How an augmented reality tourist guide tried to break my balls

... and displayed the results for everyone to see

Faux pop art illustration: sweating man thinking "Oh no, no"

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Tech-enhanced tourism can be tough on your testicles.

An hour ago I was striding along hallowed corridors once paced by 14th century popes. Now I am hobbling across the halls like a medieval court chimpanzee. And it's all because a tourist guide decided to get a little too interactive with my nuts. More on that later.

This brief post-holiday holiday has not been a smooth ride in terms of app enablement. I knew things were going to fall apart quickly when I inexplicably threw caution to the wind and purchased some train tickets online, to avoid having to queue up at a station ticket office.

Well, it always works back home. Why shouldn't it in France – better in fact? After all, unlike Britain, French railways are run by a single inept company rather than a whole circus of incompetent clowns. What I hadn't counted on, however, is that the SNCF's ticket sales team is not on speaking terms with its ticket issuing team. While the former has embraced the app revolution with a kiss on both cheeks, the latter hasn't quite got around to developing an app that works.

So having completed my purchase, I receive an email telling me the tickets are available in the SNCF app. Except they're not. I return to the website to hunt for some suggestions and am delighted to see there is a customer services hobgoblin inviting me into a live chat box.

A quarter of an hour later, having exhausted all avenues of help directed from the chat box, I still haven't persuaded the SNCF app to load my tickets. The hobgoblin types: "I'm sorry, I do not know why your tickets are not appearing and have no further suggestions. Goodbye."

Great, SNCF has stiffed me for €50. Thanks, you bunch of arses.

Then a mad thought popped into my head. Regular readers know that I work a little in app development and it remains standard, if nonsensical, industry practice to develop for iOS as a priority and then deal with other platforms as an afterthought. What if the Android version of the SNCF app that's on my Huawei smartphone had been, as they say in France, fini à la pisse?

I install the iOS version of the app on my iPad, sign into my SNCF account and sure enough, there are my tickets. Thanks again, you arses. Now I have to add my iPad to the other junk in my shoulder bag simply so I have my train tickets to hand.

On the train, the ticket inspector has trouble scanning the QR codes and tells me I'm using the wrong app. Apparently, SNCF have two ticketing apps that er… do the same thing. He then fiddles with his own phone to show me the app I should be using. It is the one I am using.

Not to be deterred, he then tells me I paid too much for my tickets. That's right, SNCF didn't overcharge me, oh no: I "paid too much". I can't help it, I'm just generous by nature. Can I get a refund? "Non." He gives a gallic shrug and wanders off. Perhaps I should be grateful he didn't fine me for allowing his SNCF colleagues to rip me off. Merci, les culs.

This is where my testicles come into the picture – quite literally, as you will soon see for yourself.

Upon entering the Palais des Papes in Avignon, Mme Le Dabbs and I are each presented with an interactive map and audio-visual guide for the attraction. Normally, Mme Le Dabbs and I turn down the offer of audio guides at tourist sites because they always go wonky on us – crackle, cut out, play the wrong track, lose battery power, expire completely and so on. Once, I had an audio guide that spontaneously rebooted itself mid-playback and began speaking to me in Italian. At best, they are a waste of time; at worst, a distraction.

Mme Le D turns up her nose but I am entranced. These are augmented reality guides on 7-inch tablets! They lead me through the palace via sat-nav! I can't resist! And against her better judgement, I insist we both wear them.

Having walked across the first courtyard, I am regretting my insistence. The lanyard holding my AR device is designed either for much taller or much fatter persons. For me, with every step, the tablet bounces against my goolies. I decide to press on, assuming I will get used to it.

The lanyard twists and instead of the flat device brushing benignly against the front of my shorts, the hard edge of the tablet chops violently into my bollocks. Alarmed by such an unprovoked attack in a public place (i.e. the palace, not my bollocks), I immediately stop in my tracks, grab the tablet and pretend to be engrossed with some information being displayed on the screen – none of which I can actually see because I am wiping tears from my eyes.

As soon as I stop coughing and my vision clears, I notice something odd about the sat-nav directions. No matter where I face, the map indicates that I am looking to the left.

Tourist guide app at Palais des Papes Avignon

Ah, I see. The tablet app is using smartphone mapping which expects the device to be held upright. I try holding the tablet in portrait orientation, satisfied to see that the sat-nav now shows me facing forwards but disappointed to find the map and indeed the entire app interface is now sideways. I rotate the tablet back to landscape and continue on the GPS route, walking in a crablike fashion partly to correct the direction indicator and partly to minimise any further damage to my danglies.

Inevitably, I soon grow bored of the augmented reality on-screen renditions of every room we explore. Having taken the trouble to travel to a foreign country and then take an overpriced train excursion to walk in the footsteps of 13 popes, the last thing I want to do is spend all day staring at an LCD display. I switch to real reality (RR) and ignore the tablet dangling around my neck for a while.

Mme Le D looks at me and snorts.

It turns out that if I don't point the tablet's on-screen spinning crosshair graphic at an appropriate AR icon in any room I visit, its front-facing camera remains active and the crosshair keeps on spinning.

Given that my tablet is hanging at bollock-bashing level, this means its entire display is showing everyone a live video close-up of my groin. Enhancing the effect is the spinning crosshair graphic, a compelling combination that is attracting the attention of my fellow tourists. Soon everybody is gaping at my crotch.

Alistair Dabbs with live video stream of his crotch

Relaxing at a cafe on the piazza, a beer in hand and an icepack over my plums, I resolve to decline the offer of tech-twatted gadgetry like this for the foreseeable future. During the course of this brief few days abroad, I have downloaded a dozen local-language customer loyalty apps, booking apps and store apps, and none of them work properly. They are all shite. Who paid for their development? Who'd invest in such crap?

Then again, given the choice between a crap app and one that specifically targets (in every sense) your customers' bollocks, I'd recommend tech investors opt for the less painful option.

Better a dealbreaker than a ballbreaker. ®

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Alistair 'Ballbreaker' Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He hopes that AR tourist guides are given adequate hygiene treatment after each use. He intended to raise the matter with staff when returning his crotch-chopping tablet but decided not to raise the topic of his bollocks with staff in a foreign language. @alidabbs



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