How the Node Explorer Works

Photo courtesy Node

Imagine taking a trip to a battlefield memorial and spending the day walking from monument to monument, reading signs about historical events. To a lot of people, this sounds educational, but not exciting. But suppose that instead of reading signs, you watch reenactments and interviews on a portable media player. As part of an interactive tour, the player also shows you maps and timelines. Also, what you see and hear changes depending on where you are within the park.

This location-based media player, called the Explorer, changes your walk in the park into an interactive learning experience. Node, a British media company, created the Explorer for use in museums, historical sites and other cultural centers. People have compared it to the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and the Marauder's Map from the "Harry Potter" series. It uses global positioning system (GPS) technology to determine where someone is within a site and presents interactive information based on that location.

The Explorer's presentations are interactive, and they can include guided tours, images, maps, videos and sound clips. In this article, we'll look at the Explorer's hardware and software and see how its use can affect the tourism industry.


Like a portable media center, the Explorer is essentially a handheld computer. It uses a Linux operating system, and it processes and stores interactive presentations using:

It then plays them using a trans-reflective, high resolution touch screen and 3-D stereo headphones. Its most remarkable feature it is that it uses GPS "Fast Fix" technology to choose which items to play based the visitor's location within the site. It can also mark the visitor's location on an on-screen map.

The Explorer unit is just one part of the wireless Node network, which also includes:

  • Recharging and data collection docks
  • A central server
  • Web-enabled computers, which staff members use to access Node software

In the next section, we'll look at the Node software in more detail.


A Node Explorer would make this museum visit even more interesting.
A Node Explorer would make this museum visit even more interesting.
Photo courtesy MorgueFile

The Node software package uses three components to manage everything from content creation to unit rental. The applications that manage the Explorer from behind the scenes are the Admin and Editor programs. The HirePoint interface controls Explorer rental.

Each program is responsible for a specific set of instructions and information:

  • Admin allows staff members to set up their Explorer units and manage their accounts. The Explorers themselves gather data about where visitors go in the site and how they explore the exhibits. Admin creates reports based on the collected data.
  • Editor manages the actual content of the Explorer presentations. Using Editor, staff can designate the hot spots, or areas that will activate an interactive portion of the presentation.
  • HirePoint manages unit rental and security. It collects information about the people who rent the units, including a small, passport-style photo.

Staff members use a web browser to access each of the three programs and can make real-time content updates. This means that they can adjust what visitors see based on the season, the time of day or the weather. For example, if it starts to rain, the Explorers can display the location of the nearest shelter. People can also send and receive messages through the unit.

Next, we'll look at how the Explorer affects operations at a cultural site.

Guiding Visitors -- and Staff

Antenna Audio's extensive client list includes the island prison Alcatraz.
Antenna Audio's extensive client list includes the island prison Alcatraz.
Photo courtesy MorgueFile

Human tour guides have been an important part of museums, historical sites, cultural attractions and zoos. Funding at these kinds of attractions can be scarce, so many have used recorded audio tours supplement their staff. Audio recordings don't have the interactive quality of a human guide, though, and they can't report back on which exhibits visitors liked best.

The Explorer's interactive presentations make up for some of the lack of the human element in most recorded tours. Its data collection capabilities allow the staff to evaluate how visitors are using the site and use this information to improve the facility. The Explorer's location-aware technology can also warn visitors when they are leaving established paths, helping control visitors' impact on the environment and wildlife in outdoor attractions.

Currently, several British attractions use the Explorer and its software. Node has also signed an agreement with Antenna Audio, which creates and distributes audio tours for museums and cultural sites around the world. Their combined unit will be called the XPvision, and its use will likely become widespread the near future.

To learn more about Node Explorer and related topics, check out the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Related Links


  • Roe, Nicholas. "It Knows Where You Are." London Telegraph, July 30, 2005.
  • "Node Explorer: part Hitchhiker's Guide, part Marauder's Map." Technovelgy, August 1, 2005.
  • Bosma, Yma. "Node Explorer." Panbo, October 2, 2004.
  • Node Explorer: The Tough Little Guide. Blue Terrapin,2004.
  • "Rugged outdoor PDA/GPS runs embedded Linux." Linux Devices, September 28, 2004.
  • "Node Funding Boost from Finance Wales." Growth Business, March 22, 2005.
  • Williamson, David. "Multimedia guide reaches out to tourists." icWales, August 17, 2005.