Digital Playground: Reading This Might Make a Spaceship Roll Across Your Screen

Spacecraft 3D is a free mobile app produced by (for?) NASA. I first saw it in action last month at the Adler’s Space Visualization Lab. Select a spaceship – say, Curiosity on Mars – point the camera phone at a piece of paper, and watch a 3D model of the craft appear. Move the paper and the ship moves. Move the camera and you tilt around the ship, as if it were actually there.

In this week’s Digital Playground, Nathan, Ariam and I decided to play with it and explore the feasibility of augmented reality as an educational tool. Is it engaging? Is it educational on its own or does it require facilitation or scaffolding to build off the generated “need to know”? And how does it change one’s perception of museum space?

To test it out, we printed the paper targets, with instructions for self-directed use, and took them down to a second floor classroom with big floor-to-ceiling windows. We taped the sheets to something inside the room but positioned so we could clearly see them on the other side of the window, in the outside hallway.

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Standing in the hallway, even through the glass and in dim light, they looked great. It was very compelling, this experience of making something appear in thin air, as if by magic, and then walking around it to get a good look. And note my language- I am talking as if there were something my camera was actually seeing, as if there were a physical object before me I was walking around, occupying the same space as me, when in fact it was all just a shifting image on my screen, a real trick, of perception.

We grabbed people walking by and invited them to check it out. We learned a few things right away: If we don’t have a strong public wifi connection at that location then nobody can download the app. Facilitation is helpful to encourage people to try something new, and to provide context. And the instructions need to be in multiple languages, or in ideograms.

We wondered what it would be like if the paper was on a remote-control device and you could take the ship for a drive. Or if we blew up the target sheet and made the virtual ships the size of the hallway. One teenage boy summed it all up when he said, “That’s awesome.”

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Go ahead and try it out for yourself. Below is the same flyer we hung in the room, only rather than see it on the Museum window your spaceship will appear on your computer screen.

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About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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