HearPlanet: Your Personalized Tour Guide to the Sound of the City

By Andrew James , written on August 17, 2012

From The News Desk

Aimlessly wandering through an unknown city is probably one of the best ways to discover what it has to offer – that, or to get mugged. It also cuts off the annoyance of having to schedule tour guides that work on their own schedule – usually ones that involve early mornings – or may not coincide with your plans.

Steven Echtman, the founder of the audiotour app called HearPlanet, had this same idea while travelling in Frankfurt, Germany. Echtman wanted to drift around the city on his own, but didn’t want to miss out on any pertinant information. He ended up on a walking tour, organized after a night out on in Frankfurt. Before his tour even began, he had to walk around picking up the other people. It was worthwhile, but there was too much planning just to be able to pick at the knowledge inside the tour guide’s head.

HearPlanet has since incorporated that process into the phone, have announced that soon they'll be wrenching the tour guide right into several automotive offerings. This means that, while driving around, you'll be able to set up and go on a tour tailored to your geolocation and desired topics.

As well, their content partners can now add audio direct from the iPhone app, while pleb users can only do it from the full site. It's an avenue that, if it's opened up, could see a vast increase in the amount of content HearPlanet could produce. Their content already covers pretty much everywhere, or the program reads content from Wikipedia to users in a pretty nice automated voice (if it hasn't been read by one of their voice actors). They’re looking to improve the bit rate as well to make it even clearer.

Lastly, they've also recently released a Web version of their app that functions similarly to their native app.

Back in 2006, a year after Echtman visited Germany, he devised a plan to use phone services to connect up with pre-recorded expert information through a 1-800 number. Unfortunately, that wasn't cheap in those pre-iPhone days. It would have been five cents per minute for Echtman to launch his business at the time. Still, at the time, he at least had a proof of concept, meaning it could work, but would never float unless the prices could be brought down. Not long after, the iPhone launched, and Echtman’s idea had legs.

Now Echtman is working on a platform where everyone can contribute their own audio content. He currently has several partners signed on, as well as 300,000 points of interest serving up over half a million recordings for listeners to tour around a city, museums, or pretty much any area that you could look up on Wikipedia.

One of the greatest HearPlanet recordings in the San Francisco area may be the Pinecrest Diner by Union Square (you need to hear this). It’s surprising to say the least, and definitely not promotional. There’s gunplay, a waitress, and poached eggs involved. Yes, HearPlanet has all kinds of info for your ears.

Echtman says they divide content up into segments of data. So if someone is specifically looking for historical data on a specific site, it’s quite likely they’ll have it. Same goes for food and drink, or just about any other sort of content.

Soon, they’re even considering opening it up to some “graffiti content” as Echtman calls it – audio tours around cities by locals that may have more specific, although not expert, knowledge of sites.

The audio tour segment is an interesting place, which Siri seems to have revived interest in over the past year. (Seems for a while there we forgot about our ears.) Separately, there are now audio hacks of museums in New York City being done by a creative group. The best example being John Chamberlain’s exhibition at MOMA that was hacked by Audio Tour Hack to become an Autobots War Museum exhibit. That's worth a listen with or without the visual stimuli.

In the next few weeks, Echtman promises there will be some big news for HearPlanet as it seeks to ramp up its content and speed up its distribution methods.