Last week, Andrew Mason, founder and former CEO of Groupon, launched a new company. The company, Detour, makes “immersive, location-aware audio walks”. Just like Uber turns your GPS-enabled smart-phone to your personal driver, Detour turns your phone into a personal tour guide. Andrew and TechCrunch give more background. I signed up immediately and was given early access, and had a great experience.
[Full disclosure: I used to work for Andrew at Groupon, and I'm a big fan]
I chose the tour of the San Francisco Ferry Building. There were a few minor technical issues getting started (that the team is aware of and working on), but most of the tour went extremely well. The Ferry Building is not hard to love, given it’s design, prominent location, the delicious shops inside. The main guide did a good job narrating the history, but the real treat, but a couple things made it even better than having a live tour guide. Since you’re listening on your headphones, they can provide different background sounds – walking up to the building, I heard old cable cars rumbling, horses neighing and clopping, and talk from a market a hundred years ago. But the real treat was the interviews with old-timers connected to the building. The man who has maintained the clock for decades explained how it is built to last for centuries, and at 120 years old is maybe 1% into it’s design life. A (fourth-generation?) worker on the tower describes hidden graffiti in secret spots, and tells a harrowing accident story about an accident. Detour didn’t just give a tour of a place, it was an intimate look into the life of the city and the people that have built it.
Technically, the app worked well. The marketing copy says that you shouldn’t need to pull out your phone after you start the tour, and that was mostly correct. The content is broken up into chapters, each of which starts when you get to a certain location. The tour guide gave clear directions, and I easily found all except one of the points on the first try. The timing of the directions was also impeccable – every time I thought “Wait, am I going the right way?”, it wasn’t 5 seconds before she said “You should be passing X on your left” and I was right there. I don’t know if they check your location in-between chapters and calibrate, or I walk exactly as fast as the tour guide expected, but it really did feel like magic. It was easy to forget that I was listening to a recording instead of being guided by a live person.
I have no doubts that the technical issues will be fixed – Andrew has great product sense and personality and the tech team is very sharp. As long as the tours remain as high quality as the one I took, Detour should be a great product, for tourists and locals alike. Some people thought Detour was a strange followup from the founder of Groupon, but I disagree. Although the e-commerce aspect is what drove that business, Groupon was, at its heart, about loving your neighborhood and your city more and having a great time. Detour is another, possibly purer expression of that same goal. It makes me want to visit more new places, to see them through Detour’s eyes.