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Enhancing the experience

The Baltimore Sun

Today's cell phone audio tours have come a long way from the experience that museum visitors had 50 years ago when the first audio tours were developed.

The first tour was created by the Acoustiguide company, still an industry leader. Around 1957, the company designed a tour of Eleanor Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park, N.Y., using reel-to-reel tape recorders that visitors slung over their shoulders. The company developed its first museum tour in 1959 for the Phoenix Art Museum.

The 1960s and '70s saw the introduction of cassette recorders and other systems. Though less bulky than reel-to-reel recorders, they offered only so-called designated tours that took visitors from one artwork to the next along a single route; you couldn't skip forward or otherwise deviate from the programmed order.

By the late 1990s, most museums had switched to random-access tour systems using lightweight digital audio players. The tours enabled visitors to roam at their own pace and hear about artworks in whatever order they preferred simply by clicking a numbered keypad.

In addition to cell phone tours, museums have begun to experiment with podcasts - recorded segments that viewers can listen to over the Internet via their computers. They also can download material from the museum's Web site to portable MP3 devices, enabling them to create their own tours.

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