Below is a repost of a guest article I wrote for the Royal Ontario Museum blog.
The desire to see the world through a lens has proven to be universal with cameraphones. It may be annoying the way people use them at concerts and public events, but that they can’t seem to help themselves or explain why they do it suggests there’s more going on than bad behavior. There’s an impulse with shared experiences to try to make them our own and save them for private viewing. The Scopify ROM app speaks to this wonderfully. It’s the first I’ve come across that tries to cultivate that impulse, using virtual microscopes and CT scanners, into a gaze of discovery.
Your phone can only take simulated X-rays with the app, but when you use it just inches away from the museum’s mummies the experience becomes ever so real. Holding the ethereal image of a skeleton in your hand makes feeling the presence of its wrapped body through the glass display ever stronger. That you can keep the images on your phone and continue to pan and zoom them at home is a smart move, turning what can feel like an intimate experience into a momento you can save. When you peek into death’s embrace without anyone around you realizing, you want to escape, carrying a secret home with you.
At launch Scopify ROM uses thirteen simulated scopes to tell fifteen different stories throughout the museum’s galleries, each one custom-made to be a wholly different approach. You’re given a periscope to reach up for a face-to-face with a ten metre-tall dinosaur, a microscope to see the captured grains of dust within a meteorite, and a UV light to reveal the fluorescent beauty of a diamond. This speaks to a scientific approach where every discovery is a fresh investigation and allows museum curators to show not just the results of their work, but a bit of how they get there too.
For the tech savvy it’s easy to see Scopify ROM’s underlying trick. Essentially you are scanning QR barcode stickers to unlock interactive content already loaded onto your phone, but even that deft sleight-of-hand is a fresh approach. While recording my video of Scopify ROM in action at the museum, I drew a crowd that were curious, they told me, by the way I was using QR codes with it. The technology arrived in Canada from Japan years ago on a wave of hype that fizzled when the fascinating codes turned out to be merely a trick to get people to load ads into their phones. The interest in QR codes has remained, but its potential in Canada never realized. Watching me use scan the stickers to launch Scopify’s virtual lenses, to actually do something, my onlookers told me, was something they’ve long waited to see.
I love educational apps, but most are little more than digital brochures. Many are beautiful, some are engaging, but they are interactive only in the most basic sense. Through their partnership with Kensington Communications, the ROM has developed an app that recognizes curiosity for being a relationship with the world around you. As science continues to grow with new imaging technologies like functional MRIs and thermal night vision, and as the mobile industry works closer to adding new sensors and real scanners to smartphones, there’s no limit to Scopify ROM’s potential.