Venice Goes Mobile with Wi-Fi Walking Tours

This year, 15 million tourists will visit the historic city of Venice. The vast majority will trod a well-worn path over the Rialto Bridge to St. Marks Square, ride in a gondola, and dine at an overpriced trattoria. But while enjoying this traditional view of Venice, what these visitors won’t see is the city’s modern realities. They won’t meet locals, nor experience the places residents work and live, nor learn about Venice’s current social and economic challenges, including its precipitous drop in population.

History Unwired aims to address this disconnect. A collaboration between the Department of Urban Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Architecture Venice (IUAV), the project uses video-equipped cell phones, PDAs, and location-based technology to deliver multimedia walking tours of lesser-known Venetian neighborhoods. The mobile information system will not only provide visitors with a truer taste of the city, but also, organizers hope, create technology and content-production jobs for residents, luring them to stay.

Starting June 12 (the opening day of the Venice Biennale), visitors will be able to check out the phones and spend up to two hours exploring local restaurants, hangouts, and places of interest. The devices will also be equipped with a virtual video component that will allow users to peek into select houses and businesses in the city’s Castello district, as well as with mapping and GPS functions that will encourage exploration of side streets and back alleys.

Five real-life Venetians will narrate the audio portion of the tour, offering humorous, gossipy, and intimate stories about the city’s visual landscape and livability issues. For example, one of the characters—a fisherman—will explain the art of boat making, break into an impromptu serenade of a female bread baker, and then muse about the squatters who are taking over the city’s unoccupied houses. Other featured guides will include a Venice Biennale art critic, a Murano glass blower, a reggae star, and a gondola builder developing a life-size replica of a historic, gold-plated galleon.

Michael Epstein, a researcher for the project, is aware that Wi-Fi walking tours may seem strange for Venice, a place behind the curve when it comes to modernization. “The entire course has a bit of a satiric quality to it,” he says, “in the sense that you’re using the latest technology to explore a city that’s still medieval in many ways.”

As History Unwired tries to build a sustainable form of cultural tourism, the project—which is sponsored by the Regione Veneto Office of Tourism—also has the potential to reinvigorate the city’s languishing neighborhoods. The program is part of a regional effort to recruit creative professionals and diversify the local economy, says Pier Luigi Sacco, head of the IUAV Arts and Design Department. “Venice has to recover a role in the production of innovative culture in the world arena,” he says. May History Unwired be a step in that direction.

Categories: Cities