Smart phone-wielding visitors arriving in downtown Charleston have a new window into history.
David Brinkman, a Columbia history buff who writes software for a living, walked around Marion Square Monday afternoon to demonstrate what his new creation will do.
His “Charleston Tour Lite,” a free app for Android smart phones, greeted him with, “Hello, I will be your Charleston history tour guide.”
As he wandered around the square, his phone would vibrate, a signal that a historical marker was nearby. Its text-to-voice software then would read the marker’s text, or, in the case of the John C. Calhoun monument, provide words Brinkman wrote from his own research.
“There has never been a bigger political figure in South Carolina,” his phone declared.
The phone’s screen displayed a map, as well as blue-red three-dimensional images that can be seen with inexpensive 3-D glasses.
In other words, it’s not your grandfather’s walking tour.
And it’s yet another example of how smart phones and other new technologies are continuing to change how many people come to experience one of America’s oldest cities.
‘There’s just so much’
Brinkman’s historical passion stemmed in part from his father, who worked as a director for the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and was involved in planning the state’s 1970 tricentennial celebration.
It also stemmed from an archaeological find he made on his property next to the Broad River.
Before turning his attention to Charleston, he had written similar smart-phone apps highlighting historic features of Columbia’s Three Rivers Greenway as well as the bottom of Lake Murray.
What makes his Charleston project unique are more than 200 3-D images, many of which were taken by noted Civil War-era photographer George Bernard.
“I’ve always loved the 3-D photography,” Brinkman said, adding that he has collected old stereoviews, an early kind of photography that used two images to replicate human eyesight and create a three-dimensional effect.
He has created a camera that allows him to take similar, current 3-D photos, some of which also are on the app. And he converted about 106 period illustrations to 3-D images as well.
Brinkman hopes the app will appeal not only to visitors touring Charleston, but also to would-be visitors researching a trip here.
“In Charleston, there’s just so much,” he said. “This app is a way to bring younger people into it and get their interest and appreciation of it.”
No big money maker
Brinkman is far from the first to create a smart-phone app that will guide visitors around downtown Charleston.
Tommy Dew, a walking-tour guide, was part of a City Slicker venture that was among the first to create apps for Apple’s iPhone after it came out in 2007.
Dew and his partners invested hundreds of hours creating original content for the app, which they originally began selling on iTunes for $9.99.
It featured video snippets from his tours, won several awards and was downloaded about 20,000 times during its most popular week.
However, Dew said City Slickers figured its product would be more valuable if more people used it, so they dropped the price, first to $4.99, then to $1.99, and then began giving it away.
“The trouble has always been monetizing it,” he said. “Unfortunately, consumers always expect things on the Internet for free, so we had trouble making money.”
Since then there have been hundreds of thousands more new apps on the market, some of which deal with the history and tourism niche.
A work in progress
While Brinkman’s app went live last week, he expects to continue to tweak it and add a few dozen more images.
He also is working on a similar app that will work with Apple’s iPhone.
As with any new technology, there are glitches.
The text-to-voice software can incorrectly pronounce Calhoun as “Cal-hown” instead of “Cal-HOON.” Those driving around the city might get annoyed as the app cuts off in the middle of one narrative because the car and phone have entered the GPS area surrounding another one.
A blue dot may or may not appear on the map, indicating the phone’s location.
Depending on the app’s reception, Brinkman could expand the app to include even more Charleston markers, or create similar apps for other historic cities.
Others in the city’s tour and history business are always looking for ways to use technology to help visitors.
This summer, the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust is expected to distribute about 50 new cards with QR codes that will link smart phone users with augmented reality images of historic ships and sites.
Perrin Lawson of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau said the bureau has optimized its website for use on mobile phones and continues to develop specific apps. It also can move its ticket sales operations to anywhere with a Wi-Fi link. “We couldn’t do that a year ago,” he said.
The bureau also is working with a private business, City Corridor, to install mobile concierges — large, touch-screen kiosks with GPS mapping — in hotel lobbies around town, particularly where there’s limited staff to help guests.
Still, he said some visitors appear at the Visitor’s Center suffering from a bit of information overload, and that’s where a human touch can help.
“Ultimately, people still want human interaction,” Dew said. “You will lean heavily on technology, but when it comes to giving tours and learning, I think the tourist still longs for that human interaction.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.