A Riddle of Reality

Anthropology grad student’s puzzle-room app transforms museum
Samantha Porter, a person with light brown skin and black hair wearing a buttoned shirt and a jacket
Photo by Phuong Tran, a CLAgency student

Cryptic messages, hidden clues, and secret societies may sound like fodder for an Indiana Jones adventure. But archaeology graduate student Samantha Porter is giving patrons of the Minneapolis Institute of Art an adventure right there in the museum— through their smartphone.

With her colleague, Technology Architect Colin McFadden, Porter launched “Riddle Mia This,” a free puzzle-room app that allows users to play out a game-like scenario while exploring the art museum.

From 3D Scanning to Virtual Reality

When Porter first started working at Liberal Arts Technologies & Innovation Services (LATIS) in the U of M’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) this August, she mainly helped with 3D scanning, whether it be artifacts for researchers to share with colleagues or to help digitize content such as artifacts for students to access online. One of LATIS’s missions is to develop technology to enhance learning for CLA students. 

A huge benefit of 3D scanning data is that you can take it home with you and analyze it, Porter says. “You can also make copies and make further measurements that you may not have thought of at the time you found the artifact,” she says. Being able to gather additional data after initial finding is especially helpful when researchers want to collaborate on what they’ve found, but some artifacts are located on one continent and some on the other.

Before Porter worked in LATIS, she developed less expensive ways to perform these scans, while keeping the scientific integrity. Eventually, the initiative got a grant to start the Advanced Imaging Service for Objects and Spaces, to make advanced imaging technologies available to anyone at the U.

“The idea for this space is that it’s applicable to all sorts of disciplines,” Porter says. “Just come in with an idea; you don’t need to know how to do it and we might not necessarily know either, but we’re going to figure it out together.”

The idea for Riddle Mia

This originated from an email about the 3M Art and Technology Award. The award recognizes artistry and innovation in the field of technology. “Puzzle rooms are really cool but really expensive,” Porter says of initial ideas she and McFadden had based on current trends. McFadden and Porter decided to design an app that used augmented reality, among other things, to “gamify” the museum. Their proposal won the $50,000 award toward the development of the project.

In terms of how her background in anthropology tied in, Porter mentioned that studying anthropology is studying how people interact with each other and their environment. “By understanding what drives human behavior, we can better design experiences for human actors,” she said. “In other words, not only can technology (like apps) be used to help teach anthropology. Anthropology can also be used to create better apps.”

The App Itself

Using smartphone messaging and camera capabilities, the app creates an “alternate universe” narrative for users to follow along throughout the museum. Augmented reality features include X-ray and black light modes so that hidden images can be found behind paintings. “We wanted people to be able to just show up with their phones and have a fun time with their friends,” Porter says. The museum itself is also free, and hopefully Riddle Mia This will bring in a new audience, she adds.

The app officially launched on September 14, and since then there have been over 1600 downloads, Porter says. Over 600 phones have completed the whole game, and it received a lot of attention from Twin Cities media outlets. “It’s been pretty crazy,” Porter says, adding that there have already been reviews made on Apple’s App Store.

“We’ve seen all sorts of people [using it], whether it be families or people going alone or on dates,” she says, which was the whole idea. Challenges over the course of approximately seven months of development mainly revolved around the physical space of Mia, Porter says. Dealing with logistics across the whole museum, such as construction and navigating the large area, were dealt with by using architectural landmarks.

The next steps for the app include releasing the code and releasing documentation on how the project worked, so others can design their own experiences. “We want to give this project to the world, and are hoping people will be inspired [to create their own versions],” Porter says. She explains that the team decided to share the technology as part of the University’s public outreach.

“We want to do our part to help other folks and advance this technology in general,” she says.

Technology and Anthropology, Hand in Hand

As an undergraduate intern at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Porter realized the big role museums play in connecting the public to anthropological information. “It’s becoming a trend to use technology to connect people to museums in a new way,” Porter says, explaining that interacting with physical objects adds an element of empathy one doesn’t get from looking at artifacts behind glass.

“It gets you to think about things from a different perspective,” she says. People seem surprised when she tells them that anthropology does really involve new technology, but Porter has seen people studying anthropology do anything from data visualization to scientific mapping.

“It’s not just going into the desert with a paintbrush; it actually involves a lot of interesting tech."

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLA.

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