Philadelphia Zoo and Laurel Hill Cemetery get tech exhibits - Philly


Jul. 28, 2009 1:21 pm

Philadelphia Zoo and Laurel Hill Cemetery get tech exhibits

The Philadelphia Zoo and Laurel Hill Cemetery have both embraced clever technologies meant to help educate their customers in interactive ways.

Philadelphia Zoo Touchscreen Installation

Open during normal business hours
3400 West Girard Avenue
West Philadelphia, PA

Laurel Hill Cemetery Cell Phone Tour Launch Party

Friday, July 31st, 7:00pm
3822 Ridge Avenue, East Falls, Philadelphia, PA

Two mainstays of Philadelphia tourism have added tech-inspired exhibit additions.

The Philadelphia Zoo and Laurel Hill Cemetery have both embraced clever technologies meant to help educate their customers in interactive ways.

The zoo has installed touchscreens with an interactive application that highlights the conservation of its prized Amur and snow leopard cats. Laurel Hill, on the banks of the Schuylkill River south of East Falls, now lets visitors roam its acres of gravestones with only a cell phone as a guide.

It’s innovative stuff like this that has us considering leaving our PCs. For a few hours, anyway.

Philadelphia has seen an increase recently in technology-based tourist attractions, including the Rosenbach Museum and Library’s Abe Lincoln iPhone app, which we reported on in May. Last week we offered a few of our own local recommendations in a top ten list of Philly iPhone applications that don’t exist but should.

But those are housed on a phone. The cemetery and zoo are encouraging us to get out of the house, which is a recommendation duly noted.


The Philadelphia Zoo announced last week that it has installed touchscreens in its Big Cat Falls, with a focus on its Amur and snow leopard kitties.

The interactive application lets visitors learn about the cats’ history and habitat and focuses on worldwide conservation of the nearly extinct animals using Philadelphia-based FlatWorld Interactives’ touchscreen app.


Visitors have a handful of browsing options: ‘Camera trap’ lets them scroll through a virtual environment to try to spot the rare leopards. There’s a “deck of cards” feature, which lets users swipe through photos, similar to how one would flick through pages on the iPhone or Palm Pre. Last, “talking magnifier” let’s them examine a leopard up-close, with voice over sound bites that explain its anatomy. Users can also watch videos about conservation.

“Kids really have fun with it,” FlatWorlds’ Managing Director Jennifer McAleese says.

Creative Director Slavko Milekic designed the proprietary technology based on Runtime Revolution, an object-based software development system. Milekic, a professor of cognitive sciences and digital interface design at the University of Arts is not a programmer by trade. In fact, he never took a single programming class, McAleese says.

“Since [Milekic] is a psychologist, he really designs for children,” she says. “There’s no directions or instruction, people just know what to do because it’s simple and intuitive.”

Their deal with the Philadelphia Zoo is the two-and-a-half year-old company’s second. First, it designed two applications for Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s 2008 Flower Show. Why so few partnerships? Money.

“You go into every company and it’s really a funding issue. These applications aren’t inexpensive, so it takes a while for things to take off,” McAleese says, adding that the touchscreen installations cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 depending on the amount of content that is included.

Elsewhere, the company is partnering with P’unk Ave to design ShowMe Tools, a visual presentation tool and Microsoft PowerPoint plugin. FlatWorld plans to target the education industry and anyone who uses visual imagery to educate. The groups haven’t set a time table for launch.

Philadelphia Zoo’s Big Cat Falls touchscreen tech is available whenever the zoo and exhibit is open to the public.


One of Laurel Hill Cemetery's guide signs instructs visitors how to connect to the cell phone tour.

One of Laurel Hill Cemetery’s guide signs instructs visitors how to connect to the cell phone tour.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, too, has adopted new tech: cell phone tours.

The cost? Free, except for those cell phone minutes.

“There are a number of advantages to the [cell phone] tour, in comparison to a guided one. You can see the cemetery at your own leisure. You can spend a whole day here exploring or go home and come back,” says Amanda Sisk, Laurel Hill Cemetery development and programs coordinator.

“With 100,000 individuals, we can only highlight a few of them in the walking tours.”

The tour includes 15 guided cell phone stops. Visitors dial a central number and enter the stop number to have information is played over the phone, including the option to hear additional excerpts. Expect no boring, monotone tour guide. Instead, the audio is dramatized with accents, songs and excerpts read from diaries and other documents.

“This was a new step for us in the direction of technology and reaching out to people with cell phones. Prior to this, we offered walking tours but nothing that utilized technology,” Sisk says.

Laurel Hill chose San Francisco-based Guide By Cell, which is, according to its press page, quite a contender in the cell phone tour biz.

The oldest section of Laurel, its north section, is included in the tour. There are plans to create similar tour options for two other historical swaths of the cemetery, which depend on future grants. Schuylkill River Heritage Area, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and Samuel S. Fels Fund all chipped in to the cause.

There are no plans in place to release the audio for other portable media players, but Sisk says she would like to see some of the audio available for download on its Web site.

Laurel Hill Cemetery will host a launch party for its new cell phone tour this Friday at 7:00 p.m.


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