KUSI-TV interviews Hilary Srole, Guru’s project manager for the San Diego Museum of Art app.

Navigating a museum usually means squinting at small print on labels or listening to old-fashioned audio tapes. For children and teens, the experience is often a tedious bore. Guru is seeking to change that by making institutions as diverse as the San Diego Museum of Art and the Battleship Iowa come alive on smartphone apps. Times of San Diego spoke with Paul Burke, founder and CEO, about the startup’s plans to help bring cultural institutions into the 21st century

Why did you start Guru?

My partners and I started Guru for two reasons: to assist in bringing museums and other cultural institutions into the 21st century and to bridge the gap between these places and younger generations. We felt that standing and huddling around a wall label was a bit of an archaic experience and we also wanted access to more information and stories about the items held in museums. One of the original inspirations for the company was when I took my niece and nephew (20 and 18) on a trip to Rome for their spring break. We spent 7 to 8 hours every day seeing the sites and experiencing the museums. I was shocked at how little they would interact with the information provided by the museum. They refused to take the audio tours because they thought using devices that millions of other people had touched was disgusting. At one point I got mad at them for being on their phones while going through the Coliseum, and when they turned to show me that they were actually using the internet to find more relevant information about their surroundings and the stories and the history of the Coliseum, I was pretty inspired.

At the end of the day, we want to create those light bulb moments for children and adults where they realize they love art or that science and history can be really cool and exciting.

Paul Burke

Your app uses wayfinding technology. How do you employ that to improve the experience of visiting a cultural institution?

We use BLE Beacons throughout each location so that the app always knows where you are. So as you walk up to a work of art, the content (text, audio, video) is automatically on your screen. Not only does this create a sense of magic but it eliminates the need to scan QR codes or type in tour stop numbers. We have also created themed tours that people use throughout the location. So while some people just want to wander around and explore whatever is nearby, other can be guided on tour with specialized content. We realize everyone is different so we have tried to accommodate as many types of experiences into one app as possible. We are NOT a believer in “one size fits all.”

One of your concepts is the “gamification of education.” How does that work?

We have created trivia games and scavenger hunts for both adults and children. The children’s games and scavenger and treasure hunts are usually guided by an animated mascot. The goal is to get people moving around the museum focused on winning a game, while educating them simultaneously. It is no secret that engaging people with games is a much more effective way to teach people than lecturing them. We leverage the amazing technology in everyone’s pockets to make that possible.

Guru’s Balboa Park app

Guru is already working with the San Diego Museum of Art. Who are some of your other clients?

Guru partnered with the Balboa Park Online Collaborative to create the Balboa Park App. The Balboa Park App has received rave reviews so far and has had a lot of success but we aren’t just leaving it stagnant. In early 2016 it will get a major revamp and we will be adding some really amazing features.

Guru also partnered with the Battleship Iowa in Los Angeles. We created an amazing experience that captures the history and the incredible personal stories of the people that served on the Iowa. The app also really brings the ship to life; you can stand in front of the weapons and watch short videos of them actually firing through the app.

Guru is thrilled about our brand new partnership with the Little Italy San Diego. Little Italy is not only full of amazing restaurants and businesses but compelling stories and history. Their new app (launching January 2016) will have several guided walking tours as well as exclusive deals and discounts you won’t be able to receive anywhere else.  Be sure to look out for more info on that app once it’s live.

Cultural institutions are often financially challenged. How does the business model work?

Guru aims to truly be a partner with museums and cultural institutions. Not only do we develop and implement all of the technology but we create all of the content as well. We do all of this with zero upfront cost to our partners. We have five-year contracts and make our money over time in a variety of deal structures. I make it my personal challenge to find a way to make partnerships work so both sides win. Our one requirement is that museums have over 150,000 visitors per year. As mentioned before, all of our deals vary slightly, as we don’t subscribe to “one size fits all.”

Times of San Diego, a startup itself, regularly writes about startups in technology, biotech and other sectors of local business. If you are a startup in the San Diego area and want to tell your story, please contact news@timesofsandiego.com.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.