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Banishing tour groups with Uber and AI

I hate tour groups. I hate the very rare times I am part of one, and I hate encountering them at tourist locations. And with few exceptions, I suspect most people also hate several aspects of them, other than perhaps when it's a group of family or friends. Like so much of the tourist world, I think there is immense room for improvement thanks to new communications and transportation technology.

Tour groups, on the other hand, are efficient and thus can be cheap. They also offer, at a price people can afford, the chance for somebody else to do all the planning and logistics, and to get a guide at all the locations. (Surprisingly, many forms of group tour are not cheap, which shows how much people value somebody doing all the legwork.)

Everybody not in a group dislikes touring a site and encountering a large group which crowds the site, dominates the major features and ruins your photo chances. Recently many tourist sites forced tour groups to use earphones and radio transmitters so the guide can speak quietly and not disrupt the space -- this was a nice positive change.

I want to consider the options for personalized AI based guide information, and the use of fleets of smaller vehicles (Uber or robocars) instead of tour buses to improve a couple of the main issues -- clustering at sites and tour bus issues. The goal is to keep the various positive attributes, like having somebody worry about the planning and booking, economies of scale, social time, on-the-ground assistance and more.

The AI guide

With a tour group, 95% of the time the guide just gives a canned spiel. Specialized questions from the group are surprisingly rare. Even with what I might consider curious and advanced tourists, like people from a tech conference. And the tour is never customized to the individual as it can be when you hire a private guide.

Today, I think we could have software do a better job than the typical guide. With knowledge of your exact location and orientation, software in your phone could offer something better than the canned spiel to you as you walk through an area. It would be done in your native tongue and accent, at a pace you like. The longer you looked at something the more you would learn. It could be customized to your desires and knowledge level. You could give it feedback to learn what to tell you, and it would also learn from your past history.

Still, you might have questions, and you could ask them. That's where human guides, including those who used to walk groups around would be reachable. They might be in a contact center, or their own homes, or they might be at the same building or even room. The right guide to answer your question could be tagged and answer immediately on your headphones, or a guide waiting in the same room or nearby could walk up and answer your question and others. In well-prepared locations, the guide could even be watching you on a camera or looking at what you are looking at through a camera you're wearing.

The human guide would not be unaware of your desires. They would quickly see a text transcript of what you have been told by the system, and what questions you and others have asked in this visit. Or you could ask for somebody to respond immediately who has not had time to review things, if you prefer that. If the guide is remote, you might see video of them on your phone, or in the future, AR of them standing beside you, showing you other things in AR. There might be slight delays, but the delays would be much shorter than in a tour group, where you must wait for a break in the tour.

With everybody using an AI guide, each member of the tour group could spend time in the areas they care about. The AI guide could remind them if they are falling behind -- "While the Venus is great, if you don't get moving you won't have time for the Mona Lisa." On top of that, a real but remote human tour manager might be managing the crowd and watching who is doing what on a map, and talk or give advice to those who must speed up.

This needs good localization (your phone knowing just where it is) in tourist locations. The best way to do that is to get a map of the wifi points now found in most places, or to install a few. Absent that, it can be done with cameras with a higher battery cost.

Small group transportation instead of the tour bus

Tour buses can be fuel efficient (if fully loaded) but they also block traffic and fill up parking lots. Ubers, and eventually robocars, can be as efficient or even better, and would leave an area once they drop off people, taking no parking, and blocking no streets or visibility.

Best of all, with small car transport, everybody doesn't have to leave at the exact same time. We've all see what happens with a bus tour. They tell you to be back at the bus at 2pm. Some people get there at 1:55pm, but stragglers may take 10, 20 or even 30 minutes longer. It's built into the schedule. The people who show up on time are punished by sitting there waiting, and the late arrivals are rewarded since everybody waits for them. People soon get the message and start being later and later. Truly valuable time at the world's great sites is wasted sitting in a bus.

Instead, software could provide car transportation for tour group members as they arrive. With vans holding 6 passengers, the first 6 to arrive would be immediately on their way to the next destination, and get more time there, while the latecomers get less. Of course, there would still be some constraints on time, and those who miss a deadline would end up skipping a destination, with plenty of warning. All would get AI guide narration on the trip.

This flexibility may be "abused" by tourists -- but I think in most cases they will be using it. Still, if a group tour really needs everybody in the same place at the same time, it could enforce it, and put penalties on tourists who go outside the bounds. The tourist's own phones will warn them if they are pushing the limits. Fortunately, if a tourist goes so far as to miss a ship or plane, instead of just a museum, it's on them. The tour group can loan tourists a phone if need be, as well as a spare battery to assure they never are out of touch, and it's reasonable from a privacy standpoint, if in a tour group, to share your location with the group manager. These days more and more airports and museums are starting to get accurate indoor location and this is going to increase.

You may think the tour bus is more efficient, but it's probably not cheaper. Rental of a bus for groups is actually very expensive, and the bus and driver stay idle most of the time -- and you pay for it. When I take a group on a tour a moderate distance, I find it much cheaper to just use cabs or Ubers than book a tour bus at $500 for 4 hours. In part, this wins because those cabs are working while the tourists are touring.

On top of this, tour buses are a scourge of their own -- I think they block and slow traffic far more than a fleet of 6 to 8 vans might, and that's certainly true on hills and narrow streets.

Good for tourism industry

I want to make clear that in the proposal above, group tourism continues -- in fact it probably gets bigger because it's more pleasant. The change is that the tourists no longer move as a mob, and the buses don't fill up parking lots and streets. For the tourists, the experience is more at their pace and interest level, and nobody has to wait for the latecomers -- the latecomers lose out by being late, not the people who are there on time.

The tourist robocar

This could be done with Uber like cars or any other computer dispatched taxi, but in the future it would be done with robocars. I expect special robocars to be designed for tourism. They would have big wide windows for viewing -- perhaps the cars that will look most like the "bubble cars" we've always seen in science fiction illustrations. The tourist robocar would be used by private tourists as well as tour groups, and come in several sizes. Those who can afford it might well have a human guide join them in the car.

A tourist robocar might take you from destination to destination like on a group tour, but it would also be a great vehicle for the private tourist group. Combined with software on phones and desktops, it would help craft a tour for the group, with AI guide narration. They might rent it for the day and be able to keep stuff in it, but it could also come with useful functions like a fridge for drinks. While commuters have little desire for complex AR overlays on the world as they travel, tourists would be the ones to actually like such technology.

The tourist robocar would be designed for easy entry and exit, since you're always getting in and out. And your phone will monitor your location at tourist sites, and automatically figure out when you are heading for the exits -- triggering your tourist car (or even a regular robotaxi) to be waiting for you as you head out.

The tourist robocar shares some elements with another robocar I expect to see -- the road trip robocar, which is half-way to the robo-RV. Coming up I will release an article with much more detail on this concept.

Serving the tourist

It is my hope that the future's smart tourist services would be paid for by tourists, and work for their interests. Too much of tourism today is driven by kickbacks and ads. Almost all group tours haul their unwitting customers to "shopping opportunities" at vastly overpriced stores that give kickbacks to the tour company. I've been standing in the Acropolis and told to rush off to get to a tour bus that drove 1000 feet to a crappy souvenir shop. I hope that this modern vision might put an end to such tricks, and take shoppers to real places to shop if they wish it, while letting others spend more time on what they came to see. Sadly, I know the commercial forces will try to pervert this, but more savvy tourists will know the value of their time and not be fooled for small discounts that work against them.

I'm disappointed that even though we have a vast new flood of tourist information -- including ratings on hotels, restaurants and sites from tools like Tripadvisor, Yelp, Google and others. In spite of that, it amazes me how many such things are not in these tools, and how much spam and fake reviewing there is polluting the information. Tourism is such a huge industry, and valuable information is so useful that I expected more by now. Tourists seem to not understand the value of their time. When you consider how much you are going to pay for a trip, with airfare, hotels, food and more, it can easily be hundreds of dollars per day.

Getting your hotel

Group tourism wins a big efficiency by booking the whole group into hotels and sites. These group discounts could still be possible to a group that doesn't spend all the time in a bus. But they could also be available to those who effectively have very little to do with the group. One might "join" a tour by simply using its hotels and following its itinerary of what city to be in and what major sites to go to. In addition, you could gain the benefit of having the group arrange luggage transportation to and from trains, planes and ships.

A world overrun by tourists

I have written before about one danger from this, and many other factors which will boost tourism in the future. As the populations of India, Brazil and other large nations get richer, they will join the USA, Germany, Japan and now China in flooding the world's tourist sites. They are already overwhelmed, and can't handle this. Even with groups dispersed, the volume of people will still be very high -- perhaps even higher in some ways if they are not concentrated. Some solution will have to be found.

I suspect it might be in the creation of VR that is hard to tell from reality. The VR version of that great site will be taken when it is empty of tourists, in the best weather and the best light. Visually, at least, it may be superior to a real visit, at least eventually. This may reduce the crowds. Or perhaps let people decide which few sites they now have to experience in meatspace. Or it might just make people want to do that more.


I wrote an essay, VR Will Break Museums, relevant to your final point. Clearly VR is not about to replace the sensation of strolling around Paris and eating a fresh baguette (at least not any time soon) but it's very possible that VR would offer a superior experience to highly crowded or physically-limited sites.

I agree that augmented reality will transform tourism. You only need to look at the popularity of audio guides – augmented audio, really – to see how these could work. In fact, AR is likely to massively disrupt tourist economies by routing dollars towards the very content, restaurants, routes, etc. Some companies and operators will do very well, and a lot of businesses will go bust.

I'm hoping when rather than if.
But I was actually astonished at the whole "Glasshole" reaction.
Not surprised by the fact that some reacted that way, but more that there was no substantial push back by people who could see a great number of potential applications.
I'm inclined to believe that lack of push back is because on things which are considered to have a moral dimension people have very much been cowed into silence. Our supposed new tolerance to differences hides the fact that morally we appear to be establishing a new PC orthodoxy which is just as rigid as the religious one we fought so hard to extricate ourselves from.

Being a tourist somehow convinces people that fanny packs only look stupid on other people.

Most tour groups I see now have badges, and earbuds in their ears for the tour guide's radio. I think tourists will be ready to wear AR goggles outdoors before almost anybody else. The nice thing about being a tourist is you don't see anybody you know.

I hate current audioguides. They take forever to tell you their story. You can read it at least 5 times faster. A phone app with translations of the placards (plus more detail) would be much better. However, a smart audioguide, which starts out with the highlights and then puts a focus on the things that matter to you, or responds to your feedback and how you move and look, would be a different story. Not having to get out my device or hold it in my hand is nice.

Actually, for museums, I think a good option would be a wrist-worn phone. Yes, a phone with a 5" screen in a special wrist mount. Too heavy to wear all day and too geeky, but fine in a museum. Stand by the artwork and hold up your wrist to see info on the painting, with no need for keyboard entry etc.

Most audioguides are poorly written and produced, to be sure, but that's really quite an easy thing to solve. It would also be pretty easy to make guides with different audio for different interest levels. The advantage of audio guides is that they allow you to view the object or scene without having to look back and forth at labels, or even at screens. Plus there is a richness to audio that can go beyond simple narration.

A few audio guides use positioning systems - usually IR/radio/Bluetooth - to save you from the trouble of pressing numbers, and they tend to work very well although I believe the hardware is quite expensive. The music museum in Brussels has a very fine setup. Gaze tracking is unfortunately very challenging and will not be done until we have heads-up-displays.

I briefly entertained the idea of setting up a company that would do third party audio guides for museums and galleries but the monetisation strategy seemed too difficult. True AR guides, however, will do exceptionally well.

Yes, I always felt that tourists actually have lots of money, and it should be possible to make an app that offers an audioguide to an entire city, incorporating the rental guide from every museum too. After all, usually all these museums join the "City card" programs so why not join this? (I suspect these programs just make money by overcharging and paying each museum a negotiated bulk rate for each visitor.)

The trick is to get the museum to plug in a bluetooth beacons for easy localization. Not so easy to detect how people are facing but you know what they are standing in front of.

Bluetooth beacons are not that expensive but after several years of iteration, they have yet to be truly successful due to a combination of maintenance issues (batteries need to be replaced eventually); signal strength and interference problems; and museums' general ineptitude at all things tech. tried to do this, but basically couldn't make enough money... wasn't for museums primarily though.

The new hope is for wifi-positioning and improved GPS, which might come with the next-gen of GPS satellites and receiver chips. I've heard accuracy level of below 1m, even indoors. Doesn't solve the facing problem but it's good enough!

Yeah, I know there are still some issues. But I do believe indoor localization (at least good enough for this) will be solved. Whatever is cheapest and easiest -- which may be wifi or something else.

Yes, I saw detour, a friend even narrated one of their tours. Did not know they had failed but it is hard to get something like this going. I do think the idea of having real experts and characters, or otherwise great presenters/famous actors, do the explanation, is one that people would probably like. I would prefer the authentic to the great presenter but both could have appeal.

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