TourSphere Offers Do-It-Yourself Mobile Apps For Visitor Destinations

7/19/12Follow @xconomy

Mobile apps have grown so big that there’s now no shortage of companies selling software to help other companies build their own applications.

But Boston-based TourSphere is tackling a very specific niche of that space—museums and historic and cultural tours, and the like. One of the more exciting projects built on its platform: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s murder mystery mobile game, where visitors had to figure out which of the many art figures in the museum was the culprit.

Founder Robert Pyles launched TourSphere in October 2010 as a spinout from his former company Audissey Media, a studio that produced audio and video content for museums and similar institutions.

“We built several custom mobile apps and immediately saw so many problems with the typical app business model: it was prohibitively expensive for a lot of organizations,” Pyles says. “We wanted to create a platform, essentially a WordPress for smartphone apps.”

TourSphere released its technology in April 2011, and has since attracted local customers like the City of Boston (which used the TourSphere platform to build a self-guided tour for its Harborwalk), the Lexington Historical Society, the town of Provincetown, as well as the MET, and Washington, DC’s International Spy Museum.

The platform works as a content management system that allows these organizations to layer on features like GPS positioning that guides visitors through a venue or plugging in video and audio content as they hit key attractions. An upcoming app from the Museum of Bad Art, for example, will feature tongue-in-cheek videos from curators that talk about where the art pieces were found and their likely inspirations. Visitors can reach the app by scanning QR codes that are placed in the physical location. Pyles doesn’t see these apps replacing real, live tour guides, but instead supplementing the places that offer limited tours, minimal signage, and paper maps.

TourSphere is looking to set itself apart in a crowded sphere of software companies for do-it-yourself apps—which locally includes Apperian, Verivo Software, Raizlabs and Modo Labs—by focusing on customers with a visitor-based location. Those customers can opt to build native apps for the different mobile platforms, but “really our focus is on mobile Web,” says Pyles.

“We’re providing an experience for Web-based apps that are good enough and slick enough so people don’t even realize it’s the Web,” he says. This enables clients to quickly push updates and fixes to all mobile platforms.

In January TourSphere became cash flow positive, Pyles says. Organizations can test out the platform and build their first app for free; but once they decide to publish the app to consumers, TourSphere charges a subscription fee of $399 per month for its software service. That also includes the new feature options TourSphere continues to add to the content management system. Meanwhile, contracting a developer to build an initial version of an iPhone app, without updates or revisions for other mobile platforms, can run an organization upwards of $25,000, Pyles says.

Even with its tight focus on visitor-based destinations, TourSphere is seeing a booming interest from customers other than tourist destinations or historical sites. Hotels and corporate have contacted the company about using the software to build mobile tours of their facilities.

“What’s been surprising to us is that it’s actually a much larger market than we realized,” he says.

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