Sound impossible? It's actually closer than you might think, for in a coastal town in central California, there exists a tour company whose claim to fame is its vision of what tourists need and its ability to fulfill those needs...through DVD, no less.
Conceived by Doug and Sandy Lumsden in late 1996 and operating since June 1999, Monterey Bay Scenic Tours offers visitors a multimedia, multilingual tour of the Monterey Peninsula using DVD-Video and DVD-Audio. Unlike competing operators, MBST's tour presentation combines live driver commentary (in English) with historical photos; artist renderings; and video of the interiors of many of the 55 area attractions featured along the tour route, using a customized narration system available in eight languages (English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, or Spanish). Each tour—running approximately three hours in length—guides American and foreign tourists past sites in Monterey, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, including the Royal Presidio Chapel, the Custom House, the Lone Cypress Tree, and Cannery Row.
Though the tour makes just four stops, its narration also features briefings on sites and attractions that are not part of the tour, but may inspire passengers to extend their stay in the Monterey area. Tourists learn about the Laguna Seca Raceway, the National Steinbeck Center, the Big Sur coastline, and the Point Lobos Reserve in this manner.
According to Doug Lumsden, president and co-founder of MBST, DVD is the heart and soul of the company's product. "Without it, we wouldn't be in business," he says. "When we began seriously thinking about developing the tour, DVD had just been introduced in the industry. We surfed the Internet for months trying to gather as much information as we possibly could. It was really the only medium that could handle the massive storage requirements of the tour program that we envisioned.
"We thought it would be wonderful for people to be able to see the interior of many of the historic sites that Monterey has to offer, as it is impossible to stop at every site and attraction along a tour route," he continues. "We also were coming to the tour industry with fresh new eyes and strongly believed that the days of muffled microphones and speakers cutting in and out really should be over."
After several months of fruitless searching for a DVD authoring and mastering company that could bring their vision to life, the Lumsdens turned to Full Steam Marketing and Design on a friend's recommendation. "After being told by several Silicon Valley companies that it was not yet possible to build the type of system we wanted, we called Full Steam as a last resort," Lumsden recalls. "Little did we know what a talented firm it was!"
Indeed, that phone call led to a meeting with Salinas, California-based Stoked Media, a digital design shop (and subsidiary of Full Steam) specializing in Web design, animation, complete video services, and interactive multimedia creation. In that meeting, the Lumsdens outlined their goals: to deliver a flexible multimedia presentation that would entertain visitors and be easily operable by the tourbus driver. Specifically, the Lumsdens wanted the script to be programmed to run in several languages simultaneously in order to accommodate visitors from multiple countries on the same tour. Moreover, the Lumsdens envisioned a delivery system that could be easily accessed by the driver so that he or she could control the pace of the presentation in the event of heavy traffic, detours, or other variables that would cause a deviation from the script.
Once the Lumsdens and Stoked Media agreed to collaborate, the development process was rationed accordingly, recalls Full Steam president Flip Baldwin. "It took just three months, but the challenges came in a variety of forms," he says. "For us, delivering multiple languages simultaneously was the most obvious ob-stacle. Operating the unit while driving safely also was a major concern."
The first of these challenges presented itself once the script was finalized. Written by the Lumsdens in consultation with local historians, the script evolved through 20 drafts before being translated and narrated by the administrators, professors, students, and alumni of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. When it was time to record to 5.1-channel AC-3 surround-sound DVD-Audio, Stoked Audio made its first adjustment to the "typical" development process.
Explains Baldwin: "Multilingual DVD normally means switching between its eight audio channels, one at a time. In this case, though, we needed multiple languages at once. To accomplish this, our team developed the idea of using individual Dolby tracks that exist on each channel as a way to deliver five different languages simultaneously. We ultimately did this on each of the eight channels, providing eight different combinations of languages. (For instance, one track narrates the tour in English, Japanese, German, Chinese, and French, while another track delivers the same narration in Spanish, English, Japanese, Italian, and Portuguese.)
Once all 300 audio clips were completed, project managers turned their attention to the video portion of the presentation, which was planned and filmed by the Lumsdens with the aid of a professional cameraman. "The timing between tour sites was critical, as it determined how much narration time we had between briefings," Lumsden explains. Because some languages are longer than others when translated and spoken, Stoked Media had to edit the video segments from each tour location to the audio to ensure that the bus driver could drive at a pace that would coincide with the timing of the script. Stoked also designed all of the on-screen graphics and prepared all of the components for encoding.
To simplify delivery for the bus driver, the entire presentation was configured to play from a single Pioneer DVD-V7200 industrial DVD-Video player. To protect the unit from the rigors of the road and frequent use (running twice a day, seven days a week), the Lumsdens mounted the DVD-V7200—with a cushion of shock-resistant foam—in an overhead luggage bin behind the driver's seat of each bus.
And because a standard DVD remote is rather intricate—and far too complex for someone who is also driving a bus to operate—Stoked Media designed and built a customized controller using the JAMA protocol that Pioneer engineers had developed for the industrial player. "The average DVD control unit is a pretty complex array of very small buttons," says Baldwin. "It was simply not practical to think of the driver looking down and trying to hit the right button." Now, with just a couple clicks, the driver can select the languages necessary for a particular tour group and control the presentation, stopping and starting as needed.
Several thousand passengers later, visitor response to the MBST tour continues to be "overwhelmingly positive," says Lumsden. "They simply love the experience of hearing the narration in digital sound," in their own language, no less. Passengers also are able to control the volume, for themselves, through units on the back of the seat in front of them—a feature that is particularly attractive to senior citizens and the hearing-impaired.
"Today, we have the technology to give our passengers so much more than what they've experienced in the past," says Lumsden. "I think in the days ahead, tourists will search specifically for tour operators who can give them the personalized touring experience they seek." Being a tourist never looked or sounded so good.
(Monterey Bay Scenic Tours www.mbstours.com. Pioneer Electronics USA www.pioneerelectronics.com. Stoked Media www.stokedmedia.com)