Audio Tour Guide – Before you begin

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Introduction

We’re going to place the intelligence ‘inside’ the cuddly toy and use fairly ‘dumb’ triggers in the room. The intelligence in this case is an Android smartphone with NFC support (although you can probably recreate this with a Windows Phone instead. At the time of writing the NFC chip in iPhone is reserved entirely for ApplePay). The ‘dumb’ triggers are NFC tags.

Near Field Communication (NFC)

Near Field Communication is the ‘magical’ technology that we’re going to use to trigger when we’re in a particular location. Once we know where we are we can play the appropriate audio sample. NFC is the same technology to operate the ‘contactless payment’ system.

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When you bring the phone close to (<5cm) to the tag – it is able to read the small amount of data stored on the tag and transfer that to the phone.

Hardware

NFC Android Phone

You need an android phone that supports NFC (Near Field Communication). Unfortunately, NFC is not entirely widespread – although it is expected to be more prevalent in the future. You may be lucky to already have a phone that supports NFC – so you can use an existing device. Newer devices are more likely to have NFC included. I purchased a number of Google Nexus 4 phones off of eBay (<£50 each). The Nexus 4 was a flagship phone several years ago – so has just about every sensor you can think of. Even now the phone is very usable – fortunately people’s desire for new phones – mean that these retail for far less than the hardware inside them! An alternative is to buy a brand new Chinese-branded Android phone that supports NFC. These are generally a lot cheaper than UK brand equivalents.

NFC Tags

You need to buy a set of NFC tags. These can be in the form of credit cards, key fobs or ever stickers. Internally these are all pretty much the same. They retail for between 20-70p each (depending on the quality that you buy). The good news is that NFC tags don’t need batteries and are entirely reusable – so they won’t run out.

Cuddly Toy

You’ll need something to place the phone inside. Remember that the range of reading the NFC tag is only a few centimetres. I ended up using animal purses as these were cheap to buy and allowed the phone to be placed close to the edge. You may already have a character connected with your museum that would be ideal to turn into a tour guide. Perhaps you even sell this character in some form in your museum shop!

Audio Output (optional)

Depending on the cuddly toy that you buy – you may have additional space inside for more hardware. It’s possible to add a small speaker or connect up retro phone handsets to allow the visitors to easily hear the audio samples. A simpler solution is just to ‘boost’ the volume of the sound samples so they are much louder than the original recording and can be heard through the toy.

Software

You’ll need WiFi access while you set-up the phone – but not when you run the workshop. You’ll probably need to allow your phone a bit of time to complete all its system updates. Any Android phone needs an account to associate the phone with – this will allow you to buy and download apps from the ‘Google Play’ store.

All the apps you need (with the exception of the one that writes the data to the NFC tags is free).

  • ‘Hi-Q’ & ‘Voice Changer’ can be used to record your voice.
  • ‘MP3 Cutter’ can be used to split / join audio files.
  • ‘File Manager’ allow you to move and rename files.
  • ‘NFC Tasks’ read from the NFC Tags
  • ‘NFC Tools PRO’ is used to write to the NFC Tags. This currently costs ~£2.50.

 

You should probably allow an hour or so to set up the phone with the required software (although it’s possible to do this somewhat in parallel if you have multiple phones.

Final steps

Once you’re all installed – take a few moments to lay out the icons on the ‘home screen’. This will make it easier to find the applications that you’re looking for during the workshop.

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There are millions of applications on the ‘Google Play’ store. You may find it worth spending some time exploring alternatives.