Walter Disney now?

Thursday night at the C3 MIT event in Cambridge, I met Ira Hochman, the CIO of Untravel Media. He was there, I think, to bask in the reflected glory and the greatness that is Henry Jenkins, but he ended up talking to me.

And I couldn’t quite escape the sense that listening to Ira was my chance to experience what it was like to listen to Walter Disney in the late 20s, early 30s.

Ira was talking about his Untravel and the “tours” it gives of Boston through mobile story telling. Untravel Media lets us use a cell phone or a PDA in the streets of Boston to listen to a “voice over” narrative. We can travel the West End of Boston and listen to historical matters otherwise obscure (as above).

Normally, Leora Kornfeld and her Ubiquity Interactive is my guide in matters of this kind. And so I have some rough idea of what this technology can do. For starters, it disintermediates the museum in a big way. Now the work of museological, curatorial exposition can be moved out of the museum into the world. Now, we can learn the story of the Empire State Building while in and around the Empire State Building instead of staring at text and models at the Museum of the City of New York.

One of these days our phones will catch up to Japan, and we will only need to point at a building to listen to its story (if someone has recorded this.) The possibilities are mind bending. A city with all of its history attached and on tap? A world with its history there “in the air.” “Living memory” is a perishable thing. It dies with every generation. But this technology lets it live on, not in a book or a museum, but in situ. A city that never forgets.

Ira was talking about an idea of transparency. The virtual companion could now let us see through walls into buildings. We can think of class as a matter of space and knowledge access. The highest ranking person in a social world probably has rights of greatest access. He or she can go anywhere, know anything. And Ira’s technology, to the extent that it can make the world transparent, allows anyone with a PDA to see and know in ways previously forbidden them. The PDA in this case becomes a sociological equalizer.

But, listening to Ira, you could also hear about extra-historical possibilities. It sounds as if his technology is mostly used for expositional purposes. And you can imagine how readily it come be used for evocational ones.

What for instance if you did the history of the West end of Boston not from the point of view of well told history? What if you told it from the point of view of a Southern Belle in 1840s Boston? What if you told the story of the West end not so much to illuminate the place but the person? Not the story told, but the story teller?

This enterprise is a largely fictional one. We can imagines writers abandoning the printed page for an Untravel media or Leora’s Ubiquity Interactive. Novelists released from the novel. A story could begin at the Harvard subway line and wrap up somewhere near Kendall station, proceeding at the pace at which we walk, unfolding in the streets and buildings as we pass them by. This is a little literal. How about hearing from the god (or is it the ghost) of Longfellow Bridge anytime we pass between Boston and Cambridge on Red Line?

There is a compromise position between the two, something expositional that allows us to glimpse a Boston at mid 19th century and something evocational that allows us to participate in what it might have been emotionally. I believe when bring these are brought together, we may call the outcome anthropological.

Was this what it was like to talk to Walter Disney? Hard to imagine that it can have been this interesting.


See the Ubiguity Interactive website, here.

See the Untravel Media website, here.

7 thoughts on “Walter Disney now?

  1. Sam Grace

    >>”Living memory” is a perishable thing. It dies with every generation. But this technology lets it live on, not in a book or a museum, but in situ. A city that never forgets<< This deserves a place in science fiction, not because it's so far off but because it seems like it has an enormous potential to impact social memory. Man, I thought the question of "whose voice" was important with TEXTBOOK writing. This also makes me think of Googlemaps and all the spots people have highlighted and added their descriptions of and connections to. Thanks for this post, I'm going to keep thinking about it.

  2. Christopher

    Thank you Grant for this. I passed it along to several people I know. It crosses so many of my interests: secret histories, technology to advance interpretation, personal geographies, walking as a performance narrative. You hit all my sweet spots. All I can think of is: that is SO cool. It also a plot point out of William Gibson’s recent Spook Country. I think it’s clear why Gibson has chosen to start writing about the present. We live in science fictional times.

    We have been experimenting with cell-phone audio tours at the museum where I spend my Saturdays. Since there is nothing stopping anyone from dialing the number and doing the tour outside of the museum, I always thought it would be an interesting displaced performance to do the tour in a completely different museum. Or outdoors.

    I’ve also thought how interesting it would be as the technology becomes cheaper and the deployment is easier with iPods and mobile devices to more readily offer tours for different interests or different knowledge levels — don’t know much about art? Take the novice tour. Masters in American history? Take the expert tour.

    My one concern. I do hope, as a Deaf/HoH adult, that these interactive tours move beyond just audio to text and images fed over mobile networks. Right now, museums often hand out printed versions of their audio components, but that feels like a solution grafted on, instead of integrated accessibility from the beginning. It also doesn’t address the easy deployment and ability to make adjustments that networked interpretation represents.

  3. botogol

    Grant, have you read William Gibson’s most recent novel – Spook Country. A big theme of that book is the interaction between the the real and virtual worlds – and given he wrote it almost two years ago now it looks increasingly perceptive. Gibson realised we are at the beginning of something big, and are only starting to see how people might use this sort of technolgy.

  4. Pingback: Convergence Culture Consortium (C3@MIT)

  5. alex cardenas

    Hi, I have an idea for one of your shows on disney channel(The Suite life of Zack and Cody). My idea was for London Tipton (Brenda Song)to date Lance ( the lifegaurd) and then to bring back Todd St.Mark (which in one show London fell in love with) if you want to know more about my idea please email me. If you do do that idea could you do me a favor??? p.s. my e-mail is

  6. Brisbane Internet Consultant

    It wont be too long before virtual tour technology makes it possible to visit the world’s most famous sites. Just think what Google Streetview, plus Wikipedia may be in 20-30 years time. Put on a virtual reality helmet, fire up your search engine and experience the world in living color and 3 dimensions.

  7. RSA course

    A 3D Google streetview is a great idea. We have the technology now, all we need is a market.

    The next logical step for Google is to use the Streetview technology inside public buildings. I’m sure they would get lots of volunteers to wear special camera-helmets to walk through the world’s most famous public buildings.

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