Friday, January 28, 2011

Chicago Is My Kind of Town

I got back this week from a trip to Chicago to celebrate a milestone birthday. After reviewing my trip to Disneyworld in December through the perspective of my interactions with technology, I thought it would be enjoyable to relate here how digital media affected my Chicago trip.

For years, Chicago was the Second City, in that I wanted to go for many years but it was always my second choice. Several years ago when I was thinking of going I signed up for their tourist board's email newsletter. Over the years, I haven't read all their emails sent to me, but I did read some of them. More importantly, it kept the city as a tourist destination on the top of my mind so that when circumstances were right we did think of Chicago. This demonstrates that there is long-term value in online outreach efforts. With email it is easy to measure the click-throughs and response rates for short-term goals, but it is harder to measure the long-term impact such efforts have - but they are effective.

Chicago also captured my interest through their innovative and highly-entertaining project with Foursquare and Facebook last June. They offered special Foursquare badges for people checking into locations from the John Hughes' movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (set and filmed in Chicago). They also offered a contest to people who supplied details via Facebook of their favourite Bueller location (I entered for the police station where Jennifer Grey and Charlie Sheen are arrested and Sheen has the memorable "Drugs" line.)

Before determining whether or not to go to Chicago, my wife and I did a lot of research online. This has been par for the course for all our trip planning for years now. In addition to googling Chicago, I posted a request for info from my Facebook friends. These efforts were successful in helping us determine that the city would be a great destination and that there was lots there for our specific interests (e.g. family attractions, culture, pizza). My wife is the expert in finding hotel deals online. We've stayed downtown Manhattan, Banff, Prague, Hong Kong,Disney, and now Chicago all for under $100. She also cross references TripAdvisor (a traveller's best friend) to make sure we know what we're getting into. Also, as usual, we booked our flight, hotel, and airport shuttle online.

When thinking about a trip and planning it, I always visit the official tourism website. They are not usually the most definitive source of information, but they usually present the main attractions in an engaging and succinct manner. This is certainly the case with Chicago's official tourism website Explore Chicago. The website had a lot of what I was looking for, but overall I was disappointed with it. It is extremely difficult to find specific locations and even when I did, it was hard to find them again. Their search page is horribly overcomplicated and even when one figures out how to use it, the results presented are awful. I just now tried a search for "stained glass" as the stained glass museum there was one of my favourites. The museum, however, doesn't even appear on this first page of the results and instead a lot of seemingly unrelated stuff is. Even once you find a specific site, the information presented is overly brief and not particularly enticing (and in the case of this museum completely lacking in even one photo). Another bad user experience with the Explore Chicago website is their "Trip Planner" tool. The tool sounds awesome - an interactive, customized trip planner - how useful would that be! In reality, however, if one can find a location to enter into their trip planner and hits the button provided to add it, the site makes a user go through the process of logging in each and every time. It doesn't store log-in information even during an active session. The process of logging in every time I want to add an item is way too cumbersome. Once locations are added it is possible to make a schedule of the items, but that is not a particularly useful functionality. What I wanted and I believe would be the most useful, is to have the locations plotted onto a map so I can determine the vicinity of locations. This functionality would greatly help me determine a schedule and let me visit more stuff - and probably spend more money - so there is a financial incentive for the City to offer this functionality. I stopped using this website early on as it was so unhelpful. Suffice it to say, user experience is crucial and the website can be an enticement or it can be a complete roadblock.

As we were on a budget with this trip, we had to plan our usage of pubic transit. I've yet to find a city yet that had a user-friendly transit system or even barely-adequate way-finding aids. Chicago earns its nickname the windy city and even despite the heat lamps on the L-train stations, we did not want to be out in the cold more than we had to. My wife consulted Chicago's transit website and found it most helpful in linking directly to Google Maps for directions. The city's transfer policy is not properly explained on their website (as it is too complicated to begin with) but the site was useful in presenting basic info such as fares and where to buy passes (not a given with other transit websites, ie. Toronto's).

Once we arrived in Chicago, my interactions with digital media were less frequent than usual as I did not bring my BlackBerry because my carrier (Bell) charges too much for foreign data access. There were many times we really could have used it. It would have been much easier for directions or information on specific locations - instead we had to rely on tourist pamphlets and maps and helpful citizens. I would also have loved my BlackBerry to use Foursquare. I haven’t used Foursquare in weeks as the novelty has worn off and the home-based utility is lacking for me, but when in a new city Foursquare would be invaluable. It would be great to gettargeted tips on restaurants, sites, history, etc. Also, Chicago's tourism industry appears to be embracing Foursquare. I saw posters for Foursquare at various sites encouraging people to check in and offering special deals (which I would have loved).

We did interact with digital media in some cool and helpful ways. Interactive on-the-spot maps (e.g. at the Water Tower Place or the Art Institute) helped us find specific spots. We walked past "The Oprah Store" at least ten times before an interactive map helped us determine it was actually a tiny kiosk. Once there they didn't have the postcards I wanted and the friendly clerk advised me to go to the online store to order them. (I did get to see Oprah's shoes and shirt at least). We noticed interactive maps outside, but considering how hellishly cold it was in Chicago, we weren't inclined to pause long enough to check them out.

There was some cool use of digital media at some of the museums and attractions, but not as cutting edge as I'd like. The Children’s Museum, for instance, was lacking in innovative use of digital media (although outstanding in every other way). The Children’s Museum did have one digital experience that both my daughter and I loved. In their nature section, there are computers and a giant screen. One has their picture taken by a camera and his/her face is transposed onto the body of a bee or butterfly. Then using a bug-shaped controller you can fly your insect-self around the city of Chicago. It was really fun and well executed.

The maze at Navy Pier seemed like an expensive tourist trap, but it was surprisingly really good(unlike most of their counterparts in other cities, such as Niagara Falls). The maze used references from Chicago's history and tied them into immersive audio-visual, spatial experiences and interactive media. For example, images of the great Chicago fire are projected onto a large floor space and guests must stomp out the fire. I've encountered interactive floor media before (Ontario's Science Center makes great use of it) but this was a lot of fun and appropriately-tied to Chicago. They also had a Bears football game on the floor, which was also a lot of fun ("Go Bears").

Another cool use of digital media was at the John Hancock Observatory. We decided to go to there rather than the Sears Tower as I saw on the Explore Chicago that a skating rink had just opened up on the top. I couldn't resist skating at 94 stories high. The multimedia tours seemed interesting rather than just the now obligatory audio tours that everyone still offers. Even though they were included we didn't do them as they require earphones and make the experience too isolating. They have yet to make an automated tour that allows guests to interact with each other - something people travelling together generally want to do. We did enjoy their new interactive telescopes. Made by a Montreal company, they are only available in North America at this location. The telescopes offer the standard functionality of panning and zooming, but where they were really cool is they embed textual and photographic information on top of what you're seeing live - so by touching the screen you can see and learn more than otherwise possible. The telescopes also allow the viewer to change the view to a non-live view of the same thing at different times of day or seasons. My daughter choose the Spanish language version for some reason which detracted from our experience - but otherwise the telescopes were among the most interesting, fun, useful and user-friendly tech I've encountered. There is a lot of hype of augmented reality but very little real application; judging from these telescopes though the functionality is incredible.

The Art Institute of Chicago lacked innovative or creative digital media. Overall, it is one of the best art galleries I have been to in the world. Their collection is really strong in modern and contemporary art, but had no digital media that I could detect. Digital artists are doing creative things online, and it would be great to see a major cultural institution recognize this officially on-site and online. The Art Institute does have a cool feature that allows one to make a "collection" of their favourite works to annotate and share with friends (here's my collection). There are significant usability problems with this feature, but it does make a great souvenir and online conversation starter (I posted it to Facebook).

As we were leaving our hotel, I noticed a poster in the elevator asking guests to friend the hotel. I want to friend Beyonce and Shakira, maybe even the Cheesecake Factory but I'm not sure I have such a close personal bond with a hotel. I do feel that way with the city. We loved our trip to Chicago as it is a rich cultural center. Compared to other cities, it seems Chicago is making better use of digital media. Cities are missing out on how the effective and innovative use of digital media can not only enhance a traveller's visit but offer the city financial benefits as well.

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