Use the Mobile Phone As an Audio Tour Guide

Use the Mobile Phone As an Audio Tour Guide

Get more out of your trips by listening to tour guides on your phone.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to let comedian and actor Jerry Stiller take you on a tour of New York's Lower East Side, the very neighborhood he grew up in? Wouldn't it be great to hear, when you are on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech that he gave on that same spot?

In many museums, historic sites, and parks, you can have such experiences by participating in self-guided audio tours. But often you have to wait in a long line to rent an audio guide device first, and then you have to figure out how all the buttons function before you can actually go on the tour. For many visitors, this is just too much of a hassle. And for museums and parks, it costs too much to manage and maintain all those devices. Many smaller museums and parks simply do not have enough funds or personnel to provide such tours. Consequently, visitors' experiences become less informative and less engaging.

Fortunately, you can use your own mobile phone as an audio tour device. You don't need to rent a device, or try to figure out which buttons to push. Just dial a number provided by the places you visit, and you can listen to the audio tour right away.

On a related note, when you are in a new city, you can usually call 411 (or some other operator-specific service number) from your mobile phone to get information about local attractions, driving directions, and additional local information.

This kind of mobile-phone-based tour is already available in many urban cities, national historic sites, zoos, museums, and national parks. They deliver audio content specially designed to enhance the visitor experience. (See Figure, later in this hack, for a list of such tours.) For users, key benefits of mobile phone audio tours are:


Your mobile phone is always with you. No device to rent, no guidebook to buy. And you don't have to learn how to use unfamiliar rented devices, or worry about loss and damage, so a mobile phone audio tour can reduce the anxiety you might feel when using rented or unfamiliar devices.


Since the service is voice based, it works with just about any phone and any mobile operator. Plus, the tour is available to you at any time. You can take the tour at your own pace and schedule. You don't need to wait for a tour guide.

Unique perspectives

Interesting things do not just happen in Times Square or on the Golden Gate Bridge. Because of the flexibility of a mobile phone audio tour, it can take you to places and tell you stories that are not normally available in museums or guidebooks. For instance, in the city of Toronto, you can access a unique cell phone audio tour for free. The tour provides a rich collection of personal oral histories submitted by the city's residents. In the tour, you get to know the city's ordinary people and hear their remarkable stories, told in their own voices. This is certainly not available in usual guided tours in Toronto.


Because of the audio format, the tour can be very vivid. Historic audio (such as an important speech), original music, and expert interviews can all be incorporated into the audio. For example, tourists walking by Ford's Theater can listen to a reenactment of President Lincoln's assassination. This is the experience you normally cannot have by just reading a guidebook.

Mobile phone audio tours can be easily programmed to provide multilingual content. They also can be very useful in large outdoor spaces, such as entire cities or large national parks that locally networked audio devices cannot cover.

A research institute, Touch Graphics, has developed a mobile phonebased tour to improve accessibility to museums and exhibits for blind and visually impaired visitors. The museum sets up a network of wireless audio beacons at key destinations in the exhibit space. Using their familiar mobile phones, users can call a toll-free number and select a personal ping sound. Then they choose a destination, and use their phone to trigger the personal ping sound from the beacons at the destination. By following their personal sound, they can navigate through the exhibit independently. When they reach their destination, the phone becomes an interactive audio guide, providing explanations about the exhibition.

Make It Work

Information about an audio tour is usually available from your destination's web site, banners, or brochures you can pick up at the visitor's center or entrance. You might also want to print out or obtain the audio tour map.

Now, dial the dedicated phone number specified on the tour information. Follow the voice instructions to select an audio tour track and fee plan. Sometimes, multilingual tours and special tours for children are available. You can choose accordingly through your phone. After that, input your payment information. Usually the fee is charged through the phone when you input your credit card number. You might also be able to put the charge on your mobile phone bill with the wireless operator.

When you explore the park or museum, use your mobile phone keypad to input the stop number corresponding to locations of interest. The stop numbers are usually located on the tour map and can also appear on signs around the site.

Tips and Tricks

Turning on your phone's speaker can enable multiple people to enjoy an audio tour, using only one mobile phone. This is fun for parents and kids to participate in the tour together.

Once you purchase your tour, you can access it within seven days. (Times might vary in different places. Some places allow three days.) Some tours allow you to listen twice.

After one stop, just hang up and call again when you get to the next stop. You can spend as much time as you want in between and also save minutes on your calling plan.

Note that the tour price tag does not include the charges to your cell phone plan and roaming fees, etc. So, check your cell phone plan and remaining minutes to know beforehand what the cost will be. With cheaper airtime minutes, especially with free minutes on weekends, cell phone audio tours should become more and more affordable.

Prices and Availability

Figure lists some of the currently available audio tours for mobile phones.

Available mobile phone audio tours



Phone number


Web site

New York

Tour of New York's Lower East Side (narrated by Jerry Stiller); Lower Manhattan (narrated by Sigourney Weaver)




Tour of Boston




Personal Oral History story-telling

Various; see tour guide


Sacramento Zoo

Mobile Phone Safari in the zoo



Minute Man National Historical Park

The story of April 19, 1775, the first day of the American Revolution



San Anto-nio, Texas

Audio tour of the Alamo


$6.99 (additional charge for a longer program)


Two-mile walking tour of lower down-town Denver



Mobile phonebased audio tours are not going to replace live guides and tour books. But they will become an increasingly popular approach for you to enjoy your visits to cities, parks, zoos, and museums. In the future, as mobile location technology and 3G wireless networks evolve, audio tours could even incorporate mobile phonebased maps and directions, videos, and interactive messaging, making the tour experience even more interesting and informative.

Another mobile phone tour guide service is Grafedia ( It provides community-contributed multimedia content to your phone via MMS messages, and it is free of charge. When you are at a new location and see graffiti with email addresses ending with "," you can send an MMS message to that address [Hack #59] and receive related content (images, text descriptions, audio and video clips) via MMS. You can also upload your own content to the site and associate them with your own graffiti. See the site for detailed instructions.

Ju Long

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