Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 10. TREE OF LIFE

The following is a deeper dive into one of the projects developed at the American Museum of Natural History in FY17 to help us better understand how to bring the digital work of Museum scientists to visitors through emerging media. Read the top-level findings from the year or carry on below. 


Assets: Phylogenetic tree data in Newick format

Technology: iPad & smartphones 

What we did: We developed a version of the Explorer “Tree of Life” game that placed insects (rather than mammals) into a phylogenetic tree. It differed from the Explorer game in that it resided on a tablet, instead of smartphone, and was a stand-alone game, not integrated with other exhibit content. We tested the prototype at an insect-focused event for school groups. Combining those findings with the results of a formal evaluation of the Explorer app (by Frankly, Green & Webb).

Key finding: This simple game provides a fun, accessibly entry into the tree of life, and spurs visitors to continue exploring.

Other findings:

  • Message received. Even with little or no live facilitation, most people understand the main message of the game: all life is related.
  • Surprise factor is key. People enjoy learning about the relatedness of seemingly unrelated animals–especially when humans are thrown in the mix.
  • People like a challenge. People enjoy using deductive reasoning and looking more closely at physical characteristics to figure out which animals are more closely related. They like the challenge of building a tree branch by branch. The tablet version provided an additional challenge, as kids were motivated to compete against their classmates for a higher score.
  • Hints seen as cheating? Much of the educational content is embedded in the hints, but many people don’t use the hints on the Explorer version; some see it as “cheating.” With the tablet prototype, people were more apt to use the hint. They saw their score depended on getting answers right.
  • Users get on a roll. With only three animals to compare at a time, it’s easy for people to get the hang of the game. And once they start, they generally want to continue. As the Explorer evaluators noted, “ToL is ‘sticky’ and users who do one Tree of Life screen are likely to do two or three.” This suggests that it will work as a standalone game, separate from other exhibit information.
  • Social interaction inherent. As the Explorer evaluators found, users “often instinctively read the quiz questions aloud to their companions and building the tree became a social activity.
  • Big tree, small screen. It’s difficult to convey the size and complexity of the tree of life on a small surface, whether phone or tablet. This will be an ongoing challenge as we expand Tree of Life within Explorer and/or create a touch table version.

Learn more about the other prototypes:

  1. AR SHARK (learn more)
  2. CT SCANS WITH HOLOCUBE (learn more)
  3. VR WEEVIL (learn more)
  4. AR CONSTELLATIONS (learn more)
  5. ESCAPE THE PLANET (learn more)
  6. AR SCALES OF THE UNIVERSE (learn more)
  7. MEAD FESTIVAL 360 VIDEOS (learn more)
  8. PALEONTOLOGY 360 VIDEO (learn more)
  9. CT MUMMIES (learn more)
  10. TREE OF LIFE (learn more)

About Barry

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