In recent years, smartphones and GPS autoplay has transformed audio tours, giving the medium a unique immediacy. The right story, told at the right time, can change how we look at a familiar place.
Open publishing platform for GPS-triggered audio tours, VoiceMap, offers a personal perspective on a location, driven by emotion. Created in 2014, VoiceMap allows contributors to attach audio to particular locations, to tell their own stories about parts of a city they’re connected to. All you need is the mobile app for iPhones and Android devices. It uses your location to play audio automatically and includes offline maps. Listeners can plug in their earphones, and explore a city with a musician, actor, tour guide, or writer.
So far, VoiceMap has published 26 audio tours in London, with a tour of London’s West End by Sir Ian McKellen due for release on 18 May. Beyond London, the Singapore-based start-up has an offering of almost 200 audio tours in 60 cities worldwide.
We spoke with Iain Manley, VoiceMap’s Co-Founder and CEO, about the inspiration for the app, the storytellers and why the personal perspective and the story will always come first.
1) Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for VoiceMap?
I spent a decade travelling after graduating from university, mostly in Asia. I worked primarily as an editor and writer while I did this, and I got a strong sense of how important it was for stories to have a personal perspective — for somebody to say “I love this place because…” or “I remember being here when…”, for example.
This personal perspective was missing from location-aware audio tours, often because of the costs involved in producing them. VoiceMap changes that. It gives everybody a voice, in the same way that blogging and ebooks have distrupted newspapers and corporate publishing houses. Cofounder Lauren Edwards and I had been working for a company that produced audio tours for large tour companies, and left that to start VoiceMap.
2) Has the platform attracted a diverse range of writers?
Yes, it’s an open platform that has attracted a very diverse range of contributors – or “storytellers”, as we often call them.
We’ve published a sci-fi walk through Edinburgh, an exploration of Beijing’s hutongs by an Economist foreign correspondent, tours of Berlin by a bestselling travel writer who made films there with David Bowie, and a walk in Chicago by Bill Ayers, one of the most controversial figures in American politics.
In London, our contributors include a fiction-writer, a blue badge guide, a poet, a group of radio hosts with a show called Very Loose Women and an American academic with a passion for Virginia Woolf.
3) How does VoiceMap differ from other audio tours?
When personal perspectives are combined with well-produced location-aware audio, it creates a really immersive experience. It often feels as if a storyteller is right beside you, because they know exactly what you’re looking at, and when.
An infinite variety of voices is something else that sets us apart. Anybody can create a tour. Our contributors set the price of tours themselves, and then they earn roughly 50% from each download.
When the medium is used well, location-aware audio can feel like magic, but we still put a personal perspective and the story first. This is what drove us to create an open platform and it keeps driving us, because when you start thinking of the world as a collection of overlapping stories, there isn’t enough time to even scratch the surface.
4) Finally, are there any particular stories or cities you would like to see in VoiceMap?
A few particular stories in the UK spring to mind, like a Jack the Ripper audio tour and a Harry Potter-themed tour, but we’d also like to see tours in cities around the world that help you achieve particular goals, like getting around a new city using the local language. You could follow a voice-guided tour into a café in Madrid and order a coffee using the Spanish phrase you just heard, for example.
We also have a couple of really exciting features in the pipeline, including location-aware playback indoors using iBeacons. Imagine a tour of the British Museum by David Attenborough or Michael Palin – it would be like travelling through a vast swathe of the world under a single roof. Now imagine if you could do those tours at home, wearing a VR headset. That’s another possibility we’re exploring.
If you’d like to tell a story of your own, you can start right now, for free. Find out more here.