My iPod needs culture

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Editor’s Note: Christopher Breen’s European adventure—courtesy of MacMania 4.5 —continues on the streets of Rome. In Blog Due , Chris checks in from the Sistine Chapel.

As you may recall, I was the worst sort of tourist Tuesday —unlearned in the customs of the local population and slightly vexed that this same population couldn’t see its way clear to do things The American Way and drip down free broadband from the heavens.

Now that I’ve worked through the majority of my connectivity issues (as well as ordered three complete meals without once pointing and grunting) I am The Man Who, Fully Versed in the Way Things Are, Has a Small Suggestion to Make.

(This is a recognizable pattern, harkening back to the day when Ogg, a cave-dweller newly arrived from the far side of the tar pits counseled Igg, the local transportation authority, “Square wheels, my dear man. Square like your head. Far sturdier and less likely to run away with you than that silly round object you’re hewing.”)

This Small Suggestion is prompted by today’s visit to the Vatican Museum —home of the famous Sistine Chapel. Although The Chapel’s interior paint job gets the big play among casual museum-goers—Michelangelo’s work is, after all, the “Louie Louie” of the Renaissance—the property is stuffed with many of the highlights of the world’s other booty. And while—judging by the actions of those shuffling through the museum’s countless halls with me—the point seems to attain Chapeldom at one’s earliest convenience, you can’t help but be distracted by the occasional breathtaking painting, fresco, tapestry, sculpture, mosaic, dome, or Papal knickknack.

Given that, my Small Suggestion is this: I’d like to know what some of this stuff is.

Oh sure, I could purchase a guidebook or rent one of the audio players offered at the museum's entrance, but neither provides exactly the experience I’m looking for. The guidebook takes too long to page through plus you have to take your eyes off the object of your affection to learn its significance. And while the audio commentary is useful, not only must I divine exactly which 2nd century bust among the 48 arrayed across the south wall the commentary is addressing, but I have to return the machine at the end of my trek, thereby retaining the information it conveyed no longer than the time taken to visit the closest gelaterie .

Clearly the third and fourth figures from the left are, respectively, Leo Laporte and the young Karl Malden, but who the hell are these other guys?

No, what I’d like is an audio commentary—complete with pictures—that I can take with me as a souvenir.

Impossible? Nah. A similar beast is downloaded by the millions from the iTunes Music Store every week. Of course I’m talking about museum-specific enhanced podcasts.

These podcasts would contain navigable chapters—say one chapter per gallery—along with images that could be displayed on color iPods. iPod owners could download the podcast (for a fee, naturally) prior to their visit or grab a selection of podcasts from kiosks arrayed around the museum’s entrance. As visitors tour the museum, they simply dial in the appropriate gallery, look, listen, and learn.

Making this happen may require that the Pope beg Steve Jobs for an audience. To begin with, Apple would have to modify the way the iPod loads music so that it’s compatible with on-demand media kiosks. The current scheme is pretty lumpy—media must be loaded from iTunes and the iPod is happiest when synced with the iPod owner’s computer. In this case, you’d want the iPod to be aware of media kiosks and download material from them when instructed to (without erasing the iPod’s other data).

And then there’s the DRM-and-dollars hobgoblin. Museums make lots of money from their guides and guided tours (virtual and otherwise). No museum’s board of directors will be happy with an audio guide that can be easily passed from one iPod owner to another. A way would have to be found to tie this material to each player.

Conceivable? In this specific application, probably not. Museums are doing quite well with the systems they have and I don’t see a horde of iPod owners (or maybe just this one) moving them to embrace the idea.

I am, however, enamored with the idea of unbinding the iPod from my personal computer and feeding it directly from additional devices—a media kiosk, PVR, or the satellite radio in my car. After all, the iPod is the world’s most popular portable player. Why tie it to a single earthbound device?

Let’s hope that Apple’s Last Judgment on this subject is the right one. If so, I’m ready to move on to some of my Big Suggestions.

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