Scavenger Hunt at the Smithsonian: They give good Internets 3

goSmithsonian TrekThe Internets can be fickle. Social media is so in that it’s now a big yawn. The shark has been jumped, Twitter has been twa… er… tweeted, and nothing against all of you foursquare fans, but I know nothing about foursquare and still cannot stand it. I’m not even interested in where I am most of the time.

My pocketbook is smarter than me

But as we all stare ever more raptly into the tiny screens we carry around, I’ve been thinking about how isolating it all really is. We don’t talk to people on the metro (though honestly, that’s kind of a blessing), we don’t ask for directions, we can get book recommendations at the tap of a finger, find out how much that house cost, compare prices around the world with the flick of a thumb, and tighten our tether to e-mail and work all in the name of convenience. What I haven’t seen, though, is a really good implementation that combines social media, the Internets and the big, bad, real world.

The other week I was invited to try out the goSmithsonian Trek scavenger hunt across the Smithsonian Institution museums and – to be honest – I thought “Ugh. Trying to navigate the real world with new technology. How annoying is this going to be?” I was wrong. It was actually pretty fun, even going it alone.

Basically, you download the SCVNGR app to your iPhone or Droid (because you are a nerd) and it takes you on kind of a guided tour of several of the museums. You are invited to answer a series of questions or “challenges,” featuring trivia from the exhibits, and earn points for correct answers. It’s kind of addictive, and I found myself plowing through school groups and dashing up stairways to find the answers.

Dodging tourists and photographing elephant butts

Smithsonian Trek: Now with more elephant buttOne of the things you’re encouraged to do in each museum is snap a photo to share. Here’s mine from Natural History. I’m also not entirely proud of the way I behaved in the Wright Brothers exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, where I tried to move quickly through lolly gagging families to efficiently complete one challenge before moving on to the next.

I think the Trek has great applications. As a DC native, I’ve long seen school groups going on pen-and-paper scavenger hunts in the museums. This takes it digital and really makes it work with the technology that’s already in your pocket. I could totally picture going on this Trek with a bunch of kids (assuming a bunch of kids each have iPhones or Droids or whatever) and setting them loose to conduct the challenge. Or maybe as a group activity. DC is riddled with bright-eyed young things who love organized fun. And curmudgeons (such as myself) can also learn a thing or two. Even those (also such as myself) who used to work at Smithsonian Enterprises.

To fulfill the challenges, I actually looked around the Smithsonian Castle for the first time in years, saw the crypt where are kept the remains of James Smithson, the man who donated the bags of gold (literally) to found an “Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge” in a country he never visited during his life. This is just one of the amazing things to know about this amazing place.

Focus on experience, not interface.

As I said, I was pretty reluctant to try this thing out. I’m no luddite, but am congenitally cranky. It would be the easiest thing in the world to make the interface either too complicated or the activity dangerously dull. They’ve managed to make a really simple-to-use tool to guide users through what is at heart a much more complex activity. And keep the focus on the content, and the experience rather than on navigating the freaking phone. Strong work, guys.

But don’t take my word for it – feel free to download the free SCVNGR app yourself and head to the national mall. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water, it’s appalling out.

Plans for the future

I just spoke to the charming Beth Py-Lieberman, the editor of goSmithsonian who managed this whole shebang. She said that they’d love to take it further after this one-month trial is up. Maybe monthly treks, since the exhibits (particularly in the art museums) change so frequently.

“One of the takeaway lessons for me,” said Beth, “is that some of the visitors are going to have to be challenged more. We’re going to have to make them work hard for the answers, and get them into the back corners of the Smithsonian where the great stuff is.” I somehow failed to mention that I just couldn’t get one of the answers from the Hall of Oceans, so I may be in big trouble if they smart it up too much.

But it takes a lot of work to put one of these together. The one that’s live now? Beth says they started development during the DeathSnow and launched it during the heat wave, and that is something of a time commitment. It went through a lot of rounds of edits, a couple because the exhibits changed and threw the trek out of whack with reality, and one round Beth called “riddle-fying,” which is where they made lots of the questions rhyming and/or funny, which is pretty cute. No one asked me, but this all seems rather perfectly in line with the Institution’s stated goal of taking the whole of the Smithsonian digital, a project that is so exciting and of such appalling scope I can’t even get my brain around it. Maybe my pocketbook can.

Disclosure: I used to be an employee of  Smithsonian Enterprises. I have not been paid, compensated, bribed, cajoled or threatened to try this trek or write this post.

Read more about the goSmithsonian Trek from these fine bloggers:

Going places and completing challenges with the goSmithsonian Trek mobile app

Winning an iPad from the Smithsonian!

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