An audio tour or audio guide provides a recorded spoken commentary, normally through a handheld device, to a visitor attraction such as a museum. They are also available for self-guided tours of outdoor locations, or as a part of an organised tour. It provides background, context, and information on the things being viewed. Audio guides are often in multilingual versions and can be made available in different ways. Some of the more elaborate tours may include original music and interviews. Traditionally rented on the spot, more recently downloaded from the Internet or available via the mobile phone network. Some audio guides are free or included in the entrance fee, others have to be purchased separately.
Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from 1945 to 1962, pioneered the world's first museum audio tours. When invented in 1952, the developers were drawn by its unique potential to mediate an experience individually controllable by each visitor, which was content rich, was personal to them, was available at any time, and suited learning styles not served by catalog, text panel, or label.
Sandberg's ambulatory lectures were delivered through a closed-circuit shortwave radio broadcasting system in which the amplified audio output of an analog playback tape recorder served as a broadcast station, and transmission was via a loop aerial fixed around the gallery or galleries. Identical lectures in Dutch, French, English, and German were recorded onto magnetic tapes, broadcast in turn through the aerial, and picked up by visitors through a portable radio receiver with headphones, when inside the loop.
The system was such that all visitors with a receiver could only hear a specific piece of commentary at any time; hence, groups of visitors would move through the galleries and look at exhibits as if guided by an invisible force, in complete synchronicity. 
Electronic multimedia guides
A multimedia electronic guide is a device specially designed to provide audio, visual or textual content to museum visitors with or without user interaction. It may also provide alternative content corresponding to different personal preferences. It may include accessories such as headphones, a digital pen and displays with LEDs or LCD screens.
These smart guides may be operated to supply content in different languages and accents, with different voice alternatives, with text, and with age group specific content. They can be operated in several ways:
- Touch/push-button systems are operated by the visitor. The visitor enters the code assigned to the object to the electronic museum guide and the related content is provided.
- Location aware systems operate semi-automatically. They sense the location by several alternative technologies and provide the related content. If the sensing area is not narrow enough to detect every different object then the visitor will enter or select the content he or she wants. Location aware systems provides better quality tours to disabled people.
- Line of Sight Aware Systems operate automatically. They sense the location and the target object and provides the related content. These systems may include software that will attempt to measure the visitor's aims and interest areas and may provide shallower or deeper information for the object. These systems may need special technologies for target detection.
These electronic guides can provide the museum management with useful statistics and reports, which may include tour statistics, visitor statistics, opinions, and other surveys.
Cell phone tours
A cell phone tour is an audio tour where pre-recorded or stream audio interpretation for a heritage site or a cultural exhibit is provided via a cell phone. Cell phone audio tours have the advantage that most visitors already have the equipment needed to take the audio tour, being their cell phones.
Each venue is assigned a phone number with appropriate stop numbers, displayed next the exhibit. Once a visitor has dialed in, they will be prompted and can enter the corresponding stop number of the exhibit they’re viewing, to hear the recorded content. These tours also enable the visitors to: fast forward, rewind, pause, as well as leave a feedback message for each exhibit or the whole tour; simply by pressing a number. In addition to audio content, some providers are also able to stream video, and text message recent visitors with updates. This is the old-style approach, not used widely.
Wikipedia allowed the emergence of a new generation of audio tours and location-based service (LBS) audio tours using the capabilities of smartphones like the iPhone. These audio tours rely on Wikipedia to benefit from a huge source of information (several hundreds thousands of locations around the world). The Wikipedia articles are read thanks to speech synthesis. In this manner, thousands hours of vocal explanations are available. One of such systems, based on patented technologies, were presented during the Wikimedia Conference 2010 in Paris at the National Assembly of France. Its predecessor was presented at World Travel Market in London in 2009.
A GPS tour (using Global Positioning System or GPS) is an audio tour or a multimedia tour that provides pre-recorded spoken commentary, normally through a handheld device, for mobile applications such as walking tours, boats, buses, trolleys and trains. Using satellite technology (GPS), audio and/or multimedia content is triggered based on a user's location, providing location relevant information to visitors.
An advantage of a GPS tour is that using the data from the multiple users it will be possible to mine the interesting locations. A location could be classified as an interesting location if multiple visitors or a majority of the visitors touch this location as part of their tour. Places where users visit a lot can then be suggested as interesting locations to new users.
GPS tours can be made available in multiple languages simultaneously. GPS tours can be created by using a combination of software and hardware and can be downloaded from the Internet for mobile phones, often in MP3 format and are available from organizations specializing in GPS tour development. Some GPS tours are free, included in the ticket fee, others have to be purchased separately.
- As employed in the gardens of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England
- Fisher (2004), p. 49.
- Walkin' Broadway from CityListen Audio Tours includes several original interviews with notable Broadway artists and producers Archived February 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience (2008), EDITED BY LOÏC TALLON AND KEVIN WALKER. Altamira Press. Pages x, xiii, xvii, xxii ISBN 978-0-7591-1119-6.
- An Electronic Guide In Use.
- The Learning Experience With Electronic Museum Guides.
- Accessible Design of a Portable Electronic Museum Guide for Universal Access Archived June 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine., University of Cambridge, UK.
- Affective Aware Museum Guide.
- Learning from Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning (2000), American Association for State and Local History Book Series. ISBN 0-7425-0295-3.
- Stephen Neuhauser, Cells and Sites: How Historic Sites are Using Cell Phone Tours Archived February 21, 2010, at the Wayback Machine., National Trust Historic Sites Blog Archived December 15, 2009, at the Wayback Machine., July 3, 2008.
- Wikimédia Conference 2010, France.
- Khetarpaul, S.; Chauhan, R.; Gupta, S. K.; Subramaniam, L. V.; Nambiar, U. (2011). Mining GPS data to determine interesting locations. Proceedings of the 8th International Workshop on Information Integration on the Web.
- Travel Blackboard, Gray Line Australia Captivates its Audience With New GPS Audio Tours in Japanese and Mandarin, May 8, 2009. Archived February 17, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
- Fisher, Jennifer (2004), "Speeches of Display: Museum Audioguides by Artists". In Drobnick, Jim, Aural Cultures. ISBN 0-920397-80-8.
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