These Streets Were Made for Talking

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 1 June 2004

Using utterly backwards-compatible technologies, a new mobile service lets city streets tell their histories to anyone with a cell phone.

A walk through New York’s Lower East Side betrays very little about its history. Sure, a few apartment buildings have Jewish stars engraved near the roofs, and a couple of bodegas still sport the remnants of Hebrew writing over the threshold.

Like many neighborhoods around the world, the Lower East Side contains a hidden geography of landmarks, politics and stories. If only we knew what had happened on those streets so many years ago. If only the streets could talk.

Well, thanks to an extraordinarily simple cell phone service called Talking Street, the cobblestones can do just that.

Talking Street is basically a walking-tour application that can be implemented for a neighborhood and configured to pretty much any area of interest. Users type in phone numbers to hear narration of a particular location’s history, characters, architecture – anything. Like the headsets visitors can rent from museums to guide them through the collection, Talking Street provides narration along any number of points of interest in a neighborhood. Users enter specific numbers for each spot along the way. Leave the tour guide behind, and discover Ancient Rome, the stations of the cross or the French Quarter of New Orleans.

What’s particularly remarkable about the effort is the company’s unique funding strategy: get funded by the people hoping to share their content, rather than by a technology developer. In this case, founder Miles Kronby offered his fledgling application to a Jewish philanthropy: as a model for a walking tour of the Jewish history of the Lower East Side. He signed on American Jewish comedian Jerry Stiller, and got a grant to develop the technology.

And it works. Hundreds of tourists and residents of New York have already spent many hours on the same streets trod by early immigrants to New York City and learning about the weddings, labor protests and commerce that took place there a hundred years ago. With the Lower East Side tour serving as ample proof of concept, Talking Street is about to release new walking tours – one of the Ground Zero area in New York, one of the Mall in Washington, DC, and another of Boston, “City of Rebels and Dreamers.”

We sat down with Kronby to ask him a few questions about his service, as well his development and funding model.

The Feature: How did you think this up, from a developmental POV. Was it a need to spread this content, or did the content idea come after you thought up the idea of giving people tours via cell?

Kronby: The latter. I had been thinking that cell phones would be a great way to deliver location-based information – to illuminate places by revealing stories and details that visitors might otherwise miss. The Lower East Side seemed like a perfect place to do that. It’s an area with a fascinating history, but that history isn’t so obvious when you walk around the neighborhood.

The Feature: Right now, people key in their locations. Are you hoping for some sort of triangulation feature or GPS, later?

Kronby: Yes – it’ll be useful, as you suggest, to send people information automatically, based on where they are. We left that out of this version because most people aren’t yet using that technology, and we want the tour to be as simple and familiar as possible – as easy as using a recorded audio guide in a museum.

The Feature: What’s the biggest obstacle to such a location-targeting? Business models of providers? Lack of standards?

Kronby: For the Lower East Side tour we didn’t attempt to address the existing obstacles, for a few reasons: most people’s phones don’t have GPS; and not all phones allow triangulation, and even many people who could use triangulation have never done so. Also, the Lower East Side Tour works fine without location-based targeting: the map is easy to get (you can pick it up at various places, including the Lower East Side Visitor Center; or you can download it at the Talking Street web site); and if you don’t have a map, at the end of each stop you can hear audio instructions to the next stop. So for this particular tour, it isn’t obvious that location-based targeting would significantly enhance the experience.

In a broader sense, I think it will be cool when someone walking around the city – someone who has opted in to this service – will be alerted with a message like, “You’re now on the block where a confrontation between two kids, a hundred years ago, led to the birth of organized crime. If you’d like to hear Jerry Stiller tell you about it, press 1”. That’s one of the services that will make location-targeting really interesting.

The Feature: By today’s standards, this technology seems very “last generation.”Could you tell us something about your philosophy of using existing technologies, and maintaining backwards compatibility at all costs?

Kronby: Sure. Basically, our goal at Talking Street is to use cell phones to enhance people’s appreciation of a place, and to make that experience available to the largest possible audience. Fortunately, basic audio over regular cell phones can go a long way – by offering lively narration, expert commentary, archival audio, dramatic readings, etc.

As the technology evolves, we look forward to offering not only location-based services, but also other media besides audio. If it’s nice to hear Irving Berlin singing when you’re learning about his life, wouldn’t you want to see a photo of him too – or a film clip of one of his performances? We want to incorporate other media as soon as it makes sense to do so, but for now we want to focus on the experience that everyone can get with their cell phones.

By the way, we do have plans to offer SMS messaging as part of the tour - that’s another medium that we think could enhance someone’s experience of the neighborhood. We’re still working out what the appropriate content and functionality will be.

The Feature: Where’s the money in this? Have you chosen a religion/non-profit because it’s difficult to find people who will pay for you to make this for them?

Kronby: This first tour is free to users, because we received funding from a foundation. However, as we move forward with new tours, revenue will come from a combination of sponsorship and pay-per-use.

The Feature: What was the most fun aspect of doing this? Working with JerryStiller?

Kronby: One of the most fun aspects was making all the decisions involved in crafting the content for each stop on the tour. Take Straus Square, Stop #8: What’s the heart of the story? We decided it was the intersection of radicalism and capitalism, played out in the lives of two characters who had an impact on the square: the anarchist Emma Goldman and the capitalist Nathan Straus. Ok, then how to bring that to life? We decided, for example, to introduce some archival audio – a 1940 recording of a labor anthem – and a dramatic reading from Emma Goldman’s biography, in which she describes attending a rally right there in the square. Also, weaving the various elements together with Jerry Stiller’s narration was great: the stories sounded better when he delivered them.

The Feature: What was the least fun?

Kronby: The answer to this question is related to the last one. The hardest part about the project was deciding on the content for each stop, and therefore deciding what to leave out. To use the example of Straus Square, people like Emma Goldman and Nathan Straus could each easily be the subject of multi-hour documentaries – but our segment lasts only two minutes. The good news, however, is that feedback from users suggests that the stops on the tour are engaging and satisfying even at two minutes. Our users are comfortable with the fact that each stop aims to offer a vivid glimpse rather than a comprehensive account. Even so, we’re keenly aware of all we had to leave out. (And we still have the option of adding more content. The tour is designed to incorporate new modules, like “press 1 to hear more about Emma Goldman.”)

The Feature: There’s no proprietary technology in use for Talking Street; so what’s really your main achievement, here?

Kronby: There isn’t a proprietary technology, but for us the achievement is how we bring together technology, geography and stories. We want the tour, at its best moments, to feel transporting – to take people into the Lower East Side of a century ago in ways that perhaps no other medium could. If we occasionally accomplish that, by delivering the right content in just the right way, that’s the achievement we’re proudest of.