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Daily iPhone app: The Visible City celebrates Vancouver's neon past

Mel Martin

In 1953, Vancouver was aglow with nearly 19,000 neon lights. Today, only a few dozen of those historic signs remain. Those interested in the city's glowing, buzzing past should check out The Visible City, an iPhone app from the Museum of Vancouver.

This free app offers informative, colorful walking tours (available in English and French) through parts of the Canadian city, making clever use of narration and augmented reality to highlight what once was.

There are two tours on the app, and each one is approximately 30 minutes in length. The first explores Granville Street, the city's long-time entertainment district. It's 1.4 km in length and features eight signs. To get started, stand at the designated starting point, which is The Yale Hotel at 1300 Granville St. (the app provides directions if you need them). Then, simply tap I've Arrived At Start to launch the narration and augmented reality. Note that the app warns users not to explore the Granville area alone, due to current crime rates.

Gallery: The Visible City | 5 Photos

The second tour explores Chinatown and Hastings Street. It's 1.0 km long and features eight signs. You can mark certain locations as favorites during your tour and even check in within the app, so others can see that you've been there. The app also features more than 40 audio and video stories with memories of the Vancouver that is no more.

The augmented reality feature looks like fun (I'm not in Vancouver and was unable to test it). To use it, hold your iPhone aloft during a tour, and you'll see historical images from the 1950s through the 1970s superimposed over the real-time, present day.

If you can't take the tours, The Visible City still has plenty for you. Each sign has its own screen complete with photos and a full history. You can also listen to the narration that accompanies the tours while you sit at home, but that's a little weird. The app also lets users to upload their own stories and even vote on their favorite signs and places.

The Visible City's implementation of augmented reality isn't a gimmick, but a feature that contributes to the walking tour experience. It puts a fun, educational museum experience in your pocket. The Visible City requires iOS 5.0 or greater and is optimized for the iPhone 5.

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