by Michael J. Shapiro | September 01, 2010

When it comes to incorporating technological innovations at trade shows, the challenge is perhaps toughest for those with the most stake in showing them off -- tech-related organizations. That's the case for Mark Bell, vice president of industry affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based National Cable and Telecommunications Association, whose annual convention showcases cutting-edge technology. For this year's Cable Show, held in May in Los Angeles, that meant constructing a community in miniature on the trade show floor to exhibit all of the latest cable-based advancements as the consumer would see them in the real world. 

"We went about building things like houses and apartments, the local movie theater, a hotel and businesses, all of which are served by big, robust, sophisticated networks and developed by cable operators," Bell notes. "And then we showcased innovative new content from our programming community, and we did that all within the context of everyday life."

For example, attendees could visit a hotel replica in the exhibit to see cable-based technologies at work in a hotel: automated self check-in, multiplatform cable news and information services, guest room automation, and VOIP and high-speed Internet, to name a few.

What presented one of the bigger challenges to Bell and his team, however, was developing a savvy way for attendees to travel through that 27,000-square-foot miniature community, dubbed the My World exhibit. A mobile app was a logical choice, along the same lines as an app that smartphone owners might use to navigate a real city. 

The thinking, says Bell, was "let's help people find a way to navigate My World and figure out what's in it, have some way to engage the community and create an easy way for people to have takeaways."

Bell and his team wanted a mobile application that would run on multiple platforms -- ideally, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry -- and feature location-based services as a central component, to provide specific information to attendees depending on where they stood, and to help them get to other specific destinations. "So we went about looking for a combination of Google Maps, with some Foursquare thrown in, and some augmented reality," Bell explains. But nothing quite fit the bill.

Location-based apps such as Foursquare, through which people can "check in" to different locations, such as restaurants, cafés and bars, are traditionally made for the real world outside of convention center confines, using the GPS capabilities of mobile devices to pinpoint locations on given city blocks -- not, as Bell points out, "10-by-10-foot booths at a convention hall. The resolution of the 'you are here' piece of the functionality wasn't, frankly, all that accurate."

That was true even of the Follow Me trade show app made by the developer that Bell's team eventually decided to work with, Glen Burnie, Md.-based Core-Apps. "We realized that the app, as it stood, was handy if you wanted to find a 100-by-100-foot booth in Las Vegas, but it wasn't going to help you differentiate a house from a hotel in our little cityscape."  

NCTA's director of information technology, Wyatt Barnett, worked closely with the team from Core-Apps to achieve the geographical accuracy required for the My World exhibit. While that effort was under way, says Bell, the project received some inspiration from, of all places, Disneyland.

"We went to Disney while we were doing some other fact-finding," Bell explains, "and we realized that some of the interactive park apps that Disney uses would be a great benchmark for us. So we had the creative team on the production side of the exhibit create, in essence, a park map [of the exhibit], much like Disney does."

Bell and the NCTA team took that rendition and asked the developers at Core-Apps, "What if our map didn't look like a grey drawing with squares for booths, but looked like this beautiful artist's version of our little studio lot?" With that, Core-Apps went about designing a functional map program based on the art, the results of which Bell enthusiastically describes as drastically different from any other trade show app map he's ever seen.

The app is still available at -- an important point to note, says Bell, when considering how an app can continue to connect attendees, exhibitors and the association long after the actual show has ended. In some respects it's like a show program that attendees might never throw away.

"We built this app specifically to meet our committee's request for My World," says Bell, "but it worked out that it happened to have a great back end for all of the other ‘conference-y' type stuff, so we naturally extended it to the rest of the show." Those with The Cable Show app still can reference exhibitor and product information from the event, for example -- an investment that continues to pay off both for exhibitors and the association.