Why do museums use carts? Teaching carts are a common sight at our museum:
- our Teaching Volunteers use them with visiting school groups
- our Saltz Internship program trains high school students to run a variety of carts on the weekends and during the summer
- Teachers in the museum’s Master of Arts in Teaching program even spend part of their time at the Museum working on carts.
But why train teachers, volunteers and young people to run them?
It turns out carts make it possible for visitors to have hands-on experiences and engaging conversations that can spark curiosity. They can encourage visitors to explore the surrounding halls to learn about related objects and specimens. This is what we had in mind when we designed the MicroRangers cart. This cart is similar to our others but differs from them all in one significant way: the objects we want people to touch and interact with are virtual, within a game on their own digital device.
MicroRangers is a mobile augmented reality game. This means that the gameplay takes place in the physical space around you, through the screen of your device. This also means that the different characters you meet throughout the game pop off the postcard or coin and stand and gesticulate and talk science within the palm of your hand. The MicroRangers cart does not welcome visitors with a huge piece of baleen or a beaver pelt. Instead, it gives visitors the tools they need to play the game (a coin and the app) and then sends them away from the cart to play. After the MicroRangers cart has been live for almost 2 months, we have to ask– what have we figured out so far?
In the last two months we have learned that hanging giant microbes from the sides of the cart and adding small, bright, multicolored lights grab the attention of visitors. The addition of an iPad was useful because it allows visitors that approach the cart to try out the augmented reality for themselves before they start playing (and, everyone LOVES this!). The videos of pre-recorded game play are also a great way to communicate what MicroRangers is all about and catch the eye of visitors, especially young visitors. Since MicroRangers launched, the cart has been stationed near the rainforest, under the giant Lion’s mane jellyfish. Recently we have experimented with rolling it to the lower level of the Hall of Ocean Life beneath our famous whale. In stationing the cart in both the Hall of Biodiversity and the Hall of Ocean Life we’ve learned that location is going to be key to increasing the number of visitors that interact with the cart.
After reflecting on the last two months working with the MicroRangers cart, three design challenges have emerged:
- Sometimes visitors just really want to know how to get to the IMAX or the cafeteria or the bathroom, and hope the MicroRanger Guides can help. But that’s not what they are there to do. To address this challenge we will continue to experiment with the location of the cart to see if our volunteers can better engage the visitors in the science content presented in the game if the cart is stationed in a “destination hall” like the halls of Ocean Life or North American Mammals rather than a “walk-through hall” like the Hall of Biodiversity.
- The halls are dark and so is the cart. One day I hope to say something along the lines of “like moths to a flame visitors are drawn to the MicroRangers cart”. Right now the glowing iPad screen draws visitors over and the volunteers have just started experimenting with flashlights, but these lights just don’t communicate how exciting the game really is. We will continue to experiment with adding additional pieces to the cart to better communicate what the game is all about.
- How do we get people to come back to the cart to talk about what they experienced while playing the game? The MicroRanger Guides give the visitors the tools they need to play and then the visitors go off and play and have yet to return. We want them to return and discuss with the volunteers which microcrises they solved and which scientists they met. So, we will be experimenting with handing out a collectable scientist sticker sheet and other prizes to visitors once they have completed the different microcrises.
We don’t have clear answers to all of these challenges yet, but look forward to experimenting with these possible solutions as we try to figure out the most effective way to support visitor interaction with a virtual object. Stay tuned for an update soon!