Designing a “No Interface” Audio Walk
AbstractAudio-based locative media (Tuters and Varnelis, 2006), sometimes known as "audio walks" (Cardiff and Miller, 1991), "placed sound" (Behrendt, 2012), or "situated sound" (Fagerjord, 2011) can be used to offer educational material outside the museum—effectively creating audio guide-like experiences in public spaces. However, such experiences raise concerns that have long been discussed in relation to mobile devices in museums: that they may take too much of the user's attention, resulting in visitors focusing only on their mobile screens (Woodruff et al., 2001; vom Lehn and Heath, 2003; Wessel and Mayr, 2007; Løvlie, 2011; Behrendt, 2015). While this is a long-standing concern in the museum world, it also matches current trends in interface design suggesting that "the best interface is no interface" (Krishna, 2015). This paper presents a research-through-design exploration (Zimmerman, Forlizzi, and Evenson, 2007) of this problem through the development of an audio walk conveying the history of the 1970’s squatter movement in Copenhagen. User tests demonstrate that the absence of a visual interface allows users to ignore their mobile screens and navigate simply using the audio while observing their surroundings. Some users report great pleasure from this experience: "The feeling of only listening, instead of looking at pictures, and then looking at reality, I really liked it—it was wonderful!" However, the experience also relies on the user's ability to imagine the past and to understand the differences between the contemporary urban environment and the historical period in which the events unfold.
Keywords: Design, locative media, audio, placed sound, interface, mobile tours
Audio-enabled locative media (Løvlie, 2009b; Tuters & Varnelis, 2006), sometimes known as “audio walks” (Cardiff & Miller, n.d.), “placed sound” (Behrendt, 2012), or “situated sound” (Fagerjord, 2011) can be used to offer interpretive and educational material in spaces outside the museum—effectively creating audio guide-like experiences in public spaces. However, such experiences raise concerns that are similar to those that have long been discussed in relation to the use of mobile devices in museums: that these devices may take too much of the user’s attention, resulting in visitors staring at their mobile screens, oblivious to everything around them (Vom Lehn & Heath, 2003; Wessel & Mayr, 2007; Woodruff, Aoki, Hurst, & Szymanski, 2001). While this is a long-standing concern in the museum world, it matches current trends in interface design suggesting that “the best interface is no interface” (Krishna, 2015). This paper presents a research-through-design exploration of this problem through the development of the audio walk Bezæt, conveying the history of the squatter movement in Copenhagen from the 1970s until the 1990s.
Through an iterative design process we tested out approaches to connect audio content with places, in order to create an audio walk in which users could walk through the neighbourhoods where squatters set up alternative communities while listening to stories told by members of the movement about the places they pass by. However, while there are countless technological solutions for creating such an experience, practical user-testing demonstrated that solutions based on a visual map interface tended to distract users from their surroundings: They would spend most of the time studying the map on the screen instead of the urban environment surrounding them.
The goal of this project was, therefore, to design an audio walk which would direct the user’s attention toward the urban environment and allow them to experience the walk without ever (or almost ever) looking at the screen of their mobile phone. In the following, we reflect on the design process and discuss some of the challenges involved.
Locative Media and Storytelling
Locative media refers to mobile media which are location-aware and which provide place-specific information relevant to the user’s location (Løvlie, 2011a). Using locative media for mobile storytelling enables access to stories which might otherwise be forgotten. Oppegaard and Grigar state that mobile storytelling has the ability to foster interrelationships between four distinct entities:
. . . between content and medium; people and space/time; people and information; and people and other people. Mobile devices open new portals for rediscovering the forgotten, yet illuminating, stories of our shared history . . . (Oppegaard & Grigar, 2013)
Løvlie (2011a) argues that locative media should use sound rather than visual interfaces, in order to allow users to focus on their surroundings. However, Behrendt (2015) notes that most applications within the field of locative media have been biased towards visuals such as text and map interaction.
The artist Janet Cardiff was an early pioneer in the field only much later known as locative media. From 1991 onward, she has created a series of art installations she calls “audio walks.” One of these is “Louisiana Walk” (Cardiff, 1996), located in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. Visitors are equipped with an iPod, headphones and a paper map of the museum grounds with a series of numbered locations. Walking to different locations and playing the corresponding audio files takes the visitor through a narrative which blurs the line between fiction and reality by directing the look of the listener to different nearby objects.
34 North 118 West (Knowlton, Spellman, Stow, & Hight, 2003) is one of the most well-known early locative media installations, based in an old railway station in downtown Los Angeles. Using a custom assembly consisting of a laptop computer connected to a GPS receiver and headphones, the work allows users to walk through the area and listen to the stories of railway workers from the nineteenth century.
Historical “soundwalks” tend to use narrative vignettes structured along a linear route, sometimes supplemented with background sounds or music (Behrendt, 2015). Toby Butler suggests the term, ”Memory scape,”to conceptualise his audio-walk “Drifting” (Butler, 2009), set along the river Thames, in which he recorded interviews with people who lived and worked in the vicinity of Hampton Court Palace. The term addresses the action of listening to located oral accounts, and denotes “ . . . an active and immersive way to understand and map the cultural landscape, and more practically as a different way of presenting oral history.” (Butler, 2009).
The Ground Zero Sonic Memorial, produced after the terror attacks in New York 11 Sept 2001, is particularly interesting as it was the first larger audio walk production to include located oral histories and first-hand eyewitness accounts (Bradley, 2012). The audio walk was produced in collaboration between radio stations, media professionals, journalists, and historians who wanted to create a memorial for the tragic events. The audio material includes reportage, soundscape, oral testimonies, music and archive audio clips, which are all tied together by a narrative written by Paul Auster.
The research project textopia (Løvlie, 2009b, 2012a) created a crowd-sourced system for “locative literature,” which allowed users to place literary texts on the city map and browse the texts by walking through the city. Some users created stories that took a form similar to soundwalks, inviting readers to follow the story from location to location (Løvlie, 2011b), whereas others used the locative format to create “deictic writing,” in which the text played with the poetic effect of addressing the specific location of the reader (Løvlie, 2012b). Løvlie proposes the term “poetic augmented reality” to describe the locative literary experience (Løvlie, 2009a).
In recent years, more generalised systems for locative media have become available, such as Podwalk (http://podwalk.org/). This is a digital platform for museums and others with an interest in creating soundwalks. It is described as a location-aware podcast application, which unlock sounds or chapters as you walk, triggered by GPS positioning.
This project followed the research-through-design (RtD) methodology (Zimmerman, Forlizzi, & Evenson, 2007), conducted as a student project by the first and second author of this paper at the IT University of Copenhagen during the spring semester, 2018. We carried out an iterative design process through which we developed a series of prototypes. Each was tested and used to inform the final design. Testing was done qualitatively through observations and the think-aloud technique, combined with semi-structured interviews.
The target audience for our audio walk was identified using the “Culture Segments” (https://mhminsight.com/culture-segments) model developed by the UK consultancy, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre. Test users were recruited through our networks based on the criteria that they should all belong to either the “Expression” or “Stimulation” segment and represent both genders and a diverse range of ages. We thus recruited 8 test users. (Their names have been altered):
Eva, female, 18, student
Gitte, female, 18, student
Jane, female, 72, composer and retired teacher
Eskild, male, 66, actor and teacher
Lars, male, 71, psychologist
Mikkel, male, 28, student
Jason, male, 29, student
Harold, male, 25, student
During user tests, we observed the users by following them from a distance while listening to the audio walk ourselves on our own device. This made it possible for us to gain insight of how the prototypes were perceived immediately by the users, and furthermore observe their interactions (Lewis, 1982). The users were encouraged to speak their mind and share their experiences during the soundwalk.
BZ: The occupy movement of the 1970s
The Danish “BZ” movement grew from the student rebellion of 1968 and took its name by rewriting the Danish word for “occupy” (“besæt”). As such, it has an obvious reference point to protest movements from this decade—arguably, this was the “original” Occupy movement. The BZ movement was constituted by young squatters who decided to occupy empty houses as a protest against the urban development plans of the municipality and as a result of unemployment and shortage of housing. The most well-known manifestation of this movement is Christiania, an old military area in downtown Copenhagen which was taken over by squatters in 1971 and turned into a “freetown” commune which still exists today. It houses around 1,000 residents and is a much-visited attraction for tourists.
Less known to people today are the many other histories about squatters in Copenhagen, in particular in the old working-class area of Nørrebro, where large areas were taken over by BZ-ers throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The last of the squatted houses was cleared in a dramatic police action in 2007, which led to several days of unrest and over 700 arrests. Today, there are few visible traces left of the squatter movement outside Christiania, as the houses that were once occupied have been torn down and new houses have been built in their place.
While the movement has been the subject of several books and films, we were interested in using the audio walk format to allow listeners to experience this fascinating and unique history in situ. Such an installation connecting the personal stories of the past and the history of the movement to the physical location, the houses and areas in which the events occurred, has not yet been made.
Most of the participants in the movement are still alive, making it possible to let the participants and other eyewitnesses tell their own stories. The personal stories of the squatters are fascinating material. Their motivations for joining the movement were mixed: some were more politically motivated than others, but they were all young and, perhaps, feeling a bit lost. These are feelings and experiences which many teenagers and adults can relate to. Past accounts have often focused on violent events such as the battles between the squatters and the police during the demolition of the occupied houses. However, in our interviews with a number of the people involved, we also heard stories of young people’s search for identity and a community, conveying feelings of unity, independence and diversity.
As all of the houses described in the soundwalk have been demolished and replaced by new ones, one of the main challenges in this project was finding ways to generate vivid images of the past cityscape in the minds of the users. Furthermore, as it was decided to create an experience with minimal screen interaction, we could not rely on images and video. This put great demands on the methods used in conducting the interviews and editing the content.
Getting interviews with the squatters has been a challenge for earlier projects addressing this material, as some of the squatters have been reluctant to give interviews, fearing that their stories will be misrepresented (Knudsen, 2016). However, in our case, the invitation to tell their story in their own words was greeted with great interest by several of them, who agreed to let themselves be interviewed for the project. We recruited people who had experienced the movement up close in different ways. Through contact with the author of a recently published and much-debated book on the subject of the squatters, we managed to get hold of some of the people featured in his book. Those people, in turn, helped us get further access to other squatters through online forums. Furthermore, we used personal contacts to recruit people who had lived in the neighbourhood during the relevant time period and who had experienced some of the police battles, demolitions, or similar events. In the end, we did interviews with five squatters and two other people who had lived in the area.
We decided to divide the interviews into two sessions:
- First interview: When first meeting with the squatters we conducted an interview in which we asked questions regarding how they got into the squatter-movement and why, what their lives were like as teenagers and as squatters, and finally, why they left the movement. Conducting these interviews, we gave the squatters the opportunity to speak, and tell their stories in their own words with no constraints.
- Interview on location: When interviewing on location, each squatter was carefully instructed to refer explicitly to the surroundings as they told their stories, pinpointing the locations of events using landmarks in the current cityscape: “just next to the yellow house on the corner of Stengade . . .” or “the old house used to lie right beside the entrance of building number 45,” etc. We hoped that anchoring the narrative to the surroundings in this way would make it possible for the users to physically and visually follow the squatters descriptions and get a sense of what the neighbourhood looked like during the time of the squatter movement.
After conducting interviews on site, their locations were marked on a map of Nørrebro. When we divided the different stories into edited sound files, we got a route consisting of 44 locations. However, when testing an early prototype, it became clear that the length of the soundwalk needed to be reduced roughly to half the length, so we ended with 20 locations.
Designing for No Interface
At the beginning of the design process, we had planned to implement the audio walk using an off the shelf application for historical audio walks, called Tidsmaskinen (http://tidsmaskinen.org/) (Figure 1). However, when testing an early version of the audio walk, we learned that the map-based navigation provided by Tidsmaskinen seemed to distract the users from looking at the surroundings. Furthermore, the GPS based positioning in the app was not sufficiently accurate for our purposes, as many of the stories required us to guide the users in a very precise way, e.g. asking them at one point to look at one detail in one building, and afterwards to cross the street to look at another view, etc.
Figure 1: Prototype created in “Tidsmaskinen”
Because of these difficulties, we decided to develop a new prototype without GPS positioning and map-based navigation. Instead, all the navigation would be done through instructions in the audio narrative. This decision put great demands on the guiding narrative. Very precise micro-navigating narratives were added after each story, giving the users sufficient instructions to take them to the next location only by looking at the urban surroundings.
The final prototype had a minimal Graphical User Interface (GUI), primarily consisting of audio controls allowing the user to play, pause, and skip through the different parts of the audio experience. The user is instructed to find her way to the start of the audio walk at the square Blågårds Plads (the only location which is presented with a map interface) (Figure 2). The app then offers the following simple instructions (our translation): “1. When you have finished listening to a story, move on to the next location which is explained to you by the narrator. 2. When you arrive, you can play the next story.” (Figure 3). When the user is finished listening to the audio at one location, they are presented with a short audio file giving instructions guiding them to the next point (Figure 4). This audio can be replayed, in case the user needs to revisit the instructions while searching for the next point (Figure 5). After testing, the navigation instructions were revised in places where the test users struggled to find the way.
Figure 2: First screen presenting a map marked with the starting point of the soundwalk
Figure 3: Text instructing the user how to use the soundwalk.
Figure 4: The main location interface. The left/right arrows indicate that the user can skip to the next or previous location by swiping left or right.
Figure 5: The navigation interface consists simply of an audio file with instructions about where to go next. The button with a circle formed arrow lets the user replay the navigation audio.
Micronavigation Using the Urban Landscape
The structure of the audio walk is linear. For each part, a narrator introduces the interviewees and guides the user. The stories and information at the different locations consist of the oral accounts of the squatters or other individuals who have been associated with the movement. In order to make it possible to follow the audio walk without map-based navigation, we had to work in very detailed navigation instructions and orientation clues in both the narration and the interviews. In the following, we will give some examples in order to illustrate this.
At the first location, the narrator starts by introducing the users to the format and to the location, pointing to landmarks in the surroundings in order to help the user orient himself/herself in relation to the cityscape and the audio content:
Narrator: Welcome to the soundwalk BeZæt. You are about to go on a journey back to the 80s here at Nørrebro, Copenhagen. I will be your guide, so you can safely remove your eyes from the screen and look around. You are now present at Blågårds Plads. Behind you is Blågårds Kirke, and in front of you is a soccer field. Before we dig deeper into the stories of the squatter-movement, you will hear stories of the old Nørrebro, before the squatters, told to you by the historian Nina Søndergaard.
Figure 6: Two of our test users at Blågårds Plads
The historian provides the historical facts and explains the societal issues leading up to the formation of the squatter movement. Once the interview with the historian is finished, the narrator directs the user towards the next location, “Byggeren.”
Narrator: We are now going to the area which was known in the 70s as “Byggeren.””Walk past the playground, and continue through the gate in the red building. The story of the squatters begins with the establishment of Byggeren in 1972. Byggeren was similar to a playground, but it was built by children and pedagogues who lived in the neighbourhood and was frequently used until it was finally cleared in 1980. When you have passed the gate, you will be walking in between two large trees. Try to look up, one feels very small next to them. Stop in the middle of the cobblestone circle, and listen further.
Figure 7: The gate in the red building
Figure 8: The cobblestone circle
Narrator: Look around. Besides the cobblestone circle, you are surrounded by a lot of red buildings. But back then in 1972, before the kids and the pedagogues built Byggeren together, this was a great empty building space. You will now hear more about this place from Puk.
Puks voice: It wasn’t really my battle.
Narrator: . . . and Filli . . .
Filli’s voice: Byggeren is something we feel strongly about.
Narrator: . . . who were both children at the time of Byggeren.
A little further on in the audio walk, we hear the former squatter Bo share his memories of living in an occupied house called “Bazooka.” By referring to details in the present-day surroundings, Bo directs the look of the users and helps them picture where the stories took place, even though the surroundings look very different today.
Bo: From here, we could see Allotria [another squatted house], located at the end of Stengade. There were also houses, located where you now see the red and yellow houses with satellite dishes [Figure 9] everywhere, and behind it is the music venue Stengade 30. . . . There was a block here that went all the way around. It was a five floor building, with a backyard. There were some sheds and a woodshed placed up against that wall where the graffiti says ‘Palæstina forever’ [Figure 10]. We had huge common sleeping rooms, where we slept 4 to 5 people in the same room, and swapped beds when needed. So, there wasn’t any ‘ego-rooms.’ It was a social/common activity to sleep together. We were together all the time. And then there was a shag room, and we also had a music room on the second floor were you could listen to music, smoke weed and relax . . .
Figure 9: Present-day houses with satellite dishes.
Figure 10: The wall with a graffiti saying, “Palæstina forever.”
Besides the use of micronavigation, historical facts and place-specific descriptions by the squatters, excerpts from news broadcasts are used to highlight certain events during the walk. At certain locations, music from this specific time period is used to provide an atmosphere and help the user in imagining the past and get immersed into the stories being told.
When interviewing the test users, several recurring issues came up. Through analysis, we identified the following themes: the audio experience, navigation, visualisation, and personal stories.
The audio experience: Most of the users enjoyed the experience. “The feeling of only listening, instead of looking at pictures, and then looking at reality, I really liked it—it was wonderful.” Lars compared the soundwalk with reading a book and concluded that this provided a better experience. Several also enjoyed the parts with music. Mikkel stated: ”I think the use of music was really good, it added to the atmosphere, especially when it came at the end of a story, it was like it summed it up.” Some experienced difficulties differentiating between the people giving oral accounts, perhaps due to the background noises from the busy city streets.
Navigation: For the most part, our test users could navigate along the route of the soundwalk without problems. However, in some cases, the changes in the urban landscape compared to the time of the story caused problems.
Visualisation: Since the demolition of the squatted houses, the urban landscape has been filled with new houses, and several users expressed difficulties with picturing the squatted houses. Some mentioned that seeing images of the houses would have helped in understanding how much the urban landscape had changed. Jane: “It is a little hard to visualise in this area, because so much have changed through the years.” One user also requested images of the storytellers. Jason: “I felt an urge to see these people, when you hear them talking, you get an image of how they look.” Another user mentioned that when the storytellers were detailed and visual in their storytelling, it made a greater impact: ”I particularly liked when those who talked were detailed in their stories, making it really illustrative, because then you can dive deep into it, without looking at the mobile and find it yourself.”
Personal stories: The users were all very interested in the personal stories. “The small stories, like when they removed paint from the road, that is not just something you find or hear.” Gitte stated that she felt like she was having a conversation with the squatters: ”I liked the feeling of, like, that you just ask someone a random question, and then they just start talking. I mean that is what you want to hear, you already heard all the other stories.” Jason felt like he knew them: ”I thought it was very amusing, you feel like you know them, I think you get very close to them, that it is the experience I get.”
Analysis and Discussion
Toby Butler suggests that listening to oral accounts of “real” people, without being able to see their faces, results in a feeling of empathy and authenticity (Butler, 2008, p.10). Our tests indicate similar results. One of the users stated that he felt he knew the people telling their stories, and that he felt he got close to them. This engagement with the stories, observed during the tests, is at the very core of storytelling, and what Farman refers to as “a writing of place, identities and of relationships” (Farman, 2013, p. 2). Another of the users emphasized that the stories made him see the places with new eyes, meaning that these places have gained a different value to him. This is especially important when traces of the past are hard to discover, inviting a sense of “narrative archaeology” (Hight, 2006). The challenge is to visualize the hidden fragments of history through the stories and narratives.
During the tests and interviews, different aspects of the sound were mentioned by the users. Several mentioned that the use of music, referring either to the squatter culture or the incidents in the personal stories, helped the user engage more in the stories being told, or the time, or period in which the events took place. Using sound from old news announcements covering police actions or demolitions of the houses also made an impact, especially for those who lived in Copenhagen at the given time and remembered these events.
Our tests indicate that users had little trouble navigating the path of the audio walk, in spite of the absence of GPS positioning and map interface. In fact, once the users had gotten used to the audio-based navigation, they seemed more relaxed. When testing earlier GPS-based prototypes, the users were often frustrated by technical issues, such as inaccurate positioning and overlapping points of interest. The low-tech design of our final prototype allowed the users to feel more in control of their progress through the soundwalk. Even if the users might walk a bit too fast and get ahead of the story, they could simply take a break, sit down while listening to the story, and then swipe to the next story when they were finished. This simple way of controlling the application encourages the users to look around and be present in the surroundings while listening to the stories. Future research should explore how to facilitate this experience while simultaneously offering the users some more flexibility in their navigation.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727040 (the GIFT project).
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