DEATH VALLEY, United States (AFP) — Death Valley park rangers are turning to electronic gadgetry as they bid to lure a new generation of Americans into the great outdoors.
The awe-inspiring desert landscapes in the vast national park on the California-Nevada borders are now being enhanced by a portable video game-sized device called simply the "GPS Ranger."
Visitors to the park can now rent the tiny computers, unveiled this month, from a kiosk for 19.95 dollars (14 euros), fix them to the dashboard of their vehicle and set off to explore the 3,000 square-mile (7,800-kilometers) park.
Whenever a significant landmark moves into view, the Ranger's screen, triggered by a global positioning system, clicks into life and provides a video commentary explaining to visitors what they are looking at and why it is important.
The device is the brainchild of Lee Little, the chief executive of Bar-Z, the company that manufacturers and leases the machines to Death Valley.
Little said he came up with the idea as a consequence of his own experience traveling around the world.
"I was a frustrated tourist," Little told AFP. "I traveled in European and US national parks and I was surprised on how little technology was used, not only to go from point A to point B, but also 'What's the significance of the location?'"
His company's invention is the equivalent of a personal tour guide.
"The theory was: I want my personal tour. But I don't want to pay for my personal tour guide, so what's the next best thing?" Little said.
Until now, Little's company had used similar technology for equipment in smaller parks and zoos elsewhere in the United States. The Death Valley system represents a vastly more ambitious project, catering to a surface roughly the size of Montenegro, with some 850,000 visitors annually.
David Blacker, executive director of the Death Valley Natural History Association, said he was convinced the gadgetry would boost visitors.
"When we first saw this technology it was evident that it was going to be a great way to appeal to a large number of audiences, giving people the opportunity to go anywhere they wanted with a park ranger," Blacker said.
For the National Park Service, the GPS Ranger might also be a way of drawing the "iPod generation" away from the Internet and video games and back to areas of natural beauty.
"There's a large generation out there who might not think to get to a national park area because it keeps them away from their gadgets," said Terry Baldino, a spokesman for Death Valley National Park.
"It's a generation that may not have ever thought about the park, this is the way to introduce them via a medium they're familiar with."
With US parks facing ever-shrinking funding from the government, Baldino said the GPS Ranger could help Death Valley increase revenue, encouraging families to stay longer or even spend the night in the area.
Park officials hope visitor numbers at Death Valley will return to more than one million a year, the level prior to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that shrank tourism even within the US.
Little, meanwhile, says that the new technology is designed to be accessible for nature-lovers of all ages.
"We're trying to make a product for all, whether they're technology savvy or not," he says, adding that guide books could become increasingly redundant.
"Seventy percent of households in America have a PC, and most of us are wired, but when you come to a national park, you don't have many choices other than 'This is a book', Little said.
"Look at Americans -- they don't read that many books. Why fight it? Join it!"
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