The Melbourne Zoo project was undertaken to create a mobile tour technology that would engage an underserved demographic for the 150-year-old organisation located near the metropolitan city center. The Zoo has an overarching vision to “be the world’s leading zoo-based conservation organization,” and in 2013 investigated ways to achieve their mission for demographics not currently active in their community. An internal study led to the discovery that 18-40 year olds without children were particularly absent from the community, and the mobile application was the project they choose to appeal to the demographic and lead to actionable outcomes for committing to conservation and sustainable audience engagement.

“I, Animal has been a resoundingly successful experiment for Melbourne Zoo – together we have created a unique, immersive experience for adult audiences that allows them to meaningfully connect with the animals at Melbourne Zoo and reflect on their place in the natural world.” — Katie Phalow, Director of Visitor & Community Development, Zoos Victoria

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To assist the Zoo in fulfilling these requirements Art Processors partnered with both the Zoo and Adelaide-based theatre company The Border Project to create a unique, theatrical, and interactive audio tour designed for groups of up to 200. The tours take place nightly through summer. They begin at 7PM, while the zoo would traditionally be closed, and finish at 7:55 at the zoo’s vintage carousel, where visitors can enjoy a pop up bar, a mix of ’80s and ’90s hits, and carousel rides.

The tour experience consists of a visitor picking one of four different looping pathways through the zoo, which is articulated through the frame of the “star animal” associated with the loop: the monkey, elephant, penguin or giraffe.

The narrative focuses on a particular conservation message associated with the animals passed while on the loop, with stories about the harvesting of palm oil destroying the habitat of Sumatran tigers, or the mining of the mineral the coltan in the home of the lowland gorilla. The tour also has emotional and cultural themes, each loop focused on one of the following: belief, ancestry, fear, or love. In some instances interactions will take place timed to the tour’s arrival, such as the feeding of a tiger set to coincide with audio on the device describing how a tiger will stalk its prey.

The Melbourne Zoo and The Border Project had clear objectives for the experience they wanted to create and Art Processors worked closely with both to make sure that the goals were technically achievable and that the highest standards in user experience could be met. The afterhours experience by cosmopolitan adults and relatively high admission price ($40 ticket, priced as a theater event) also meant that we needed a flawless technological solution to ensure that no visitor left unsatisfied.

“I, Animal is an irresistible piece of interactive performance art.” — Lucy Graham, Stage Whispers, 23.11.2012

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Creative Solution & Implementation

Early on, we decided deliver the tour to visitors by iPod touch and to personify the experience by calling application and narrator as “Zoë.” The application is loaded with content for all four of the routes through the Zoo. As the visitor explores the route they will be guided by Zoë on their chosen path, instructed to stop in front of the animal enclosures as they follow instructions and become actors in their own plays.

While much of our existing technology could be used for fleet management (iPods) and content delivery (Enso CMS), early technical analysis of the desired experience resulted in the discovery of four key technical challenges involved in delivering a flawless performance. Each would need to be overcome completely if we were to deem the experience a success.

  • Because pathways needed to be changed nightly depending on animal health, weather, or visitor numbers, a management system had to be designed to allow Zoo staff to control the iPods and options available to the visitor. WiFi could be installed at the main entrance but not throughout the zoo where the cost would be too prohibitive.
  • The Border Project wanted to the technology to reproduce the theatrical technique known as “Autoteatro,” which was invented by British theater group Rotozaza. In this technique, the first participant is given instructions and the next participant will be told a story to match up with the first’s movements.
  • The Zoo wanted visitors split evenly along each available path, so the system had to be designed to allow a select number of visitors to choose their desired path and channel overflow demand into other, still open paths.
  • The message of conservation had to reach as wide an audience as possible and engage the visitor beyond the exit gate.

The solution to the first two problems came in the form of a precision timing solution that kept all iPods in perfect temporal harmony, meaning that no matter what happened once the application was started, a group would always know exactly where they should be with regards to audio, video, and other visual content.

The grouping happened through a server-based algorithm that allowed visitors to timestamp their requests and get back their responses to align everyone evenly. In rare occurrences where a server response either couldn’t be sent or received in time, a random tour was assigned given the same weighting correlations as the server used. (On a sold-out night with 200 visitors, fewer than 2 percent would fail in such a manner).

For the take away message of conservation we borrowed from the “save tour” functionality we had built for MONA, where each visitor gets a personal digital keepsake of their journey through the space. Attached to this save tour page is an opportunity to sign up for Zoo news about conservation, take action with regards to the particular message associated with the loop, and share tour elements on social media.

These were four of the many challenges overcome that made the experience personal and meaningful. A truly unique journey that has now been enjoyed by many thousands of visitors.

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Visitor and client reaction & outcomes

Each member of the collaborative team had different desired outcomes the tour. For Art Processors one metric of success is that no participant ever claimed a refund based on technical issues, a considerable achievement given the number of technical challenges faced in the project.

For Melbourne Zoo, with the clear goals of demographic and conservation messages, it was encouraging to see that roughly 75 percent of attendees left their email address at the end of the tour, to request their personal storyline and, thus, be informed of the conservation message after the completion of their tour.

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In a survey of over 600 participants conducted by the Zoo it was discovered that more than 70 percent of surveyed respondents responded positively to the question: “I learnt Zoos Victoria plays a vital role in conservation.” More than 90 percent of respondents said they either “loved” or “liked” the integration of technology in the zoo experience, and there was a satisfaction rating of 73 percent of the respondents in the targeted age demographic.