A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the worst of times…” Part Two

I have to admit that I’m more than a bit schizophrenic when it comes to my feelings on location-based service apps.  On the one hand, I can see the potential of linking your physical location to intelligent services that can mediate your experience of being in the real world. I mean, wow! What potential.  Especially for a museum or other heritage organization. We all collect and preserve mountains of information that have ties to real-world locations, so the idea of being able to link that to the experience of moving through 3D space gives me little frissons of excitement.

So I’ve downloaded apps and read press releases and reviews. I’ve tried Foursquare and Gowalla and SCVNGR. I’ve been declared mayor of my local farmers’ market and the Department of Public Works drop off.  I’ve gotten points for checking in to places and I’ve unlocked badges. And in the end, I’ve deleted all the apps from my phone because I don’t see any return on my investment of time and attention.

Recently Mia Ridge from Science Museum, London (@mia_out) wondered via Twitter whether these kinds of services were useful for museums or a slightly wrong space for us to work in. Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum (@sebchan) responded that badges plus location don’t equal a good story or compelling gameplay. Museums are story machines and should remember that. Clearly, the field is looking and wondering and trying experiments.  As part of that discussion, I add my own experience with a big SCVNGR event.

#2) SCVNGR The Quest For Innovation Trek

When I got the invite to The Quest for Innovation, I had high hopes. According to the press release, it was going to bring together,

“all aspects of the entrepreneurial, innovation and creative communities for a high-tech exploration and celebration of Boston’s long heritage as a leader in driving global innovation. Competing teams in the mobile scavenger hunt will consist of entrepreneurs, techies, creative types, business leaders and other members of the New England innovation and educational communities.”

The Kendall Square area, where the Quest was going to take place, has been a hotbed of high-tech innovation for decades.  Between MIT and its offshoots, the big biotechs and the incubators, you could do a dozen interesting explorations of the area. This stood a good chance of being a really social mobile event that had a strong content connection to its audience. A niche audience, to be sure, but an audience nonetheless.

I managed to convince a couple of colleagues to come along and so we found ourselves in Tech Square at the appointed hour with a over a hundred other players. We checked in, got instructions on how to download the app, a cool t-shirt, and bottled water.  Some companies sported big teams with uniforms or goofy hats, some were in plain clothes. Everyone was excited to be there. Apps were being downloaded left and right, user accounts being created, and everything that would indicate a popular mobile event was happening.

We gave it a go, we walked around Cambridge, and we laughed and had a good time with each other and the other teams we bumped into en route. We did challenges, collected rewards and after awhile, we stopped and went our separate ways. The next day when we met up and debriefed our shared experience was, “It was fun, but…” This was not at all what I was expecting, and I’ve had to think long and hard about what made such a promising event so unsatisfying for me.

So what made this experience not work for me?

I couldn’t make the app work

I started having problems immediately. My iPhone 3G would hang halfway through the SCVNGR app login process.  My colleague with a 3GS fared a little better, and the colleague with the Droid managed to get in eventually. Maybe it was my phone. iOS4 has certainly decreased the responsiveness of other apps on my phone, maybe SCVNGR was a victim of the same. I did manage to get the app to load a couple of times, enough to get into the trek and do a social check-in with my teammates before it hung again and we decided to use the Droid as our team phone.

I felt excluded

The event began, complete with speeches by local politicians, the event sponsors, and finally the CEO of SCVNGR, who gave us our instructions on how to begin our quest. These included the suggestion that we find somebody who had Verizon as a service provider to be the person whose phone we used. Which is of course, another way of saying “Don’t use an iPhone.” There were some smirks and titters from the Android users and off we went. I was gobsmacked. “Really? I took time out of my day to come to this, I stuck it out even though my user experience has been pretty terrible on my phone (which is within the spec for running the app), and I’m in one of the most saturated free Wi-Fi environments on Earth, and that’s the solution?”

I will happily agree to most of the faults people find with Apple and AT&T on a range of issues. No Flash at all? In the name of open standards?  Um, OK, Steve… I continue to be amazed at AT&T’s ability to find the most amazing spots to have poor reception and bandwidth issues, like, oh…big chunks of Manhattan and San Francisco and MIT, you know, the kinds of places that are likely to be crawling with technologically savvy users. But, at a certain point, blaming somebody else just doesn’t work.  Even the Android users were waiting a long time for the app to respond, and everything else on my phone that required connectivity worked at near-typical speeds. So it wasn’t just an AT&T issue. To make a Star Wars analogy, go to the Cantina scene (start at 0.45) to see who I felt like.

The folks at the Quest were much nicer (and way less menacing), but the message was the same, “We don’t serve your kind here.” Ouch.

There was little connection between where we were and what we were doing

I stood outside Google’s offices and made a collection of things that were the same colors as Google’s logo. I looked in the window at the Broad Institute and admired a mobile inside. At the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, I guessed which name Doc Draper shared with a famous superhero. Aside from the thrill of discovering the clue we were supposed to find, I could’ve done most of the challenges with a picture.

This is something I’ve wrestled with whenever I think about using the current crop of location-based service (LBS) providers. My ideal tour would take inside these place, and prompt me to find out things. The logistical hurdles of getting that to happen make my head want to explode, so I can see how the compromise winds up being, “Stay outside, stay off private property, look in windows when you can.” I had this same issue with the very well-reviewed “Murder on Beacon Hill” iPhone app. It sounded great and looked great at home, but when I actually went and took the tour, I kept asking “Why am I here?” and not finding an answer. You can read my full review of Walking Cinema’s Murder on Beacon Hill app at MuseumMobile.

I didn’t learn much as I’d hoped I would

I think I might wear my educator hat a bit too tightly, and expect more of these kinds of experiences than is warranted, but whenever I get approached by vendors with LBS solutions, they always talk about how it can be educational.

I thought I’d come away with a greater appreciation and understanding of what all these places and why they mattered, but it felt very much like an insider game. If you didn’t know what the Whitehead Institute did, you weren’t going to find out. Draper Labs is an important place. They made the guidance systems that put men on the Moon. The biggest engineering prize in the world is named in honor of Doc Draper, who legend has it had a clock in his office that he could set to 5PM with the press of a button, because gentlemen don’t drink before 5. All I got was that he and Iron Man’s alter ego share a name.

This isn’t just a SCVNGR issue. The whole scavenger hunt mechanic doesn’t easily accommodate going deeper. It’s about going fast and finishing with more points. I have this same issue with the paper scavenger hunts I see kids doing in the Museum all the time. Their bodies are visiting, but I’m not sure their brains are.

What did work?

People like to play games with people

Despite our problems, it was really exciting to be in a large crowd of strangers all getting ready to set out exploring. Technologically-enabled real-world play! The event had all the fun of a competition, with little of the anxiety. It was a race to get the most points, and certainly many of the start-ups and VC firms that fielded teams were in it to win it, but there is something about a scavenger hunt that seems to preclude getting too wrapped up in winning. It’s a way to have a good time with your teammates.  That has always been a strong lure for me. People like these kinds of activities. There is something innately satisfying about the game mechanic and it comes about as close as anything to Jesse Schell’s vision of the future of gaming in the real world.  Watch his DICE 2010 talk if you haven’t already.

People like comparing themselves to others, especially people they know

A lot of the challenges were great opportunities to insert yourself into the game, by taking a picture of yourself or something you’d made, and people eat that up, including me. SCVNGR lets you see what your competitors are doing, so you can compare your keychain sculpture to your friends, and decide who has the funniest recreation of Alexander Graham Bell’s first phone call. From what I could tell from past experience and watching other users, the app does a good job of making it easy to explore what’s going on in the game, and the goofiness of a lot of the challenges makes it impossible to take your success or failure too seriously. Being a goof, I always appreciate that. They have done an excellent job at lowering the bar to entry to the activity if you can get in.

So, a mixed bag of experiences, some negative, some positive. SCVNGR has a lot of momentum behind them, so it’ll be interesting to see how their platform evolves in the near future. Despite my issues with the Trek I described, I have to give SCVNGR credit for actually devoting resources to exploring the museum sector as a place to use their product. They certainly aren’t going to make big money working with museums, but they continue to dedicate resources and smart people to museum projects. I imagine they’ll be back and I’ll try their app again.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on SCVNGR and location-based apps like this and what works and doesn’t for you. I have the nagging feeling that something this popular has to have educational uses that I’m just not seeing yet in the current crop of services out there.


  1. Good post, and a useful contribution to the debate, thanks!

    Your point about paper-based scavenger hunts is interesting – does mobile technology change the experience significantly enough to make it work when paper-based scavenger hunts don’t?

    I’ve got some ‘points of interest’ data we put together for a mobile app (http://sciencemuseumdiscovery.com/blogs/locatingheritage/) that I’m tempted to try re-using when I’ve got some free time early next year, but I suspect if anything really good comes out of it, it’ll require museums re-thinking some of the interaction and interpretive models we’re used to working with.


  2. Hi Ed,
    From the SCVNGR invitation you quoted above it sounds like “learning something” wasn’t really part of their goal for the experience. Sounds like it was meant to be more of a social thing. From what little I know SCVNGR is popular as one of those tools companies use to create bonding experiences. It would be interesting to know how the teams fielded by the startups and VCs would rate their experience. It seems like you could use SCVNGR to create a learning experience but you’d have to design it with that purpose in mind.


  3. I dunno, Robin… “Exploration and celebration of … heritage” sounds awfully educational to my ears, but I’ll admit I’m biased. Aside from learning street addresses, I don’t see how you can meaningfully explore or celebrate with learning something.

    Your point about the content design is dead-on, I think. I’ve yet to see one from SCVNGR (or any other vendor) that was built to do what we traditionally do in our tiny niche market. I think we can all see the potential of these platforms. Mia Ridge tweeted a link to Nicholas Nova’s thoughts on location-based games and their potential, which is worth looking at, particularly where he talks about location-based narrative/storytelling.


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