Survey of Location-Based Storytelling Tools

Looking out my living room window in Providence, RI I see a changing neighborhood. I wonder who the various people were that inhabited my apartment over the past 100 years, and what the buildings looked like that once stood in the parking lots that now surround my building. Cities are rich with layered histories, but accessing these histories can be challenging. Everyday more location-based storytelling tools enter the market attempting to solve this problem from a number of different approaches, and several have developed into promising platforms for urban exploration. However, I am still looking for the mobile tool that satisfies all of my city storytelling needs.

Starting closest to home, Brown University’s Brown FACADES is an app that provides an interactive tour of the university’s architecture. Produced by professor Dietrich Neumann with the help of his undergraduate students, the app provides a comprehensive guide to campus architecture including buildings old, new and even some that no longer exist. FACADES might be the best geo-locative storytelling app I’ve seen when it comes to usability. It has filters that allow you to search its buildings by architect, function, year and distance. I especially like that you can build and map your own itinerary of campus architecture through the app’s “bookmark” function. The app is intuitively designed and easy to use. It’s no surprise that Princeton Architectural Press is adopting the FACADES platform for their campus guide app series, and has asked Neumann to be editor.

The problem with FACADES is that few people know that it exists. It’s rich with quality content that you can only access if you’re one of the lucky people who found out about and downloaded the app. This problem would be helped to a large degree if it were a mobile-enabled platform. If mobile-enabled, you’d stumble upon its content by searching online for any of its 132 buildings; an impossibility as an app. What FACADES also needs are physical cues alerting passersby that stories about the buildings surrounding them are only a click away. Because, when you most want to learn about a building is when you’re standing right in front (or inside) of it. At the very least, the university should add “FACADES” stickers to the signs outside of every brown-owned building as a public service.


Walking through a city, I’m unknowingly walking past so many stories. And sometimes the best stories are those that come to me when I least expect it. This is the concept of Field Trip, an app developed by Google’s Niantic Labs. Field Trip runs in the background of your phone, and when you approach something interesting (according to filters you’ve already selected) it sends you a notification that directs you to its app. Field Trip is a guide to the “cool, hidden, and unique things in the world” around us. Unfortunately, it rarely works as it’s supposed to. If you don’t actively use it all the time, the app essentially goes to sleep and you never hear from it again.

Detour is the platform for urban exploration that’s getting the most publicity, likely because Groupon founder, Andrew Mason, is its developer. Detour is taking what might be the most intimate approach to geo-locative storytelling: sound. As Wired explains it, Detour “uses a phone’s GPS tracker to guide users on audio tours of neighborhoods, providing background information and directions as listeners arrive at different landmarks, or ‘narration triggers’”. Detour calibrates to your own pace making for a seamless experience. The stories are lesser known and hyper-local, featuring prominent neighborhood voices. At this point the only tours available are in San Francisco and need to be purchased as a package for $24.99; though Detour does have international ambitions and promises to launch tours in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles this year. Each tour is a major production, making the growth of the platform slow and its reach small. Later this year Detour will be releasing Descript, the “engine” behind its tours that will enable anyone to create their own audio tour experiences. I’m not clear how this will work, or what the cost will be for either the tour creators or users, but I look forward to seeing how it unfolds (A more simple alternative to Detour is Podwalks out of Denmark. The platform is free for tour takers, but at 200 euros /mo, costly for producers).

These are all great tools in their own ways (I didn’t even mention this neat augmented reality tool being developed in Chicago), but I’m still not satisfied. Most of these tools (except for Field Trip which is unreliable) require the user to be an active tour taker. It assumes that people are searching through the app store for tour experiences of a city. But I’m interested in more than that odd person actively searching for such experiences. Instead, I’m interested in a platform that will satisfy that active participant, in addition to engaging those who least expect it. I know how to access history and other information when I’m searching for it, but it’s most fun when I stumble upon it unexpectedly.

Walking Cinema: Posts from Gloucester might come the closest to what I’m looking for in a place-based storytelling tool. Walking Cinema’s founder Michael Epstein was hired to create a digital storytelling tool to bring life and history to the harbor redevelopment of Gloucester, MA. What he created, under the direction of Cambridge7 Associates, is the most dynamic and engaging mobile storytelling tool I know of. Epstein integrated his digital storytelling into the physical environment of Gloucester (see video excerpt above) with the use of real world installations such as granite markers, a boat and a fisherman’s shack. The granite markers attract you as you walk by and invite you to further experience the area’s history through downloading the app. The app casts you in the movie of Gloucester, which you experience with the use of physical props to make its stories come alive. As you travel through Gloucester history you can take pictures along the way, which are saved as postcards for you to share through social media.

I haven’t been to Gloucester yet, but it’s on the top of my bucket list. When I go, expect a postcard.




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