Multi environment and device framework for tourist experiences in smart cities

Gianpaolo D'Amico, Italy , alberto del bimbo, Italy

Keywords: smart tourism, smart cities, personalization, natural interaction, mobile applications

1. Introduction

In the context of the current global economic crisis, the cultural market is facing serious economic challenges. On the other hand, the tourism industry is gaining momentum via the support of ICT systems mostly based on the Internet (techtourism2000). From this point of view, new tools for cultural tourism emerge, such as as E-commerce websites (Malone:1987:EME:214762.214766), mobile location-based systems (informationtourism1998) and social media platforms (Xiang2010179), which offer an augmented experiences to travelers all around the world who benefit from such technologies. These culture-oriented tourists organize their holidays with the aim of learning and discovering the unknown resources of a place or area, including traditions, food, arts, history or services. They require interesting and compelling content quickly and effectively, eventually fostering the need to personalise their travel according to diverse criteria, such as location, time and personal interests.

A strong opportunity for this new form of tourism is given by smart cities, those urban areas which support sustainable economic development, a high quality of life, and foster participation and engagement of citizens via the use of advanced technologies, such as the Internet of Things, sensors, wireless connections and open data (smartcitieswikipedia). Indeed tourism service providers and public institutions consider them proper contexts in which to develop and experiment with advanced technology-based solutions to offer travelers and also citizens a novel cultural experience.

When people visit a city of art they are supposed to use a guide providing detailed information about the most interesting points of interest and how to reach them. The majority of visitors rely on conventional tourist guides in paper format, which don’t provide any sort of personalization of the itinerary according to their interests, location or availability of time during the day. In addition, in this context personal devices (such as smart-phones, tablets, etc.) play an important role not only because they allow people to use them as electronic tourist guides, but also because they offer more direct and localized access to information according to some criteria. Indeed user personalization and mobile systems for tourism are considered among the most critical factors for the success of a travel experience and represent an interesting opportunity to achieve in a smart city environment.

This paper presents a prototype of a framework for personalizing the cultural itineraries of tourists in the city of Florence (Italy). The proposed solution is composed of a natural interaction system, an application server platform and a mobile application developed for the Municipality of Florence, which has been working for some years to quicken the process of building services according to the paradigm of the smart city, in order to give local citizens and visitors a novel environment in which they can live and discover the most relevant aspects of the city. Thus the Municipality is building a special area near to the main tourist information office, equipped with ICT systems, where visitors can interact with a natural interface system, discover the most interesting cultural points of the urban area (places of worship, historical buildings, museums, monuments, etc.) and then create their own customized itinerary to visit on daily basis. This personalized tourist profile could be easily inspected via a dedicated mobile application, which exchanges data with the other modules of the framework thanks to a free Wifi network service provided by the Municipality across the main area of the town. Thus tourists can visit points of interest according to a chosen itinerary and manage their travel thanks to the location-based and mobile functionalities of their mobile devices.

The rest of this paper is organized as follows: in Related Work, we present related works in the field of cultural tourism in smart cities. In Framework, the prototype of the framework is described in detail. Finally, in Conclusions we discuss conclusions for the work and point to some future directions.

Related work

According to a report from IBM (smartcities2010), smart cities technologies provide solutions to four high-impact issues: reducing congestion in thetransportation systems, enhancing public safety and emergency response time, enabling access to healthcare, and improving education and training. Solutions and research studies in smart tourism fall into this last group and benefit mostly from the paradigms and technologies adopted in electronic tourism (eTourism) (JTR:JTR455, Staab:2002:IST:630327.630780).

Some systems are based on web mapping services (i.e. Google Maps) to track users actions and suggest information (5291141) or consist of a network releasing regional land use information combining map services and XML technology (5567575}. Mobile tourism and location-based services with cultural purposes in cities have been widely developed as applications providing tour information services (5578298), dedicated mobile tourist guides combining multiple data sources (5690853), advanced augmented reality applications (mobileaugmented2012) and (interactaugmented2008).

Among the most relevant improvements to the challenge of smart tourism are personalized services (or recommendation systems) which aim to assist tourists in choosing places to visit with diverse strategies, such as: personalization based on preferences explicitly stated by users (mobileelectronictourist2009), personalization dependent on the user’s geographical location (location-based) (Yu:2009:PLR:1611970.1611977), context-based personalization (Echtibi:2009:MMT:1554233.1554236), and based on characteristics of the personal devices (mobileelectronictourist2009).

However, a common trait of all these approaches is that they propose a single-device experience, in which tourists interact with only one system at a time (a desktop PC, a tablet, etc.). Expanding the experience to more devices and systems in a smart city environment will mean tourists (and also citizens) have more ability to plan and perform their cultural travel according to their real needs and interests.

2. The Framework

Our solution is a multi-device and multi-environment framework which allows tourists to benefit from smart cities technologies and build personalised guides for cultural itineraries that run on any mobile device.

A use case scenario of the experience could be described in the following steps: first visitors come to the office of tourist information in a central area of the town, where they have the chance to collect information in a traditional format (guides and books on paper), talk with a professional dedicated staff and then enter a special room, equipped with multimedia and interactive technologies, and where they can use a natural interface system and inspect an interactive map of the town to create a path to follow day-by-day of the most relevant cultural spots of the town. This personalised ‘bag’ of information is archived in an application server system connected remotely to the natural interaction system via the Internet, which analyses data and builds a collection of personalised information about the visitors. Then, after leaving the information center, tourists can start their personalised travel into town just using their mobile devices. A dedicated application connects to the application server, shows built-in itineraries and offers extra information based on some recommendation criteria related to users’ activities.

The proposed framework is then composed of the following main modules: application server platform, natural interaction system and mobile application (Figure 1).

An overview of the framework architecture.

Figure 1. An overview of the framework architecture.

The platform consists of a database and a set of web services which have the following purposes: providing geographical information and multimedia content to the end-user systems (natural interaction system and mobile application), recording activities performed by users while interacting with them, and then building a profile of interests to share. WiFi network services allow visitors to connect seamlessly to the platform, which is composed of the following modules: mapping layer, content layer, a user profile layer and recommendation engine.

  • Mapping layer: implements web map services functions to query external GPS web services API, extract geographic data and then guarantee real-time and dynamic updates of remote sensing images to be used both in the natural interaction system and the mobile application.
  • Content layer: composed of a database containing geographic data and metadata describing the POIs; implements functions to send them to both end-user systems in conjunction with the mapping layer service.
  • User profile layer: archives all the data from the sessions of the users while interacting with the natural interaction system, creates the related user profile ID and then sends it to the mobile application in order to query the personalised itineraries through the content layer module. In addition, this layer implements extra functions to let users update POIs of the itineraries directly from a location via the mobile application.
  • Recommendation engine: implements a set of web services for users using mobile devices and provides improved recommendations of POIs and extra contents based on their geographical location (location-based).

The application server platform is currently based on open source tools: Apache as webserver module and MySQL as database server module. All the server side functions are developed in the programming language PHP and data are exchanged via JSON format technology. Google Maps is used as the webmapping service, which is queried via Javascript programming language calls.

Natural interaction system

When visitors enter the multimedia hall of the tourist information office, they have the opportunity to interact with a big vertical touchscreen device (55” display with Full HD resolution) with a hidden computer attached on the backside, which acts as an interactive wall where they can plan their journey to the city. The main goal of the system is to provide users an enhanced view of the most important cultural spots of the town, which currently is composed of the most relevant museums, churches and historical buildings of the town.

Initially the user interface shows a map of the town of Florence (Figure 2), centred around the geographical point of the tourist information office, where the visitor is currently located. The zoom level of the map is sized in order to satisfy a compromise between showing a meaningful number of points, which are represented with properly sized visual icons, and allowing the user to detect streets and their names visualized in the display. Users can perform the swipe gesture to move the map in each direction to inspect POIs located in other areas, without any kind of restrictions, because the map uses the Google Maps API to update data in real-time based on the user interaction. At the top central area of the user interface a graphical element visualizes the duration the travel in the town on a daily basis, built by users while adding and removing POIs from their personal itinerary.

An overview of the interactive system placed in the multimedia hall of the tourist information office.

Figure 2. An overview of the interactive system placed in the multimedia hall of the tourist information office.

For each POI the user can perform the tap gesture to activate a widget window composed of the detailed information of the POI (Figure 3), such as: name, image, description, address and duration (time spent on average to visit the place). Two laterally placed interactive areas are showed to perform the following actions: add/remove (to add the POI to the itinerary or to remove it) and close (to remove the widget in order to back to the main map). When a POI is added to the itinerary, two tasks are performed:

  • the color of its representative icon is updated, in order to let users easily recognize if an element has been added or not to their in-progress itinerary on the map;
  • the duration widget on the top of the interface is updated, showing how many days are required to accomplish the itinerary.

At the central top area of the interface a graphical widget shows the total duration of the in-progress itinerary built step-by-step by the user while adding/removing the POIs. It is composed of a stylised clock and a text field, which visualizes the time evaluated as a sum of the single durations of the visit in each place and the time required to the visitor to move physically place to place by walking. In order to give a clearer and effective user experience the above time is visualized not as a number (total amount of hours and minutes) but as a text describing the days required to accomplish the itinerary (i.e. two days, less than a day, nearly three days, etc.).

At the central bottom area of the interface a graphical element (visualizing a human hand holding a phone with a stylised QR code) can be activated via the tap gesture in order to activate a widget window containing a QR code (QRCode) and a two-sided map. The former consists of an image in which is encoded the data related to the ID session of the user, which is build on the fly by the user profiles module of the application server platform. The latter is arranged underneath and shows two interactive areas with labels which allows the user to perform two tasks:

  • new: a new session starts, the widget windows is closed and a new map centered at the initial position and with all the icons is ready to the user, which can start building a new itinerary;
  • continue: the current session continues, the widget window is closed and the current map with relative POIs can be used again in order to complete the itinerary.

Figure 3. A detailed view of a POI with name, address, description and main image

Thus during this first stage of the travel experience, users can add as many as POIs they desire, verify the available time to visit them and then scan the generated QR code with their mobile devices in order to save this collection for further inspection via the dedicated mobile application.

The natural interaction system software is developed as a Rich Internet Application using the Adobe AIR technology. The UI is built with Adobe Flash Builder software using the Action Script 3.0 programming language. All the server side functions are implemented in PHP and data are sent via the JSON format. Google Maps is used as the webmapping service, which is queried via Javascript programming language calls.

3. Mobile application

After scanning the QR code, visitors use their mobile device to access a dedicated URL where the mobile application is activated for the first time in order to connect to the application server platform and download the ID of the visitor, which is permanently saved on the client device. A second stage of the travel experience then starts after visitors leave the tourist information centre and start their travel across the town. They use their personal ID to connect to the application server platform, inspect personalised itineraries built during the previous session with the interactive system and finally update their itinerary adding new places of interest recommended via the mobile application.

The user interface of the mobile application is composed of three main interactive elements (Figure 4): header, content wrapper and main system of navigation. In the first state, a list of interactive elements representing the days for the itinerary is shown in the content wrapper, which can be activated by the tap gesture in order to access an interactive map showing the POIs related to that day visually connected through an optimised route line and centered according to their current location.

Figure 4. Start page with the list of the days of the itinerary

Figure 4. Start page with the list of the days of the itinerary

Each POI can be tapped to open an information window showing three elements:

  • name: a text box visualizing the complete name of the POI;
  • view: an interactive element to open a detailed widget window, which shows the complete information related to the POI (name, address, description, collection of related images);
  • remove: an interactive element which allows the user to remove the POI from the current itinerary;

Additional user tasks of this state of interaction are provided by two items of the main navigation system (fig:appMobileRecommended): recommended and hotels. The former allows the user to receive personalised data from the application server system, consisting of a list of the nearest POIs filtered by the recommendation engine according to the current location of the device. The user can inspect the details of each POI and then consider to add it to the itinerary of the current day. Thus a new waypoint on the map is created and an optimised route is updated considering the current location of the user as starting point. However a new starting waypoint can be added directly by the user activating the hotels item, which opens a list view of location-based recommended hotels of the town provided by the application server system. Users can select one of the proposed accomodations, which will be automatically added to the map as the initial point of the travel journey of the day.

The mobile application is developed as a web-based app, in order to optimise and ease the user experience, since it is not required to be installed from an electronic store, it is platform and device independent and can run via the native browser of any smartphone.
The UI is built with Sublime Text 2 editor using HTML5 as formatting language and CSS2 as style sheets. All the server side functions are implemented in PHP and data is sent via the JSON format. Google Maps is used as the webmapping service, which is queried via Javascript programming language calls. A persistent local storage feature is implemented in the application, allowing visitors to inspect and update the personalise itinerary even if the Internet connection is out of reach.

4. Conclusion

In this paper we propose the prototype of a framework to enhance the travel experience of tourists in the context of a smart city. Our solution consists of a natural interaction installation where users can create an itinerary of the city, a web application platform to collect and process these data, and a mobile application which provides personalised and recommended information based on their location while they move along urban areas. Thus visitors and citizens can live a multi-environment and multi-device experience to improve their travel as a learning practice and have the opportunity to discover and visit resources of a geographical area thanks to the facilities provided by smart cities technologies.

The framework is a work-in-progress and it’s is not yet open to public. Future work will address a complete installation in some of the most relevant centers of tourist information, and an extended experimental evaluation of the diverse systems in order to provide a more efficient and useful cultural experience.


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Cite as:
G. D'Amico and a. del bimbo, Multi environment and device framework for tourist experiences in smart cities. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published July 26, 2014. Consulted .

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