Let the iPhone be your guide at New York's Natural History museum

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If you’ve ever had to navigate through an expansive museum like the Louvre or the Air & Space Museum, you’ve probably experienced at least one moment of disorientation, intimidation, or downright frustration brought on by the sheer magnitude and labyrinthine layout of these enormous institutions. The American Museum of Natural History in New York wants to put an end that frustration, and it’s turning to the iPhone to help get the job done.

The museum’s AMNH Explorer app turns your iPhone and iPod touch into a virtual tour guide. The free app tracks your location in the museum and offers turn-by-turn directions to exhibits, bathrooms, cafes, and giftshops.

AMNH Explorer provides photos and information on exhibits at New York’s American Museum of Natural History as well as a detailed map of your current location.

With 45 permanent exhibition halls alongside theaters, cafes, and gift shops, the museum is one the largest in the world. Visitors can explore more than 500,000 square feet over four levels, so it isn’t hard to see how a mobile companion can come in handy. I had a chance to take AMNH Explorer for a test drive around the American Museum of Natural History during a press event this week to show off the newly released app.

While AMNH Explorer is available through the App Store, the museum will also make it available to visitors who don’t have an iPhone or iPod touch handy. The museum will keep a stockpile of 350 iPod touches to loan out for free; visitors just have to provide an ID.

During my visit to the museum next to Central Park, I downloaded the Explorer app onto my iPhone 3GS and connected to the museums’s free wireless network. The museum refers to the app’s location tracking abilities as “indoor GPS,” but it actually relies on a dense network of Wi-Fi hot spots to triangulate your location. This allows the app to better track your location inside the building, and, more important, determine what floor you’re on.

While your experience with the AMNH Explorer ideally starts at your home, where you can peruse the exhibits and set up your own customized tour of the museum, the app makes it easy to dive right in and start exploring when you’re on-site. The home screen offers a simple directory from which you can find exhibits, embark on a museum tour, find food and shops, or find restrooms and exits. I tapped on the Find Exhibits button and had the app lead me to the museum’s famed Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. The app provided me with a map of my current room, and turn by turn instructions to get me to the exhibit.

The Explorer’s location detection isn’t pinpoint accurate, but it always knew which room I was in, and though it didn’t make use of my iPhone 3GS’s compass, its turn-by-turn directions made note of obvious landmarks to keep me going in the right direction. Instead of “walk East down the hall”, it would tell me to “exit into the Hall of Human Origins” or “walk toward the large blue banner.” The system worked well enough for me to quickly and efficiently hit some of the museum’s most popular yet scattered exhibits—the aforementioned T-Rex, a life-size replica of a Blue Whale, and the 34-ton Cape York Meteorite—in a matter of minutes.

In addition to serving as a guide, the Explorer also provides interesting facts and tidbits of information on more than 140 specimens and objects on display—eventually, the app will offer audio tours of the museum.

You can mark exhibits as “visited”, or bookmark exhibits so you can learn more about them at home. If you’d rather not put together your own tour, the Explorer includes its own pre-packaged tours, such as the Dino Tour and the Highlights Tour. It also features a fossil treasure hunt in which you are directed to “hunt” for pictured items at certain exhibits, and includes social media links for sharing pictures and comments about the museum on Facebook or Twitter.

App Support Team members are dispersed throughout the museum to help visitors use the Explorer app.

Though the app is simple enough for most people to use on their own, the museum has trained a 25-person App Support Team—blue shirted high schoolers who resemble Apple Store employees in both age and attire—to roam about the museum offering assistance in working the app.

I left the American Museum of Natural History feeling thoroughly satisfied with the app’s performance, and think it will truly enhance the experience of any visitor to the museum. But perhaps even more exciting than the effectiveness of the app itself is the glimpse into the future it provides—a future where our smartphones will not only guide us around the city, but also through our museums, libraries, hospitals, and shopping centers.

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Explorer: The American Museum of Natural History

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