What one tourist city learned from two very different experiences with immersive technology

Millions of people visit Bath each year, attracted by the elegant beauty of its Georgian architecture and a spa history that stretches back to Roman times.

But such enduring popularity has not left the city complacent. Tourism organisations recognise that the sector is more competitive than ever with travellers constantly on the lookout for new and different experiences.

So Bath has been exploring how the latest technology can add value to its visitor experience. The city was at the heart of a pioneering 5G Smart Tourism trial – using the most cutting-edge technology out there. And that followed a project which encouraged families to explore the city via an augmented reality (AR) app.

At Qa Research, we have been working with key players in the tourism industry to investigate the challenges and benefits of using AR and VR (virtual reality). So we were eager to learn more about the lessons Bath has learned from its immersive initiatives.

Rebecca Clay, Heritage Marketing Manager for Bath and North East Somerset Council (The Roman Baths, Fashion Museum, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath Film Office and Bath Record Office) shared some invaluable insights with us.

The 5G trial

The 5G Smart Tourism trial, overseen by the West of England Combined Authority and funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, brought together 25 organisations to explore the potential of this futuristic technology.

As part of the scheme an app was developed that told the story of three periods in the Roman Baths history. When you moved your phone around key spots in the museum, the past came to life with 360º video overlaid on the scene in front of you – complete with the mythical King Bladud’s pigs.

It was a significant undertaking, which saw special technology installed once the baths had closed over two nights in December 2018, and removed again before they reopened.

Among those working on the project were the University of Bristol’s Smart Internet Lab and BBC Research & Development. Specially invited guests tried the new app.

“It worked really well – it was super smooth,” Rebecca said. “It was very much done on a test basis to see what the future technology might be able to deliver. It was lovely to see families engaging with the content and each other around the stories.

“The content was so real that when the app was pointed at the roof and you began to see it crumble people actually ducked!”

The potential – and the challenges

The Roman Baths with Bath Abbey behind. Photograph: Colin Hawkins / visitbath.co.uk

The experiment revealed the “amazing” potential of 5G – there’s no way you could stream such rich video content over the 4G network.

But because the Roman Baths attracts 1.2 million visitors a year, it would be impossible to run something like this as part of the main attraction without bringing it to a standstill, Rebecca said. Given the uneven nature of the ancient Roman pavements visitors walk on, immersive devices would present a high risk

This was a technology that required “a nice empty space” she said – citing the experience at Nottingham Castle where visitors can use AR to watch it go up in flames. In the case of the Roman Baths, it would have to be confined to specific events and not form part of the everyday visitor experience.

“And it would probably be something supplementary to an event: you might have storytelling with an AR or VR imagining of what the storyteller was saying,” she said.

“Because the experiences are just over too quickly. And I think people might get quite fatigued by them if you tried to create an event around VR or AR entirely.”

You also have to consider how much this tech adds to what’s already there: “From an experiential point of view, the magic of the Great Bath at the Roman Baths is the Great Bath itself. You don’t want to detract from that and VR can be quite an alienating experience.”

Making it commercially viable was another challenge. “The content that the BBC and Aardman created for us was so incredible – I can’t even think about the amount of money that would have cost us. We couldn’t have done it without the funding.”

The dragons’ egg trail

The year before the 5G trial, Bath and North East Somerset’s Heritage Services commissioned an AR app tied in with the Here Be Dragons exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery.

Families would use the app to collect virtual 3D dragons’ eggs from various locations – a Pokemon Go-style challenge that was designed to encourage people to explore beyond the congested summertime city centre.

“That was a really great project. It was something we could talk to families about who were in the queue for the Roman Baths,” Rebecca said.

“It worked really well for us and was downloaded over 2500 times! And we found families doing it together as a shared experience which was really important for us. When you make it more of a trail – and the Forestry Commission are the best example of this with their Gruffalo Trail – it’s very much a family activity.”

Collaboration is key

The app helped make Here Be Dragons the second-most successful in the gallery’s history.

There was a drawback – and again this was cost. They had hoped they could ‘re-skin’ the app for a reasonable outlay, and turn the dragons’ eggs into Roman coins for a February half term promotion the following year.

But that was almost as expensive as the creation of the original app, and so the plan was changed to use QR codes instead.

Collaboration is key if tourism destinations are going to make the most of these immersive technologies, Rebecca believes.

“Talk to your universities. We’re really lucky we are surrounded by top quality Universities including the University of the West of England with whizzy business schools and technology departments.”

“Working with students is great, because they’re the ones who you might want to target  to consume it. They know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work for them.”

What we do: Tourism

Qa Research undertakes a wide range of research, insight and evaluation studies for tourism organisations including visitor attractions, destination marketing / management organisations , trade bodies and associations as well as national parks, AONB’s and conservation charities.

Core topic areas include visitor satisfaction studies, new concept / product demand testing, pre and post advertising research and evaluation, membership insight, business barometer surveys, potential visitor perceptions, new brand development and brand refinement research and much more.

Find out more about the work we’ve done within the tourism sector by contacting Kathrin Tennstedt on kathrin.tennstedt@qaresearch.co.uk