Clif Bar & Company is trying to bring the steep red cliffs and lush hanging gardens of Utah’s Zion National Park to the streets of Chicago with a new augmented-reality app called Chion.
Co-created with Map Design Lab, Chion is an interactive adventure app for iOS that melds the sights and sounds of Zion with Chicago’s urban landscape through 360-degree photos and true-to-life audio clips, including growling mountain lions and chirping birds.
Chion has Clif’s branding, but there are no traditional advertisements for the company’s namesake nutrition-dense bars in the app.
Clif has been quietly working on Chion for the past 11 months and hopes to launch the app next summer, said Ryan Lindholm, director of digital marketing at the California-based company. Clif beta tested Chion in Chicago earlier this week.
“There’s a large demographic that has never gone to a national park and doesn’t know what that experience feels like,” Lindholm said. “When you represent a company and work at an organization that stands for the outdoors, it’s really important to think about responsibility and your role with that kind of macro trend.”
Between 35 to 40 people participated in the Chion beta testing, which started at the Wrigley Building and continued along a designated trail centered around the Riverwalk. A narrator guided testers from point to point, each with its own unique Zion vista or adventure activity accessed via smartphone screen.
At a point on the Riverwalk between Wabash Avenue and Michigan Avenue, for example, testers could hold their phones up to green spaces and see flowers native to Zion. At a later point, people could see and hear frogs jumping across the Riverwalk pathway.
“It kind of makes you look at Chicago in a different way,” said Maureen Stern, who learned about the beta testing through Active Transportation Alliance. “Having the lens put over the landscape here and seeing the flowers on top is really cool … hearing the birds as trucks drive by on Wacker.”
In addition to nature scenery, the trail was also filled with testimonials from Clif athletes who have personally adventured through Zion. The testimonials are meant to add intimate storytelling to Chion and further connect Chicagoans to the national park, said Melissa Painter, creative director of Map Design Lab. Among the athletes: ultramarathon runner Dakota Jones, climber Kate Rutherford and mountain biker Casey Brown.
“Out of the user testing that we’ve done to date, a lot of the positive response has been about hearing the intimate stories from people who have had these adventures,” Painter said. “Those are what lead you.”
About three-quarters of Clif’s web traffic comes from iPhone users, which is why Chion will initially only be available for iOS, according to Lindholm; in the future, Chion may also be available for Android.
Although Clif has been working on Chion for nearly a year, it’s still in its very early stages of development and “riddled with a lot of problems,” he said.
Some of those problems were on display during the beta testing when multiple testimonials would, at times, play simultaneously or when wildflowers appeared in the sky instead of on a grassy patch.
“At a technical level, there are surprises around every turn,” Lindholm said. “Every time we fix one thing, 10 other things break, but we kind of expected that.”
The app will eventually be made available for free, Lindholm said. He declined to comment on how much money Clif has invested in Chion.
“I think, for us, it’s really the larger plan on how can we positively impact adventure within cities and adventure outside of cities,” Lindholm said.
If successful in Chicago after its 2018 launch, Clif might expand the Chion model to other cities and other national parks, he said.
“We’re willing to do this the right way, to invest in it to make it an experience Chicago can be proud of,” Lindholm said. “But people should be able to experience Chion in similar ways in cities across the United States.”
Robert Holly is a freelance writer.