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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Team develops tourism Internet system

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 11 - November 2, 1995

Want to plan a Virginia trip without leaving the seat in front of your computer?

You can do that now, thanks to an interactive, multi-media system developed by an interdisciplinary team of Virginia Tech faculty members and students. The unique system, located at http://www.virginia.org on the World Wide Web, uses video, sound, graphics, and extensive data on state attractions and events to provide users with information on Virginia's tourist sites.

The ground-breaking project, funded by the Virginia Division of Tourism through Tech's Public Service Programs (PSP), was unveiled at the White House Conference on Travel and Tourism on October 31. The project, co-directed by Charlotte Reed, an economic development specialist in tourism at the university, and Andy Honaker, a digital-technology initiative coordinator for the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, pools the computer talents of Honaker and students from communication studies, computer science, educational technologies, and architecture.

"Public Service Programs has always tried to serve as a conduit for the public and private sectors to the resources of the university, and one of our principal focus areas is economic development. When the Virginia Division of Tourism approached us about helping them develop a way to use the Web to attract tourists to Virginia, we were happy to coordinate the work for them and to involve four colleges in the project," said Doug McAlister, PSP executive director and principal investigator for the project.

The system, known as the VISIT (Visitor Information System for the Interactive Traveler) Virginia site is unique in its integration of design issues, human-computer interaction, and dynamic information access. Other systems use some of the same components, but this is the only one to combine those components in one system.

The system accesses information that is straightforward and logical and is formatted consistently. It also incorporates principles of human-computer interface design, which means that the user does not have to scroll through several pages to view parts of an image or read a sentence.

The team continues to fine-tune VISIT Virginia. Within a year, the touch of a button will change all of the information from English to German, Spanish, French, or Italian.

Users logging onto the site have a choice of topics and search types indexed in various formats. Geographical region maps and a listing of special and new information provide alternative methods of accessing finer points of the system. As a user interacts with the system, he or she makes selections that lead to information on the specific topics of interest to that individual.

Marketing the Virginia tourism product is a primary goal of the system and a unique feature was to avoid providing the user with negative data. The system was designed to exclude the negative feedback of a `no information available' message, an empty list, or dead-end decision loops. If a particular city or county does not offer white-water rafting, for example, that sub-topic is not included in that city or county's menu.

With the exception of specific attraction screens, graphics throughout the system are dynamically loaded at random, making the site different with every visit. Among the videos available on the system are clips from the "Virginia Is for Lovers" television commercials and QuickTime VR movies of sites of interest from around the state.

One feature, called the notepad, allows users to create their own travel itineraries. Eventually, they also will be able to make reservations through the system by linking to other databases and plan travel routes using Global Positioning System information. Users can print out fees, directions, telephone numbers, and other relevant data about the sites as needed.

The system was also designed with an infinite growth path, meaning that information can be added and the program will automatically re-compile itself, creating new touch buttons on menus as they are required and adding screens for each new attraction without having to program and provide links to them. Practically every screen of information is created dynamically for each user in a matter of seconds. The use of hyper text markup language (HTML) templates instead of hard coding each page of information means that the entire site can be redesigned with relative ease. Additionally, VISIT Virginia provides templates for data submission, so that personnel at individual tourist sites can make changes universally.

Pat McMahon, director of the Virginia Division of Tourism, noted that another unique feature is the research capability of the Virginia Tech-designed system. It tracks users as they move through the information and asks for a name or alias and a zip code. It provides information for the Division of Tourism to measure the use, as well as the popularity of various events or sites, and will tell where the query originated. The system will deliver a welcome message to those who have previously logged on, mentioning the sites they have previously examined, and will also offer frequent-visitor specials, contests, and other incentives to virtual travelers.

Reed emphasized that the reason the Division of Tourism contracted with Virginia Tech for the development of this system is the university's reputation in technology research and development. The development of this system prominently positions the university as a leader in technology that is relevant to the travel-and-tourism industry. Reed said, "Delivering information in a new and unique medium for this industry provides opportunities for the small tourism businesses as well as the large ones to compete in a global environment and increase jobs for Virginians."