Wiki rail

"I often look out of the train window and discover interesting places that make me curious," says Filmband co-founder Achim Michael Hasenberg. "It might be an old ruined castle, a strange built steeple or a weird monument in the woods. But the train passes these places so fast that it is nearly impossible to figure out by internet what they could have been."

It’s a sentiment that will resonate with many who regularly travel by train. Rail journeys often give unparalleled views of the countryside as it slides past the window, but for the most part these sights – relics from history or spectacular displays of natural beauty – remain anonymous and unexplained.

Despite everything that the landscape on either side of the train tracks has to offer, the development of onboard entertainment has overwhelmingly focussed on the inside of the train carriage, where WiFi is king and passengers are far more likely to immerse themselves in Angry Birds or their e-reader than spend time watching the outside world as it passes by.

Wiki Rail: bringing the outside in

This limitation, which allows passengers to see culture and history from their seats but not to understand it, was unacceptable to Hasenberg and his colleague Christoph Rose, the other founder of Filmband, a German film production company that specialises in feature films and documentaries.

"Almost everyone takes his smartphone or tablet along on a journey and theoretically these guys thus have access to almost any information," says Hasenberg. "Nevertheless, lots of information is concealed for the passenger, information that might have been interesting for him. Who wants to pick information out of the mass of internet sites, even less with a poor internet reception in the trains? Wouldn’t it be much more pleasant if there was someone whispering everything worth knowing about unobtrusively and casually into the ear? This was the basic idea for Wiki Rail."

Smartphone apps are revolutionising the way we access information for our daily commute – as well as our vacations.

The Wiki Rail project, which is currently in the prototype development phase, intends to bring the outside into the train in a way that is truly engaging for the passenger. And, somewhat ironically, it’s those same distracting smartphones and tablets that are making it happen.

Wiki Rail is being developed by Filmband and software developer Quimron as a mobile app for rail travellers, a world-first digital companion that taps into a device’s GPS to follow the user along their route, pointing out the most interesting sights as they appear and telling the stories that come along with them. Upon pulling into a train station, the app will switch to a more practical mode, providing information on local transport options, car rentals and other basic services.

"For some people we will certainly make a train ride with Wiki Rail more pleasant and entertaining," Hasenberg promises. "That this is realised by culture outside the train window, and not by a video game or a blockbuster on the notebook, delights us. Perhaps there will be some who will look up one of the spots due to a Wiki Rail article. However, most will rejoice that the indispensable space between A and B has elapsed in a pleasant way and that they were able to find out something about the previously anonymous landscape in between."

Presenting culture to the traveller

Of course, actually having the information to hand at the right place and the right time is only a small part of the challenge. As Filmband knows, most travellers already have access to an ocean of information via their internet-enabled smart devices. The key, and the area in which Wiki Rail truly innovates, lies in the presentation.

Even on the basic level, the Wiki Rail team is keen to actively curate the information it provides to passengers. The aim is to engage and amuse without bombarding the user with an overwhelming flood of facts, as well as pointing out little-known titbits that passengers would be unlikely to find anywhere else. It’s a plan that increases the burden of research for Filmband, but Hasenberg is confident that the extra effort will be worth it.

"Who wants to pick information out of the mass of internet sites?"

"For Wiki Rail we don’t want to reproduce only factual Wikipedia entries, but rather tell exciting short stories," he says. "Even about places or events that are not listed in any travel guide. For this purpose, we will have to do more research along the tracks, but we are sure that it is worthwhile."

The team is planning a range of options for presenting cultural information in an accessible and unobtrusive way. The app’s standard audio-photographic mode takes a cue from museum audio guides by describing sites and historical events using a voice actor ("This will be spoken by well-known actors, dubbing actors or sportsmen who come from the actual region," says Hasenberg) while simultaneously displaying a couple of relevant photos on the smart device. The app will even allow users to specify the right or left-hand side of the train, with completely different programmes available for each.

Filmband is also working on including video content in the form of short documentaries to complement the audio-visual presentations, but its most high-tech features are marked by an appealing element of interactivity. According to Filmband, the app will make use of an ‘augmented reality’ function, allowing travellers to point their device’s camera towards the view outside the train and be presented with in-camera icons linking to information about the sights within the viewfinder. Wiki Rail is also intended to incorporate social features, with users able to add comments and thoughts to each cultural entry and share with others.

Wiki Rail’s onward journey

Filmband and Quimron plan to start slowly with Wiki Rail’s launch, introducing it first to their native Germany, specifically on the country’s most popular InterCity Express high-speed routes. A relatively soft launch is a logical move given the technical challenges the app presents. "The biggest challenge was to guarantee that the information is exactly played back when the train passes the sights, regardless of whether the train is late or if the GPS signal is too weak," says Hasenberg.

The app is currently deep in development, supported by funding from state media body Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, but Filmband is still looking for partners to bring Wiki Rail to the public in early 2015.

The team’s efforts to get the app noticed will surely have been helped by the acclaim it has been receiving from the European Union. The project won the top prize in the Spread Culture category at the EU’s @Diversity Awards, which were created to celebrate innovative technologies that support culture in Europe. Hasenberg says the win gave Wiki Rail an all-important platform to attract interest from potential investors.

Simon Pont, CEO of ECR Retail Systems explains how the right infrastructure, complemented with the best technology, can boost customer satisfaction.

"The award ceremony was part of the biennial culture debate from the EU Commission and so we got Europe-wide attention that resulted in the first promising talks to offer Wiki Rail in other European countries. We have also received inquiries from ordinary people who rejoice [about] Wiki Rail because they have always wanted something like it on train rides."

The company will need all the support it can get to fulfil its ambitious expansion plans. "Pretty soon all direct high-speed connections between Germany and other European countries are planned to be introduced, for example to Paris, Brussels, London or Vienna," says Hasenberg. "Also planned is an English-language version of Wiki Rail for tourists who travel to and in Germany by train. We’ve had initial discussions with a French partner for a purely French version of Wiki Rail."

Wiki Rail’s ultimate goals are ambitious and might be difficult to fully realise in reality; the technical challenges are formidable and it’s still unclear if the project will find adequate investment in today’s cash-strapped market.

Nevertheless, Filmband’s cause is a noble one and the continual expansion of GPS and internet access on trains will certainly shorten the technical hurdles as time goes on. Above all, it will be a comfort to advocates of European culture and rail enthusiasts alike that among the infinite tangle of entertainment options available to future rail passengers, there could be at least one app on the market that encourages them to look up rather than down.

Follow Chris Lo on Google+