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Monterey Bay Aquarium Navigates ‘The Deep Indoors’ With iOS App

With more than 35,000 animals and plants on display and over 2 million visitors annually, the Silicon Valley-area marine life center turned to Apple to map its 200 galleries and “enhance the experience.”

"Find yourself at the Monterey Bay"
“Find yourself at the Monterey Bay” (©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tyson V. Rininger)

As customer demand rose for a specific mobile app to explore the 175,000 square feet of exhibit space at the 31-year-old Monterey Bay Aquarium, executives partnered Apple to create an indoor map and other mobile tools designed to give users a “virtual guide.”

The marine conservation center opened in 1984. It currently attracts over 2 million visitors to see its more than 35,000 animals and plants (representing more than 600 species of aquatic life) which reside in 200 galleries spread across 3.3 acres.

Underwater/Indoor Experience

“We have a long standing relationship with Apple, dating back to the launch of our Seafood Watch app in 2009,” says Humberto Kam, director of Online Engagement & Marketing for Monterey Bay Aquarium, referring to a separate guide that it previously developed for buying sustainable seafood in listed restaurants and markets. The app got the aquarium on Apple’s radar. “When we started discussions about adding indoor positioning to the existing Aquarium app late last year, Apple very generously offered to help us create the best possible user experience.”

Apple representatives set up direct calls and meetings at the aquarium with Kam and his team, as well as with its developer, Denver-based Possible Mobile.

Unveiled at the end of March, the official Monterey Bay Aquarium app shows the wider role that indoor positioning can play for consumers. The app is more than just a mere virtual map, it’s designed to give users a greater sense of what’s going on around their specific area. It’s also intended to share that singular experience, whether a person is checking out the sea otters swimming in their pool or an octopus in its tank.

The key features which can offer inspiration to retailers, who are constantly trying to “enhance the in-store experience” for visitors, include:

  • An interactive map that highlights aquarium exhibits, animals and amenities. With iOS 8, visitors can also pinpoint their location on the map.
  • Over 100 photos and background information about popular exhibit animals, from penguins and jellyfish.
  • The option to set reminders before the start of a favorite feeding show, special event, or any of the daily programs offered throughout the aquarium.
  • A create-your-own e-postcard feature that can be used on site or at home to share your favorite animals with family and friends.
  • A checklist of major exhibits so visitors can track what they’ve seen and which galleries and exhibits they haven’t yet explored.
  • Tips on how to get more out of a visit, and aquarium information including operating hours, dining options, main phone number and driving directions.
  • Options to stay connected on Facebook or to receive an e-newsletter after a visit.

“When we started this process with Apple, there were a lot of directions we could have gone,” said Marika Barranco, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guest experience administration manager. “We wanted to be able to provide the full visiting experience reflected in users’ phones.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's app offers a professional photo-sharing collection.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s app offers a professional photo-sharing collection. (©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Tyson V. Rininger)

The Role of Indoor Navigation

Even for aquarium regulars, Barranco noted that finding one’s way around the sprawling complex is far from intuitive, “though we try to make it easy for people to get around,” she added.

“The idea behind this app is a recognition that people are always on their phones, so we wanted to have something that would keep their attention focused on what they were doing and why the person is here. Mobile can get in the way sometimes, even if it’s ultimately very useful. So one thing we wanted to make sure of was that visitors would not have to toggle through a bunch of screens for each gallery or exhibit. We wanted visitors to have a virtual, yet personal, tour guide.”

Since the aquarium doesn’t allow flash photography (so as not to annoy the animals and other visitors) the app, serving as a proxy “photographer” provides over a 100 images they can share on social media.

Currently the app itself relies on the aquarium’s wifi signal to connect visitors, though Barranco said that managers are considering the introduction of beacons for special exhibits.

Indoor navigation is something all businesses and cultural institutions above a certain size are starting to pay attention to. Because Apple’s iOS 9 will allow searching within all apps in the iPhone maker’s iTunes Store, there is sure to be greater demand from consumers to provide specific information about a brand’s locations, both inside and out.

Just this week, Google said its Maps utility has begun offering indoor positioning and places’ layouts, suggesting that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is ahead of other groups and businesses.

But before they develop similar apps, businesses and cultural institutions should have a clear reason to offer indoor navigation tools and related features to their visitors.

“I wouldn’t say that the app drives attendance, nor was it ever meant to,” Kam said. “Our goal was to provide our guests with the information they need to have a great visit, in a fast and easy way, so they can get back to sharing the Aquarium experience with their family and friends.”