My family finally visited the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories at Gardens by the Bay on Sunday.
Well, technically, this was the second time I was there, but it was the first time I really paid attention to the flora and fauna.
So, I was intrigued when I saw signs with numbers and headphone icons posted throughout the attraction. From visiting museums in Europe, I knew these were cues for audio guides.
However, if there had been information on audio guides at the ticketing counter, it had escaped me. Perhaps there is an app for it, I thought to myself, so I tried searching for it on the Google Play Store. There was nothing.
I approached a staff near the entrance, who told me I had to rent the audio guide from the booth opposite the ticketing counter. So, I went against the traffic flow (the exit is at the other end of the conservatory) and explained to several ticketing staff along the way that I was going out to get an audio guide.
It was easy enough to find the booth, but it would have been better if the staff manning the ticketing counter had told me about the availability of the guides in the first place.
I paid $16 for four sets of audio guides. Each consists of a little black box with a tiny screen and a pair of headphones. Using the guide required some fiddling, although it was easy to use once I got the hang of it. However, there is definitely room for improvement.
First, the guide was available only in English and Mandarin. There was no Malay or Tamil option and neither was there one for Japanese or Korean.
The bigger problem, however, is with the layout.
I decided to follow the numbered sequence, which proved impossible because the numbers were all over the place.
Unlike the audio guide system at the Singapore Science Centre, which uses location tracking and delivers the correct information automatically when you are in the relevant area, the Gardens' audio guide was completely and surprisingly manual.
If the sign shows #55, you have to hit 55 on the number pad, press OK, then the audio guide will play. Sometimes, there is video content, but the images were not displayed clearly because of the size of the screen.
Another problem: The signs do not tell you what you are looking at. They show only the number. It would be far better if the signs could also be labelled.
At the giant Canary Date Palm trees, the sign was not positioned on the trunk, but on a nearby plant bed, which had other smaller plants and trees on it. It was not clear to me that the audio guide was going to tell me more about the Canary Date Palm.
The unsatisfactory audio guide system is in stark contrast to the two world-class conservatories which my family enjoyed thoroughly. We spent five hours exploring them - a long time - by my family's standards.
I could not get over those audio guides. It surprised me that Singapore, well-known for being IT-savvy and for its connectivity, was still using proprietary black boxes instead of having downloadable apps for visitors to use as audio guides. Why waste money maintaining these black boxes (they need to be repaired occasionally and batteries have to be recharged) when you can let visitors use their own smartphones.
Using an app, the Gardens could show the layout of a conservatory and how it is divided into various sections, for example. It could double as a navigation guide for visitors to locate the North American cacti and Mediterranean date palms.
It would definitely have been an appier experience for fans of the conservatories.
This article was first published on June 25, 2014.
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