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New Mia app blends art, culture, cloak, dagger

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Colin McFadden holds a smartphone with the first message in the game.
Riddle Mia This developer Colin McFadden holds a smartphone with the first message in the game. McFadden and his colleague Samantha Thi Porter developed the app out of their interest in escape rooms where participants have to solve puzzles to get out.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

If you sometimes find a visit to an art museum perplexing, just wait: The Minneapolis Institute of Art is about to become a giant puzzle.

A new smartphone app, available starting Friday, makes a game out of exploring the artworks. The app, titled Riddle Mia This, begins with an unexpected message.

"So you are a professor, an expert, who has been brought in to help the museum with this investigation. And you start out with a message from the director of the museum, telling you a bit about what to expect," said Colin McFadden, one of the app's developers.

He launched the app on his phone, and a message from director Kaywin Feldman herself appeared on the screen.

"We are glad you made it!" the message begins. "We believe the museum has been infiltrated by members of the secret society Nula Vectes. As you know, they believe technology has severed our connection with reality and made us lose our appreciation for things like art."

Feldman's message warns that the secret society is close to completing a disruption device which will render all electronic devices inoperable. She needs our help! But to get started we'll need our credentials, waiting for us at the welcome desk near the front door.

"Thank you!" the message concludes. "You are our best chance at stopping them before it's too late!"

It's all very ominous.

The game's other developer is Sam Porter. She and McFadden work at the same University of Minnesota lab. One day last October they heard about the 3M Art and Technology Award, which offers a $25,000 prize and an additional $25,000 in development money for projects using technology and design to enrich arts and culture. They immediately thought about something they had been doing for fun: escape rooms.

"Where you are put in a room with a bunch of friends or strangers and you have to solve puzzles, and you have an hour to escape or solve a crime," she said. "And the idea was, what if we could do that using technology in an existing space that has such cool stuff, like the Mia?"

According to McFadden, it helped that their lab works with 3D technology and virtual reality.

"That enabled us to do the puzzle-room experience in the museum where we are not actually, like, building new rooms in the museum, and hiding physical things that you have to move paintings out of the way," he said. "We are using technology to actually hide stuff right in plain sight."

Meaghan Tongan, Samantha Thi Porter, and Colin McFadden.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts digital program manager Meaghan Tongan, University of Minnesota digital preservation specialist Samantha Thi Porter, and U of M technology architect Colin McFadden at the entrance to the museum's Asian galleries.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

As we pick up our credentials card, we notice that it doesn't come with instructions.

"This is where the puzzle activity starts," McFadden said. "Because the game isn't telling you what to do at this point. You've gone and gotten this badge and it's sort up to you to figure out what to do with this thing you have been handed and how to start playing the game."

At first glance, the credential seems to only bear a name. But the pattern along the bottom, we realize, is a bar code — and the app is connected to the phone's camera.

A couple of clicks and we receive another message from Kaywin Feldman, sending us upstairs into the first of the Asian art galleries. At the massive wooden Chinese gate that serves as the entrance, we need to find some specific Chinese characters. Then it's on to the next clue.

The developers say it take an hour or so to work through the game. Maybe less if you're a puzzle expert or working with a team.

McFadden said the developers recommend the app for ages 12 and above because of the reading involved. But he added that it's a great family activity, and that younger players will enjoy the way the augmented reality reveals hidden treasures.

Meaghan Tongan, the institute's digital program manager, said she sees the app as a great way of drawing new audiences. As she played, she found that she was discovering new things in the collection.

"I'll admit I am not someone who reads labels, and this leads you to read the labels in an entirely new fashion," she said.

Like admission into the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the app is free. You can even borrow a phone if you don't have one. The app is also open-source, meaning it can be shared easily with other museums.

Tongan said developers want to add new puzzles, in time, and encourage new exploration.