The voice in your ears is comforting, folksy. The woman’s voice leads you, without much fuss but with careful attention, through a downtown path of little discoveries and curious hidden alleys. It’s delightful, like being in a hazy dream, until the woman begins to tell you such terrible things.
She’s a food writer from another time, someone who can’t possibly still be alive. But she’s a witness to what the city was like during a series of gruesome crimes in 1885, crimes the city has largely forgotten. Crimes most transplants know nothing about.
Is this a radio show? A podcast? Something completely new and different?
I’m opting for the latter and it could be the most compelling digital experience at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive. “Detour” (at detour.com), a San Francisco-based app founded by former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason, is basically a walking tour app with lots of ways to experience San Francisco. But for its first walking tour in Austin, Mason’s company has a major weapon: WNYC’s Radiolab team, which created an original Detour, “The Year That Broke Austin,” exclusively for the app.
That Detour launches today in Austin and will be free during SXSW. It’ll cost $5 to download and experience after that.
The app skillfully mixes audio (you’ll likely be wearing headphones to use it), location tracking and the world around you to immerse you in a bubble. The Detours can be synced across multiple phones so a group of people can hear the same audio together. But Mason says it’s not just an audio tour app. “When someone says ‘audio tour,’ it tends to conjure memories of being bored to death in museums… not something you’d do for fun with friends. Radiolab’s Detour is an example of what happens when you give the tools to great artists.”
Radiolab executive producer Ellen Horne says her team spent months working on “The Year,” planning the downtown route, researching the 1880s Servant Girl Annihilator murders that form the basis of the Detour and working up the script and audio. In addition to local actress Barbara Chisholm as the app’s narrator, it features journalist Skip Hollandsworth and original music from Shakey Graves and Helga Davis.
Horne says, “The story is really about this violent lurch into the modern world. One of the things that drew us to this story was that it’s about race and class and how workers got chewed up in the Industrial Revolution.”
She was reluctant to try Detour when talk first started on working with Mason’s company, but two minutes into her first Detour, she was hooked. “Since that moment, all I’ve wanted to do is play with this technology,” Horne said. Other Detours with content from Radiolab are in the works and Horne says she sees it as a new platform for storytelling, different from regular radio or podcasts on a mobile device.
Having tried an earlier version of the Detour on a cold, overcast Monday, I can say “The Year That Broke Austin” casts a strange, magical spell, one that makes you discover places you may not know in downtown Austin, while overlaying a sense of history and tragedy (and occasionally, humor) over it all.
This is not an app for holding out your phone and letting it guide you. The phone stays in your pocket, the voice in your ears guiding you by landmarks and very clear walking directions as the story unfolds. It can feel like a perfect little story bubble, one that also calls for you to walk into shops and interact with Austin, not just glide through it. During the fest, Mason says, that may be a good escape.
“SXSW can be a bit much,” he said. “This Detour is a nice way to unplug from the madness for an hour and connect to the city.”