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iPod/iPhone Mobile Tours for Everyone

If someone had told me a year ago that I would be able to make a working iPhone or iPod app, complete with content and a nice, easy-to-navigate interface, I would have thought they were nuts. I only know a little bit of code, and certainly not of the Cocoa or Objective-C variety that iOS apps require. But in the space of a couple of days, I was able to make a fully-functioning concept iPod mobile tour, using some repurposed content, the Indianapolis Museum of Art's TAP Drupal-based platform, and Apple's XCode developer toolkit to move the content onto the iOS devices.

TAP intro

There's a detailed list of instructions about implementing and using TAP here, but I'll outline my experience in this blog post. TAP is designed to be fairly usable out-of-the-box, and I found that to be the case. Because the TAP platform is based on Drupal, installation of TAP is fairly straightforward for those who are familiar with deploying database-driven CMS. Once installed, it was really easy to start putting content into TAP.

TAP interface

TAP supports five different types of content, known as "stops". Each stop can be bundled together as a "Stop Group", so the user only has to enter one three-digit number to access all different types of content:

  • Image Stop: for still images
  • Video Stop: for videos encoded into mp4
  • Audio Stop: mp3 audio
  • Poll Stop: used to poll your visitors
  • Web Stop: For custom content, like a web page, related to the tour

Once within the Stop Group (in this case, stop 117 for The Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park), the user will be able to see all these content types bundled together:

Interface of all of the menu items

Here, there's a video showing a sword-fighting demonstration at the theater, some audio content from a Balboa Park walking tour, a poll about the shows people might have seen at the theater, a photograph showing what the interior of the theater looks like, and some web content.

Once I loaded all of these individual pieces of content into TAP and linked them together into a Stop Group, I was ready to bundle the assets and the interface together and move it into my iPod.

Content list

All you have to do to bundle the tour together is click on "Export Bundle" (in the upper left) and save the bundle. Moving it onto the iOS device is more complicated.

Xcode interface

First off, you need a Mac running OS 10.6 (as of this writing. sorry PC users). You also have to sign up for a $99 Apple Developer License. This took a while to sort out, so it's helpful if you sign up for the program early on in the project. Then, once you're approved, you have to download Xcode and iPhone SDK, a set of tools from Apple that allows you to develop iOS apps (or link the TAP app code with the bundled content). Then you need to download the TAP app code by running a terminal client and downloading it (click here for the string to get the app source code).

From there, you basically just follow the instructions here. I had some initial difficulty getting the app to run, due to a bad download of the source code, but the IMA developer who wrote the code, Charles Moad, was quick to reply and we sorted out the problem fairly quickly.

I also changed the look and feel of the app, but I didn't change any of the code and functionality. Basically, I just created new images and swapped the IMA-themed ones out. Easy.

Interface comparison

Once the testing and deployment environment is all set up, it's really easy to continue adding content, or making new tours. There are a couple of limitations, though:

  1. The tours can't be distributed via iTunes at this time, since all of the content is loaded into the app from the beginning. It's simply too big. So this is great for in-house iPods that are checked out and used within the gallery. IMA assures us, however, that they're working on an HTML5 version that will allow the app to be downloaded and updated via iTunes, as well as be usable for other mobile OSes, such as Android. - Corrections and clarifications: I misunderstood this limitation. Apparently, iTunes will allow larger apps to be distributed via the iTunes store, but they require users to download via wifi if the file is over 20 MB. Additionally, the HTML5 version of TAP will also make the app web-viewable, making it usable by all web-enabled mobile devices.
  2. Changing some of the app behavior can be daunting for non-programmers (such as myself). Without playing around in the code, there aren't any easy ways to modify certain behaviors. For example, since the Help video is per-institution, there isn't one that comes with the bundle, but I can't easily hide the Help button or the initial popup window that links to the (non-existent) video. Likewise, there's a tapping noise that's activated by inputting the tour stop numbers that drives me crazy, so I want to do away with it. I'm sure it's easy to change, but I haven't found the location within the code for those settings yet.

Regardless of those limitations, for institutions looking to quickly create iPod gallery tours, this is a very handy and easy way to create your very first iPod app.