University of Georgia pushes ‘stranger technology’ to attract tourists

Published 7:13 pm Friday, July 14, 2006

The old Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery hasn’t had many visitors lately, save for the nests of birds noisily warbling in the leafy treetops overhead.

Where there isn’t thick underbrush or broken beer bottles, crumbling headstones are all that fills the paths of the sprawling graveyard, where thousands of slaves, sharecroppers and other black residents were buried.

That could change soon, though, thanks to “mobile media tours” designed by students from the University of Georgia’s New Media Institute that could breathe new life into the aging cemetery.

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Visitors to the site can already dial a local number to hear rich descriptions of the 8-acre plot’s history and a detailed interview with the Rev. Archibald Killian, the local authority on the city’s black history. And someday, the students hope visitors will download multimedia programs to their iPods so they can watch video and listen to slideshows will exploring the plot.

It’s one more step forward in the institute’s goal of promoting “stranger technology” as a way to encourage a new type of tourism — microtourism — to draw visitors to the treasures that make even the dingiest of towns noteworthy.

“We’re helping strangers learn about the place so they can better understand it,” said Scott Shamp, the institute’s director, who’s unleashed the students and instructors on a half-dozen projects to encourage this type of microtourism.

One, called podThology, recreates certain days in history on iPods so visitors can relive critical moments in a town’s history. Kevin Planovsky, a recent graduate, crafted a stirring audio tour that takes visitors through Jan. 9, 1961, the day when the University of Georgia was segregated.

Another allows visitors to send a text message of a subject to the town’s name for information on nearby attractions. If you text the word “music” to Athens, for instance, a response comes back with a link to the city’s annual music festival, AthFest, and the hipster bands taking part. Clicking one shows users a view of the logo and a clip of their music.

Another advance, called Bluetooth Fairy, could one day allow visitors to scan cell phones over microchips on signs and posters to download audio, graphics and data about a site.

Similar contactless technology is already being tested at a few spots around the U.S., including downtown Atlanta’s Philips Arena, where 250 season ticketholders of the city’s pro hockey and basketball teams used their phones as “cell wallets” at concession stands to buy hot dogs and soft drinks during the past season. Yet Shamp envisions a future where phones could also be skimmed along signposts with valuable information about area attractions.

Visitors to attractions may not have to bring a camera any more if another project by the institute catches on. An automated camera is mounted across the street from the University of Georgia’s trademark arch that snaps a digital picture of anyone standing in front of it when they dial a local telephone number. The picture is then made available on the Internet for viewing or downloading. With little advertising, more than 1,000 students and tourists have already tried it out.

The institute has dedicated a room in its downtown office to train young podcasters as well. Recent graduate Adam Kemmerick spent the last few months writing and producing weekly podcasts about the town’s music festival. From ragtag beginnings in April, his work has improved to glitzy videos complete with special effects. He’s also seen downloads rise since his start, logging more than 300 in June from all over the country.

“We got one download from Slovenia — so far,” Kemmerick said. “Just wait ’til he tells his friends.”

While the music festival drew thousands of visitors, organizers hope the advances will help lure folks to virtually unknown sites like the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, which sits just outside one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“It could really be a catalyst,” said Catherine Hogue, a coordinator with the Athens-Clarke County’s economic development office. “The potential is unlimited.”

The sprawling site has a long way to go before it becomes a tourist draw. A falling tree branch occasionally crashes from the treetops overhead with a convincing thud. Instructor Emuel Aldridge walks the site with senior Jeff Lund, dodging depressions in the ground where the wooden graves of slaves underneath have buckled.

“You never know how many tourists will actually come, but it’s got potential,” Aldridge said. “There are 3,000 people’s lives here, 3,000 stories to be told.”

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