New apps help you do Philly, virtually and actually

Visit Philadelphia's digital content director Kristina Jenkins demonstrates the Philadelphia Virtual Tour on a computer screen. You can also view it in a 360-degree fashion while wearing Google Cardboard goggles.

Just in time for the glorious “spring forward,” two new apps are putting sharper sights on Philly's sweetest tourist sites for soaking in history, culture, and nature.

Visit Philadelphia, the city’s official, and increasingly new-media focused, visitor and travel agency, is taking the trendy virtual reality-tour approach with a new 360-degree photo and video experience app launching Friday on smartphones, tablets, and computers. Shot by a team from YouVisit, a New York-based VR production, and technology company, this immersive Philadelphia encounter feels so real that VR goggle-wearing viewers can practically smell the cheesesteaks in South Philly, the musty antiquity of Elfreth’s Alley, and the oil on the paintings at Philly’s great museums without leaving home.

Philadelphia walking tour apps are plentiful, to be sure, and hard to get excited about. But the Clean Air Council’s just-launched mobile app on GoPhillyGo.org is the first that steers visitors toward the area’s treasure trove of nature and environmental centers, mostly off the beaten track. Better still, the new app, created locally by Azavea, offers eco- and health-friendly options for getting there by foot, bike, or public transport.

Virtually here. Someday, elaborate virtual reality tours may spawn a highly refined, or lazy, species of “armchair tourists” who never leave home. But at the moment the Philadelphia Virtual Tour that visitors can use at VisitPhilly.com or uwishunu.com is more appetizer than main course. It whets interest rather than fully satisfying it so that the city’s tourism promoters can then circle around and help close a real “Philly getaway” sale.  

Before opening the virtual door to our treasures, the new app asks for a visitor’s name, location, and email address. Then when you’re done with the VR tour, options pop up offering to book a hotel and suggests entertainment and dining options. It never hurts to ask.

While also viewable in flattened form on a tablet or computer — using fingers or cursor keys and a mouse to shift the viewpoint — the Virtual Tour is best seen in immersive 360-degree form on a smartphone preloaded with special software and inserted into a low-cost Google Cardboard (or compatible) VR viewer.

(Some user tips: To avoid neck strain and the dizziness from all that 360-degree spinning in virtual Philly-land, sit in a comfortable swivel chair. Also, buttons are not required to hop from scene to scene, said VisitPhilly.com digital content director Kristina Jenkins. “You just glance down at the bottom of the screen image and focus your eyes on the forward or reverse arrow.”)

The Philadelphia virtual experience offers both a three-minute video jog through town — from Penn’s Landing to Independence Hall to the “Rocky” (Art Museum) Steps — plus two dozen 360-degree still images that help you soak in the sites at leisure, with ambient sounds enhancing the almost-there sensation. The eye candy is particularly enticing inside the Liberty Bell Center, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and Barnes Foundation. It’s a head scratcher, though, why the culture-touting Avenue of the Arts stop shows City Hall and the Union League rather than the Kimmel Center, Academy of Music, and the Wilma and Suzanne Roberts Theaters.

VisitPhilly has no plans for the Philadelphia Virtual Tour like the 360-degree video that used to play for tourists in a gift shop adjacent to Independence Hall, said Jenkins.

Yes, you can get there from here. Quick. Before they pave paradise and put up a parking lot, let the GoPhillyGo.org app healthfully lead you there. Locales such as Bartram’s Garden, the Palmyra Cove Nature Park, Camden Children’s Garden, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Center, Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed, and more “hidden gems” are ready to be discovered.  

Newly transformed and updated for mobile searches, the app lets visitors enter their current location and destination of choice (or just tap on a pretty picture of the site) on a smartphone, then hit “Directions.” Up pops an option or three for getting there in eco-friendly fashion on foot, bike, bus, or any combination thereof. Estimated travel times, synced to transit schedules, are duly noted. Color-coded maps are visually plotted. Links let you study up on the destination.

“One really cool thing we do, that other trip-planning sites don’t, is incorporate Indego [the Philly bike-sharing program] into the route planning,” said Nick Rogers, sustainable transportation program director for the Clean Air Council. A map pinpoints bike pickup and drop-off locations. It will also warn if the station is lacking rides or filled with drop-offs, steering you to a different location.

Another point of distinction: The GoPhillyGo.org routes to nature sites focus on the region’s growing circuit of bike and pedestrian trails. About 350 miles worth of paved paths are already in place, with 400 miles more in the planning stages. “The Clean Air Council and the Schuylkill River Development Corp. are currently working to make and connect walking and biking links from West Philly to John Heinz to Bartram’s Garden to Center City, all on trails,” said Rogers. “Eventually, we’ll link up an area-wide path network to the East Coast Greenway going up and down the East Coast, a master plan being billed as ‘the urban answer to the Appalachian Trail.’ It should be great for tourism, for backpackers domestic and foreign, for anyone looking for recreation.”