Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Roman basilica uses quiet iPods to replace noisy tour guides

The Vatican is betting an iPod beats "Shush!" in lowering the tour guide noise level in basilicas.

It will even lend you one for free to try to prove its point.

From a tiny booth in the back of St. John in Lateran, the Holy See's pilgrim agency has been quietly asking tourists if they want to tour Rome's oldest basilica with an iPod in hand loaded with an app specially designed to access the place's art, architecture and Christian history.

It's a bid to cut down on the noise as well as to raise appeal to the young, not your typical pilgrim, the Rev. Caesar Atuire, CEO of the pilgrim agency, said Tuesday.

"It is designed to appeal to wider audience than the usual churchgoer," Atuire told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the Holy Land.

The Vatican will formally unveil the experiment on Wednesday. But a visit Tuesday found curious tourists exploring the cavernous basilica with specially adapted iPods in hand.

"It's fantastic. I really appreciate it," said Agustin Valverde, a Spaniard visiting the basilica with his family, including his eight-month-old son and namesake, who looked wide-eyed at the iPod. "You can see a lot (more) beauty this way."

Atuire suggested that, with a tap of the finger, tourists can zoom in on high-resolution images of artistic details, like the starry blue canopy above the towering high altar, or decorating vaulted ceilings. The apps user also can refer to images from the Vatican Library not usually available to the public to enrich their understanding of their basilica tour.

As Atuire spoke, Americans following an English-speaking tour guide near a side chapel that myth says was gilded with gold from Cleopatra's warships craned their necks to try to see. Trying not to disturb others, the guide was lecturing barely above a whisper, practically out of earshot to those not closest to her.

The iPod audio has a chatty format, with some narration by "characters" in history, such as Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity.

The multi-lingual audio also offers a conversational description of the battle of the Milvian Bridge spanning the Tiber, won in 312 by Constantine, who saw a flaming cross in the sky. Legend says Constantine lugged soil to the site of what was to become St. John in Lateran, the first basilica within Rome's ancient walls and sometimes dubbed "the first Vatican."

Pilgrim agency workers lending the iPods say teenagers often press their parents to take the device, and show the older generation how it works.

Twelve-year-old Jakob Rhein, from Pope Benedict XVI's native Bavaria region of Germany, chewed on his gum and pronounced the audiovisual aid "very cool. It is in an iPod." His mother Ulrike Rein called it "quite intuitive to use."

Said Valverde's mother-in-law, Berta Evangelista, a Roman: "All you need is to be a bit comfortable with a touch screen telephone to use it well."

"Basically, we have taken an iPod, we've filled it with plenty of content, with history, with everything you need to know about the basilica" said Rosa Maria Mancini, a spokeswoman for the Vatican pilgrim agency Opera Roman Pellegrinaggi. With the device, "you can discover it piece by piece," she said.

There are audio devices positioned around the basilica that tourists can sit next to and listen to explanations through an old-fashioned telephone-type receiver.But they tether the tourist to one spot. The iPod can be used in the basilica's cloister, letting users better appreciate this island of tranquility as their headphones shut out the chatter of tourists.

There's no charge, although users are told they can leave a donation if they like. Users must leave a document, like a passport or driver's license, as security.

After the experiment ends in December, the Vatican will decide whether to expand the iPod app to other Rome basilicas, although there are no immediate plans to use them for St. Peter's Basilica or Square, Atuire said.

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