Egypt, IBM Team On Tourist Services

A new cell-phone service will let visitors to the pyramids and the Temple of Luxor call up information while on tour.
Visitors to Egypt's great pyramids and the Temple of Luxor will be able to let their fingers do the walking, thanks to a new philanthropic project with IBM.

IBM, which donates about $140 million a year to schools, museums, and hospitals, on Tuesday turned on a new cell-phone service that lets visitors to the Egyptian sites call up audio guides, informational text, and photos while on tour. It's part of a project between IBM and the Egyptian government's communications and IT ministry called "Eternal Egypt," funded by a $2.5 million grant of computers, software, and consulting time from IBM that the Egyptian government hopes will boost tourism.

A Web site,, also went live on Tuesday.

For the past year, visitors to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo have been able to rent PDAs to get multimedia guides to the collection. As part of the project, IBM developed text-to-speech software that reads out in English, French, and Arabic, and new content-management software that organizes information according to a storyline, says John Tolva, IBM's manager for the project.

More than three dozen IBM employees worked for three years on the assignment, scanning a couple of thousand images and artifacts in conjunction with CultNat, Egypt's national archival body, which employs some of the world's top Egyptologists.

Philanthropy at IBM dates back to the company's origins--founder Thomas J. Watson and his son, Thomas Jr., were noted givers. Most of the money and resources these days go to education, and 70% of the company's charitable budget is disbursed to U.S. recipients, according to Stanley Litow, IBM's VP of corporate community relations and president of the IBM Foundation. But Eternal Egypt draws on earlier IBM ties to the international art world. In 1998, techies at IBM undertook the "Pieta Project," generating a sophisticated computer model of a sculpture an aging Michelangelo carved--then nearly destroyed with a hammer--in the 16th century. The following year, IBM helped the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, assemble an award-winning Web site. IBM also compiled a CD-ROM of Vatican Library manuscripts in the '90s.

IBM's official line is that it donates its technology and business talent to solve educational and social problems in the public interest. The Egypt project also may contain an element of promotion. After all, Tolva says, "it takes smart middleware" to make it all work.

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