartphone (they will soon) then about three-quarters of the people they are with will. These statistics suggest that the vast majority of your visitors will have access to a smartphone – and this device is a vehicle for providing targeted and layered multimedia content.
As a result ‘apps’ have really captured the public’s imagination. Our Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust’s Glaslyn and Bugeilyn iPhone app illustrates a simple example of how an audio trail can take advantage of GPS-triggering. Likewise our Rhondda Cynon Taf Heritage Trails app (iPhone and Android) is embedded with five bilingual audio trails providing visitors with an invaluable guide to the area.
A recent project has pushed the boundaries with which visitors use their smartphone to engage with heritage sites. We developed Mission: Butterfly a butterfly catching app game using Augmented Reality (AR). AR is the process of layering digital content over the real world. In this instance, virtual butterflies flutter across the camera screen with the nature reserve as the backdrop. The user has the task of trying to catch as many butterflies as they can. The fifteen virtual species are spread across the reserve and GPS triggers your arrival in a particular butterflies habitat. Once a species is collected it is transferred to a ‘collection jar’ for further analysis. The app ensures butterflies can be seen on the reserve all year round, and allows visitors to differentiate between species and their individual habits.
QR codes are a good way to provide on-site audio too. By scanning the code the content is magically displayed on a smartphone. We used this to good effect along the Montgomery Canal. The web-based trail contains fascinating facts, images and recordings of wildlife along the trail. The small waymark discs act as a useful visual prompt to promote the project to.
Finally, in the days before downloadable audio trails, museums were the only place to listen to audio guides. Audio ‘wands’ were loaned out to visitors. This technology has also evolved. If visitors are not prepared with the downloaded audio then many museums have adopted iPods, tablets, or other handsets to loan out. The administration of these devices at outdoor sites can be problematic, but a small souvenir audio guide overcomes this problem. These simple MP3 players can be sold from an information centre or local shop and kept as a momento by the visitor to use when they return next time to hear your fascinating story.
You can download and read issue 19 of the magazine from the Interpret Wales website. Issue 17 also features an article by Pembrokeshire Coast NPA about the Nevern Castle audio trail we created on their behalf.