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Can 5G revitalise the cultural events sector? An interview with the Urban Tourism project’s Chris Thompson

7 min

Coventry, c. Herry Lawford, Flickr

The 18-month Urban Tourism 5.0 project, one of the more user-focussed winners of the WM5G funding round, will look to harness 5G and Augmented Reality to offer low-carbon transport, build confidence back into using public transport networks, and potentially revitalise some flagging sectors around the West Midlands region. Quadrant Smart sits down with Chris Thompson, chief executive of You. Smart. Thing., to find out what the project means for smart transport in the region

“A couple of years ago, if we were geeky enough, we could hold a handset, over a QR code or some image painted on the floor – and we might find a superimposed image on the camera, hovering, but it was a bit gimmicky,” lamented Chris Thompson, chief executive of You. Smart. Thing., one of the companies involved in the Urban Tourism 5.0 project, which was awarded a contract under the latest West Midlands 5G funding competition. The pilot of the Urban Tourism 5.0 project, seeking to utilise Augmented Reality (AR) and 5G to combine real-time traffic flows and transport options around major events in the West Midlands region, is hoped to showcase what 5G can do for future major events in the region.

Chris Thompson, CEO, You. Smart. Thing.

Chris highlighted Apple’s recent announcement of the 5G-enabled iPhone 12 as the latest shift towards 5G becoming more prevalent in consumer use – and noted that the AR capabilities that come from it can have major impacts for transport regionally and nationally. For the Urban Tourism travel assistant, using 5G-enabled sensors at stations and major venues, combined with real-time booking and travel information, and utilising AR to bring a ‘back-stage pass’ feel to customer experience, the competition winners are confident that the trial will provide users with an all-encompassing smart transport offering.

A couple of years ago we could hold a handset, over a QR code painted on the floor. We might find a superimposed image on the camera, but it was a bit gimmicky

“I don’t think the majority of consumers really know what AR is, or could be,” Chris explained. “I think that 5G will really bring AR to life in a meaningful way to consumers.” One of the key objectives of the project, continues Chris, is to improve real-time information for transport and accessibility options, and to manage proximity of crowds in managing the effects of COVID-19. Compared to other competition winners from the WM5G rollout which is more tailored towards business-to-business benefits, this app is consumer-focussed to use AR and deliver live navigation information to those attending events in the region – with a key focus on the UK City of Culture programme, in Coventry next year.

“What consumers will experience is having dynamic graphic overlays on their phone. They change in real-time, based on how busy the street is, or how congested the bus is, and so we’re actually using both ends of the 5G spectrum: one end to capture data, which many of the other projects are doing, and to use that data.

“But what we’re doing differently, is we’re then looking at that data and seeing areas that are really crowded, for example, and then in real-time, feeding that information back to consumers in that environment, using an AR system.” Chris noted that the app will take the Google Maps interface further, potentially bringing artists and performers through AR on-screen to “make navigation content really relevant” to visitors to events in the region.

“If I’m going to an open-air concert to see a band, and there will be several of these during the city of culture programme, that AR will be delivered using the people and characters that are part of that performance in real time.

“So we’re making actual packages of media content – say the artist that you’re going to see perform, will actually come onto your phone and say ‘really sorry, it’s going to be really busy on the main stream walking to the concert today, why don’t you take advantage of this side route, go to the merchandise stand, you’ll beat the queues.’

“Imagine the artist that you’re seeing telling you that. It’s almost like a backstage pass; and, by increasing the number who want to use the system, because it’s got that hook of really engaging creative content, we capture so much more data.”

The (active) transport element

Along with the pilot hoping to engage users with a showbiz-relevant experience, the platform is “very much so” a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) project, looking to optimise and prioritise active travel in the region. Chris explained: “The interesting thing whenever anyone says Mobility as a Service, I always say Mobility is part of what Service? Because, who gets up and goes: ‘do you know what, I’m going to drive today’. Or ‘I’m going to get the train today’. It’s for different purposes, and the question is why. I drive because I’m going to work, or I’m going to a show. It’s for a reason.”

I don’t think the majority of consumers really know what AR is, or could be

The app will look to correlate low-carbon and active travel options alongside the purpose of that journey, which, using the larger bandwidth capabilities unlocked by 5G, can give visitors and tourists a full-scale offering of how to get around in major events and ongoings in the region. The app will be integrated with Midlands Swift, the West Midlands Combined Authority’s equivalent of an Oyster Card, using account-based ticketing to cover regional public transport, and, if the pilot of successful and the app is fully rolled out, start to include services such as micro-mobility and other active modes of travel.

“What the project is looking to do is to take MaaS, and make mobility as part of a venue and events management. The interesting thing that we’re doing there, is we’re bundling in concert tickets, and the ability to book a ticket, and it includes your travel: so you might book a ticket and it includes five pounds’ worth of public transport journeys, for example,” claimed Chris.

The pilot’s potential in wider transport

The concept of bundling in transport option subsidies and discounts to ticket buying could be a key factor in both encouraging users back onto public transport following COVID-19, and could help support industries that were flagging even before the Coronavirus pandemic.

“Whilst the project is called Urban Tourism 5.0, we’ve really focussed on the recovery of the cultural sector, which has obviously been massively hit through the pandemic,” explained Chris.

I think proving how we can advance the public sector’s net-zero emission goals is a key one for us

“But the travel assistant service can be applied to university campuses, to business parks, and can be applied to rural tourism – or certainly out of the city centre – it could even be applied to any sort of campus or venue destination, where crowd management is a challenge.” Transport planners have pondered the potential of encouraging customers back to dying out-of-town shopping centres with the subsidies, for example.

For the West Midlands region, though, what is success from this 18-month project? “I think proving how we can advance the public sector’s net-zero emission goals is a key one for us,” Chris said. Statistically, a full-scale rollout of the app after the pilot hopes to reduce transport operational costs by 20%, improve real-time data capture by 80%, and reduce congestion and use of car parks by a staggering 50% in the city. For now, however, this pilot project will be one to keep an eye on for lessons cities can learn in using 5G to bring sustainable transport options and enticing users back onto the network for future events in their region.

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