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Seeing is not necessarily believing in Basel

Do I follow? LifeClipper is like a real time movie. LifeClipper

A medieval maidservant tells me to hold my nose to avoid the stench of the cobbled streets, before I’m jolted back into a psychedelic hip hop future.

swissinfo discovers that city tours can be very unconventional indeed – especially if the city is Basel.

Cornelia Leupin and Jan Torpus both carry the tools of their trade in backpacks.

They have the same goal of altering visitors’ perceptions of Basel, but their approaches couldn’t be more different.

Leupin’s bag contains a costume: an ankle-length skirt, rosary beads, a prayer book, a bone fragment relic and money pouch. She uses the costume to transform into 16th-century maidservant Aurelia-Maria Henz. (see video)

Henz’s reincarnation as a tour guide gives visitors the opportunity to travel back to the age when the plague was raging – a time most (if not all) are glad not to have experienced first hand.

Visual enhancement

Torpus does not transform himself but has devised a high-tech system to enhance the way visitors see the city.

He calls the unit inside his hard-shell backpack “LifeClipper”, which consists of a laptop, head mounted display (HMD) and a lot of tangled wires.

Torpus, a teacher at Basel’s College of Design and Art, says it enables users to enjoy a “new walking experience”. (listen to audio)

Anybody adventurous enough to stroll around wired up to the HMD and computer sees live pictures and sounds captured by the device’s video camera displayed in real time.

These impressions are then distorted with music and imagery programmed into the laptop.

Torpus says this gives users a “new impression of reality”.

Mind shift

Leupin counts on her acting skills to convince people to “shift their minds back to the year 1501”.

As she leads a small group of tourists over the cobblestones, it is clear the city has done its part by preserving many medieval buildings that serve as a backdrop for her stories.

Overlooking the Rhine, the maidservant lets her group in on the best place to watch suspected criminals drown after being tossed into the river. She then explains some of the other punishments dished out to petty lawbreakers.

“Adulterers have their kidneys removed,” the maidservant laughs.

Leupin says her interest in the history of the city, combined with the tourist office’s failure to offer a comparable tour, encouraged her to conjure up Aurelia-Maria Henz.

Art project

LifeClipper, which is still a prototype, was initially developed as an art project, but has sparked interest from parties eager to develop it commercially.

Torpus and his partner, Niki Neecke, have not been commissioned by the Basel authorities but by a tourism region in France which wants to adopt it for guided tours.

The pre-programmed sound and imagery is triggered by global positioning satellites (GPS) as the wearer wanders about. Walking through Basel’s St Alban district, medieval knights appear out of nowhere – and the user, me in this case, feels compelled to follow them.

Torpus stops me from trying to walk through a concrete wall and directs me to an old paper mill – now a museum – where the GPS sensors trigger a projection of the mill’s inner workings.

Psychedelic images and hip-hop music throw me into a time loop, and I am unsure whether a real or virtual person is breathing down my neck as I step into an ancient graveyard.

“LifeClipper blurs the border between subjective and objective perception by immersing the visitor into the strangeness of his spatial circumstances,” is Torpus’s academic explanation.

Whatever I’m experiencing, it’s weird – but the good news is a hand-held remote control lets me take pictures of what I see: photographic evidence in case anyone believes I have gone temporarily mad.

Olfactory treats

Near the cathedral, Henz is painting a picture of life 500 years ago by describing the olfactory treats of the street.

“Everything stinks,” she says. “People smell of unwashed clothes, rotten teeth and sour milk. On top of that is the stench of dung, decaying wooden staircases and decomposing mutton fat.”

“We should remember the past,” says Henz, transforming back into Leupin, the 45-year-old employee of a Basel chemical company.

“It’s important to understand what happened – how we got where we are today.”

“My perception of the city has changed since I created this tour,” she says. “I see lots of small details you usually don’t notice when you are just walking around window shopping.”

Torpus, regarding his experimental apparatus, says: “There is so much power working with visual and audio effects. We don’t really know where to go from here, whether LifeClipper will remain an art project or whether we’ll continue developing it.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Basel

Cornelia Leupin dresses in medieval costume in order to lead tours of the city at the beginning of the 16th century.
Tours are in German, but Leupin says she may give English language tours in future.
LifeClipper is an experimental project, consisting of a head mounted display connected to a portable computer, which could be developed for guided tours.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR