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How and Why Smart Cities Can Use IoT to Wow Tourists

IEEE Standards Association, @ieeesa

By Roberto Minerva, IEEE Internet of Things Initiative Chair, a sister Initiative to IEEE Smart Cities

The T in IoT stands for "things," but when it comes to cities, maybe it's time to change that T into U for "users." That's because the Internet of Things has the potential to provide city users (tourists, but also citizens, and others) with new opportunities to experience and appreciate a city's culture, history, services and more.

IoT lays the foundation for "smart cities," a new term for a concept that's actually quite old. For example, in the 1930s, urban sociologist Niles Carpenter described an emerging trend he called "the quest for data": measuring and analyzing the people, places, and things that make up a city, their activities, and the relationships between them. IoT provides an enormous, exciting set of new tools for enabling that quest.

At first glance, using IoT for living in and enjoying the city (e.g., tourism) might sound like a stretch, if only because most people associate IoT with mundane, utilitarian applications, such as automated meter reading, monitoring ozone levels, or counting traffic. But many of the technologies and systems implemented for those applications can be extended to city life—and in some cases already are.

Visitors aren't the only people who benefit when IoT is used to enhance tourism. For example, the two million people employed by Italy's tourism industry all could benefit if IoT means more visitors spending more money, and a better tradeoff between visitors and inhabitants can be reached.

Italians who don't work in tourism also stand to benefit in multiple ways. Tourism currently contributes over €100 billion annually to the Italian economy, so investing in IoT could significantly increase tourism-related business at restaurants, hotels, and other firms. Also, half of the roughly 90 million people who tour Italy every year come from other parts of the country rather than abroad. That means millions of Italians would benefit from IoT-enabled enhancements.

Enabling New Perspectives of History

But exactly how can IoT provide a richer city life experience? One way is by making it more convenient, enticing, or both for tourists to explore more of a city or country. In other words, leverage technology to help them get off the beaten path—literally and figuratively.

For example, most tourists carry a smartphone, a device that's ideally suited for interacting with IoT modules at cultural sites. Those modules can share text information about points of interest, or go a step further to support augmented reality (AR) applications, such as viewing historical photos overlaid onto the current scene.

Weimar, Germany, is among the cities combining IoT and AR to wow tourists. Using a map app, tourists can easily find locations that support AR experiences. By pointing their smartphone's camera at, say, a building or town square, while looking at the screen, they can view historical photographs superimposed onto the current scene.

Hyperrhiz, a journal specializing in new media criticism and electronic literature, chronicled how and why the city combined IoT and AR: "Weimar was home to both Goethe and Schiller. Today's most popular sites include the houses of these two famous writers, as well as the Goethe and Schiller Memorial in front of the German National Theatre. Tour operators often focus exclusively on Weimar Classicism and these sights. However, they overlook how, in the course of the nineteenth century, these same memorial sites and surrounding squares were often instrumentalised for political purposes, and re-inscribed with new ideological significance. Similarly, scant attention is paid to Weimar's particular relevance in early twentieth-century German history."

The combination of AR and IoT enables tourists—as well as residents such as students—to discover important historical aspects that they otherwise would miss. For example, AR can highlight the inscriptions and re-inscriptions so visitors can understand how certain sites were altered to reflect changes in political regimes and ideologies. Those insights are critical for understanding Weimar's history.

Venice holds other examples of how IoT can enable tourists and residents to understand a city's history and place in history. For instance, in the 16th century, Venice's Arsenal shipyard was the world's largest manufacturing facility in terms of size and employees, one of whom was Galileo. That scale, along with techniques pioneered there, enabled the Arsenal to build a galley ship in less than 24 hours.

In the process, the Arsenal pioneered factory concepts that went on to enable mass production of modern products such as automobiles and airplanes. Its other firsts include the city's original Classical Revival structure, which influence many other Venitian buildings. IoT could leverage initiatives such as the Venice Time Machine to make the Arsenal come alive for tourists and residents alike so they can appreciate its role in both history and modern life.

Privacy and Interoperability are Hurdles

Photographs are just one example of historical big data that IoT can dust off and present to today's tourists. Think of all of the other information that municipalities routinely collect about their people and places: traffic counts, ozone levels, rainfall, population density, to name just a few. IoT already collects some of that information, and as Weimar shows, IoT also can be used to share it with tourists.

But there are a few challenges with giving every place and physical object a digital representation for people to interact with. One is privacy. For each IoT application, cities must determine whether citizens and visitors will be concerned about having that information collected and then shared publicly—for decades or even longer.

Another challenge is interoperability. There are so many existing and potential sources of data—from the city's own IoT systems to crowdsourced ones such as—that it's daunting to have a single, common protocol or platform. Currently, the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) is working on numerous IoT projects and standards to help create an interoperable IoT ecosystem. For example, IEEE P2413TM is helping create a framework for interoperability among connected devices and related applications, allowing sharing of data across IoT systems in various vertical markets.

Even so, these and other challenges don't outweigh the benefits of leveraging IoT to enrich tourists' and residents' experience of a city. All it takes is imagination and innovation.

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