Hi-tech puts guides on the spot

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TOKYO - The Japanese tour guide, replete with white gloves and a flag to lead the obedient troops, is threatened with extinction - by a satellite system and compact discs, writes Terry McCarthy. Just as technology is draining humanity from bank tellers, ticket collectors and telephone operators, so too, it seems, the tour guide is doomed to hi-tech oblivion.

For years Japanese tourists have been shepherded by their elegant tour guides, usually women in neat suits and flat hats, reeling off the vital statistics of the Eiffel Tower/Buckingham Palace/Empire State Building in a high-pitched voice as their charges nod vigorously, pausing only to take photographs of each other in front of the Eiffel Tower/Buckingham Palace and such like.

But labour is expensive in Japan, and tour guides take some time to train. In their place a Tokyo-based company, Technical Services Information Co. (TSI), has developed an automated tour-guide system which gives video pictures and a voice-over of noteworthy landmarks along the route. The 'Sight Navi' system is linked to global positioning system (GPS) satellites, so that the screen does not light up with pictures of Mount Fuji while the bus is still stuck in a traffic jam in a Tokyo suburb.

Sensors calculate the position of the bus from the satellite signals, and interact with compact discs with read-only memories (CD-ROM) to play the relevant touristic blurb at the right time. For the rest of the time the screen shows the progress of the bus on a map of the area.

TSI has spent three years developing this hatless, gloveless guide, and has compiled 42 CD-ROMs of tour information for different areas of Japan. The GPS satellites cover the globe, so in theory a guide could be compiled for anywhere tourists might go in the world, as for example: 'From where you are standing, all the Himalayan peaks are spread out below you. Please don't litter with empty oxygen bottles.'

The Sight Navi system costs pounds 14,000 to install, and does not need food, sleep or toilet visits. But so far it cannot hold a camera and take pictures of tourist groups either.