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Detour’s high-tech audio tours veer into museums for the first time

Indoor voices

Almost two years ago, Andrew Mason introduced Detour, an aptly named departure from his previous job as the co-founder and CEO of Groupon. Today the app, which is available on iOS, offers richly produced, location-aware narrative tours of 10 global cities. To date, all of the tours have been outdoor experiences. But now Detour is dipping indoors: the company announced today that its technology can now be used to build tours of interior spaces, beginning with the newly renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And the company says it is opening its platform for the first time so other creators can begin building tours of their own.

Whereas most audio tours consist of a simple audio file, requiring you to pause to control your pace, Detour uses the phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer to measure your position and adjusts the audio accordingly. Background music continues to play as you amble along; it’s recorded and played separately from the vocal track. If you’re with friends, the app syncs audio between your phones so that you hear the same thing. Detour’s outdoor tours are linear jogs along a set path, and most take about an hour.

The best indoor location-tracking experience I've had

Outdoors, Detour relies on GPS to position you as you walk; indoors, it uses Wi-Fi and iOS’ Core Location feature to track your movements. The experience only became possible with the release of iOS 9 and its improvements to Core Location, Mason says. Detour worked with Apple to map SFMOMA for the app, and the result is the best indoor location-tracking experience I’ve had. The app is designed to be used without looking at the screen, giving you clear turn-by-turn directions as you move through the galleries.

Inside SFMOMA, which reopens to the public May 14th, you can take tours hosted by a variety of engaging narrators. There’s one from comedians Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani, stars of HBO’s Silicon Valley, and from Errol Morris, the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. With Mason at my side, I took a tour narrated by Phillipe Petit, the French high-wire artist who famously walked a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. An impish Petit led us through a series of contemporary art galleries, drawing connections between artists from Diego Rivera to Mark Rothko.

In some ways it was like any other audio tour. But Detour’s producers incorporate interviews with a variety of subjects; in the tour I took, you hear from a woman who met Rothko as a young student. She describes the growing self-doubt he had begun to feel regarding his giant two-tone canvases. Later, when Petit informs you that Rothko committed suicide at the age of 66, it stings: the tour is an emotional experience as much as an informational one. "They take you through the museum and create a narrative that ties together a bunch of the artworks," Mason says, "instead of just getting beleaguered with this onslaught of facts and historical anecdotes as you go from painting to painting."

An onslaught of facts and historical anecdotes

The SFMOMA tour itself can be downloaded for free inside the iOS app, or used on an iPod Touch that the museum rents to visitors. The platform will open to a small group of additional partners in coming weeks, with plans to let everyone get access eventually. The platform includes access to Descript, a Mac desktop app the company built to script its audio tours. Right now it’s only being used to build tours, but Mason sees a day where it’s used to create all sorts of audio experiences, including podcasts.

When I first wrote about Detour in 2014, I asked Mason why he hadn’t built an indoor version. At the time, his answer was simply that he didn’t really like museums. "There’s so much — you don’t know where to start, and you get fatigued," he says. But he says he’s warming up to them — in part because the Detour app lets museum-goers take a less rigid path than traditional audio tours, if they choose, with the app surfacing new audio clips as museum-goers enter new galleries. SFMOMA created tours for both people who are new to contemporary art and people who have a deep background in it, making the museum more broadly accessible. "That was something we really focused on — creating a variety of different experiences," Mason says.

When Groupon was two years old, it already had 35 million users and turned down a $6 billion acquisition offer from Google. But it seemed to flame out as quickly, and today is valued at one-third of that price on the public market. Detour is a much more modest app — and that’s part of why I find it so likeable. It’s a tool for telling stories, built by curious people with a talent for telling them. I’m still not totally sure where Detour is going, but I like watching its path develop.