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A 'Detour' Through Austin Revisits Unsolved Crimes

Courtesy Detour
Urban explorers test-run Detour in San Francisco.

Starting today, you may see more people walking around downtown Austin, headphones in their ears, transfixed by what they’re hearing.

They may be trying out a new kind of self-guided audio tour launching in Austin today.

Andrew Mason is the company’s founder and CEO. He’s trying to change people’s idea of what an audio tour can be.

"People probably have these fuddy-duddy museum audio tours anchored in their heads as the closest analog to what we’re doing,” he says. But,Detour is a mobile application for taking these really cool, immersive location-aware audio walks through cities.”

No maps or guidebooks required. You download the Detour app on your iphone, plug in your headphones, press play and put your phone in your pocket.

A narrator guides you from place to place, like:

“Turn left and walk under the American flag and the Texas flag toward the big tree-lined street."

“We’ve built basically the equivalent of a video game engine only where you are the character in the game and the game world is the real world,” Mason says. “So in the same way as when you walk around a video game world, you are coming into areas that trigger events or trigger the narrative to continue. Detour works the same way.”

The app pinpoints a user’s location to make sure they’re listening to the right part of the tour.

The first Austin Detour launches today. To make it, Mason enlisted some all-star talent: the storytellers from WNYC’sRadiolab.

“When we talked to Andrew about doing location-based tours, it just sounded boring to me,” says Radiolab Executive Producer Ellen Horne.

But Mason persisted, so Horne tried one of his tours She put on her headphones and was sold.

“I was hooked like fish on a line. From that moment in, Detour seemed to me to be not just an audio tour but a whole new medium,” she says.

The Radiolab team spent more than three months producing Austin’s first detour.

“The story that we picked is basically a story about this violent lurch into modernity that happened in Austin in 1885,” says Horne.

That year, eight people in Austin were murdered by an ax-wielding killer who came to be known as “the Servant Girl Annihilator.”

When the servant girl annihilator showed up in Austin we’d never heard of a serial killer. Nobody had. This was way before Jeffrey Dahmer, before Son of Sam, even before Jack the Ripper,” the tour’s audio narrator says.

The narrator tells the story from a unique perspective. The tour begins on the corner of 5th and San Jacinto.

“You should be standing on San Jacinto Street looking at a fancy suit jacket behind glass,” goes the tour. “Before you walk away. Look in the window next to the door. See the newspaper says Statesman on it? January 1, 1885. That year broke Austin the way you break a horse.

“The city almost descended into chaos,” says Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth, who also narrates part of the tour.

“And all the murders happened within what is now the center of the city. Thousands of people go past these murder sites and have no idea what they’re passing by,” he says.

The case is still one of the great unsolved murder mysteries of the late 19th century, and for just over an hour, the tour leads listeners off the beaten track through shops and down alleys.

Detour’s Andrew Mason says the best way to experience a place is to walk in somebody else’s shoes.

“You can’t get any closer than having a narrator whose the member of a community kind of taking you through a day in their life and that’s what this medium is really powerful at,” Mason says.

During SXSW, the Austin Detour can be downloaded for free. But users will ultimately pay for the tours. The company plans to offer detours in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles later this year.