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History as an app-arition: York City Council creates historical holograms for tourists

Guidebooks and leaflets aren't enough to tempt tech-savvy tourists these days. Rhodri Marsden grabs his smartphone and goes to meet them
  • @rhodri

"Watch where you're going," says a man I've just managed to annoy. Whoops. Searching for holograms on the tourist trail can be disorientating. With my gaze fixed on my smartphone in the hope of glimpsing a ghostly figure on the screen, I've already been eyed suspiciously by several locals, hooted at by a juggernaut and now I've bumped into a family of four while walking up the steps to York's city walls.

"Sorry," I mumble, as I continue my pursuit of George Hudson, 19th- century railway financier and former Lord Mayor of the city. He's one of 22 walking, talking holograms contained within a new app, backed by the City Council and produced by York-based company Appeartome, that aims to entertain and educate the smartphone-touting tourist. Point your phone's camera at an attraction, and an actor in period costume will appear on screen – as if they're standing right in front of you – and proceed to give a boisterous 90-second performance full of historical detail. Afterwards, if you want a memento, you can have your photo taken with the hologram as it patiently stands there, shifting slightly from foot to foot. It's a preposterously silly idea, but a curiously compelling one. After a couple of hours wandering around York, I've located six holograms, had my photo taken with four of them – and watched my battery drain from 90 per cent to zero.

"Mmm," says Appeartome's chief operating officer, James Riley, as I recharge my phone in the council's swanky new offices. "We're a bit ahead of the curve and we're waiting for the battery technology to catch up." The app was designed to avoid using battery-hungry 3G or GPS functions to make the holograms appear; instead, it cleverly recognises geometric patterns in the brickwork or scenery and triggers the correct performance accordingly. (You can even summon up a hologram by pointing the camera at a picture of York Minster or The Shambles.) But I didn't know this earlier on the train, when I paid my £2.99 in the App Store and started a hefty 108Mb download. "Oh, that's why the app initially directs you towards York Museum," says council leader James Alexander.

"There's free city centre wi-fi there, so you can download the full app without using up your data allowance." Alexander's enthusiasm for technology is evident. "I said I wanted a tourism app when I became council leader in May 2011," he says, "and most people looked at me as if I had three heads. But now we have an opportunity to create a digital experience in the city – and particularly for younger visitors, who traditionally sit in a bit of a void." During my day in York a number of young people volunteer to take my photo with the holograms, and the response is overwhelmingly positive. "This is really cool," says Chris, on holiday from Newfoundland with his girlfriend. "I don't think I've seen anything like this before." As he snaps a picture, Barbara, on a day trip from Cheshire with her grandchildren, peers over his shoulder. "Oh, that's good, isn't it," she says, nodding. "Very clever."

Of course, things can often be superficially impressive without necessarily catching on, but Appeartome is staking a lot on the success of its technology, created in York, developed in Hyderabad and picking up interest across a number of sectors, particularly sport. "Our research for the York app showed very clearly that people want to see other people rather than a list of facts," says CEO Chris Knight, "so we worked out a way of doing that. It also has to appeal to a broad cross-section of people, so it's not academic – although we are talking to people about more serious applications." Alexander chimes in. "You can imagine in an art gallery," he says, "instead of having cards next to pictures you could summon up a hologram of an artist talking about their work."

With my battery fully recharged, I get back on the tourist trail. The treasure-hunt-y aspect of the app – collecting all the holograms before you catch your train home – keeps me going, but after a while I begin to slightly resent the way the beautiful city is being mediated through a smartphone screen.

I stop to talk to Gordon, who is an Edinburgh-based tour guide who's just delivered a few well-worn jokes about MPs to a coach party of Americans outside the birthplace of Guy Fawkes.

"I think it's nice to have a human aspect," he says. "When this lot are on the coach they're all hooked up to the coach wi-fi, Googling facts about this and that – but when we're walking about I can tell them stories, keep them entertained and they can ask me questions. I think that's really important. And it keeps me in a job!"

I'm inclined to agree with Gordon, but there's every chance that this view will become atypical as smartphone technology develops. Theme-park apps, such as the one produced by Dogfi.sh for Gardaland in Italy, already include in-app games to give an extra layer of interaction for visitors.

Gamification is also evident in Hello Lamp Post, a new project in Bristol that allows people to have SMS conversations with inanimate objects such as postboxes, lamp-posts and manhole covers. (In fact, the replies are designed to reveal things about the questions other people have asked; the objects are merely a conduit for communication between users.) It's faced a barrage of criticism for being a waste of money – but again, it's just an embryonic idea that's connecting us with technology and with our surroundings. As wearable technology such as Google Glass develops, this is destined to play an even greater role in our lives.

Google Glass would have certainly prevented me from having to constantly hold my phone in the air while walking around York; I lost count of the number of people who apologised and moved out of my line of vision as I watched the holograms do their thing.

"There's many other possibilities on the horizon, too," says Riley. "We've started to develop voice control, so, for example, if you ask a hologram to wave, it'll wave back."

"We can also improve things on the ground," says Alexander, "like discreet signage to indicate that there's a hologram waiting there. For example, York has a Chocolate Story attraction, but people don't really know what it is until they go in. Now we can put a hologram of a chocolatier outside to tell everyone about it."

And what about the town crier, who irritatingly shouts "O yea! O yea!" every time you open the app? Can you get rid of him?Riley smiles. "It's a first release," he says. "All feedback is good feedback."

City of York Hologram Tour is available for the iPhone from the App Store for free; an in-app purchase for £2.99 unlocks all the holograms. A version for Android will be available on Google Play shortly