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The next time you visit Pacific Science Center in Seattle, you’ll be able to explore it with a scientist in your pocket.

PacSci is partnering with Artifact Technologies for the national pilot of a museum-oriented mobile adventure game called Tomorrow Corps. The free mobile app, designed for kids and teens, uses Artifact’s Bluetooth beacon technology to guide visitors through a series of scientific challenges overseen by seven virtual “mentors” — actual scientists from history.

Pacific Science Center promotes the new app onsite. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

“The clues and challenge activities were written specifically for (and with) Pacific Science Center, but they came from a template we’ve created that can be set up at any science center, museum or botanical garden,” explained Crystal Clarity, vice president of marketing and business development at Seattle-based Artifact. “We’re in the process of building a catalog of virtual mentors so future venues can select the mentor team that best fits their location.”

For the pilot, which is expected to run through the end of the year, the introductory version of the app provides brief background that the game will “help develop your skills as an explorer with the Tomorrow Corps.” At each location throughout PacSci — found by following hints from each scientific mentor, in sequence — challenges are activated and, if successfully completed, give the player a digital card.

Finish the challenges from all seven mentors and there is a physical reward: a set of scientist trading cards from the PacSci gift store.

A basket of PacSci scientist trading cards. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

And yes, the people on the trading cards are also real scientists — from PacSci. “These scientists are indeed all involved with us and spend time with our guests on the floor on a regular basis,” said Pacific Science Center Chief Financial Officer Chris Wheaton. ” We’re eager to see a Tomorrow Corps graduate ask one of our local scientists to autograph her card!”

The intent of the game is to take the exploration off-site as well. Clarity said the pilot version hints at a unique element. “Within a couple days of a guests’ visit to Pacific Science Center, the mobile game notifies them of a series of new challenges,” she added. “The first two can be completed in the guests’ own home and the last challenge directs them to visit the Mercer Slough in Bellevue.”

This application of digital game-based learning — already a hot topic in K-12 education — is something Clarity says is now getting a lot of attention from museums. Wheaton agreed this is a direction that makes sense for the science center for other reasons, too. “We can update the technology faster than we can a fixed exhibit, so we can and will provide new experiences more often,” he said.

Going digital with dinosaurs

So what’s the experience like?

Real scientists are digital mentors in the app.

This non-kid, non-teen downloaded the Tomorrow Corps app from Google Play (there’s also a version in the Apple iOS App Store). Not surprisingly, all I could do at home was read the brief intro (“Our Mission”) because I was in the wrong location for a game that depends on Bluetooth beacons.

But once I arrived at PacSci, clues popped up. “What are you lollygagging for?” the app nudged. “We have ancient civilizations to explore! Come to where the oldest creatures at the Science Center are residing, and we’ll begin our expedition!”

Resisting the temptation to simply find a mirror and call it a day, I headed to the dinosaur exhibit. Spoiler alert: I guessed right. Archaeologist Gertrude Bell (helpfully noted as having lived from 1868-1926) appeared as an illustrated image in the app, and challenged me to put three dinosaur silhouettes in the right order of ancientness.

And I choked.

Not only could I not figure out the correct sequence after running back and forth between signs with dino info, I couldn’t even correctly identify which dinosaur model in the exhibit matched the silhouette in the app. I was ultimately reduced to trying random combinations of the three images until one worked.

A perplexing challenge dinosaur on exhibit. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

Gertrude congratulated me. I felt guilty.

“Great work!” she said, and then suggested more. “See if you can look around and find what Stegosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, and Apatosaurus mean.”

I demurred, instead knocking out her next two challenges and got my first digital card. That then unlocked the second mentor: Carolus Linnaeus, known for his study of plants and animals. I navigated to his undisclosed location (which will stay that way for the sake of other players), finished his single naturalist challenge — which had a Puget Sound angle — and then took a break.

After each challenge, the app explained to me why my answer was right and gave me something else to consider or do. But clearly, there was a reason the app was in pilot phase.

The tomorrow of Tomorrow Corps

I explained my dinosaur despair, perhaps due to poor cave painting reproductions, to Artifact. “We are redesigning many of the screens, including the dinosaur cards,” Clarity sympathized. “We’re also building a new tutorial.” That kind of feedback is the point of a pilot, Wheaton noted. “We are tracking downloads, completion and engagement. We also seek feedback at the end of the game via an online survey,” he said.

The author’s only cards.

Post-pilot, both PacSci and Artifact have bigger expectations for Tomorrow Corps.

Wheaton said it’s envisioned there will always be a free version of the game, but one option being considered is charging a small fee for access to a premium version where additional experiences can be unlocked.

“We anticipate changing the content often and integrating with our rapidly changing floor experiences, such as our themed Curiosity Days,” Wheaton said. “There are also natural links to wayfinding at the Science Center, allowing guests to use it as a map as well as a game.”

Artifact’s aspirations go beyond the current app’s capabilities, and beyond PacSci. “We are building a list of new features to incorporate, including a digital currency/rewards system, multi-track options, and non-linear paths,” Clarity said. And then? “We look forward to bringing it to museums, science centers and botanic gardens across the US and beyond. Down the road, we see many other applications for the game.”

Not the least of which might be as an informal science refresher course for a Jurassic generation of explorers.

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