Augmented reality and puzzle rooms aren’t necessarily the first things that come to mind when thinking about art museums, but a new program being designed for the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) aims to change that. Thanks to the work of University of Minnesota technology architect Colin McFadden and digital preservation specialist Samantha Porter, with the help of a $50,000 3M Art and Technology Award, Mia will soon become one giant puzzle experience that visitors can play for free.

The program, Riddle Mia This, will work as an “application that uses augmented reality to turn the museum into a puzzle room,” McFadden explained. Effectively, the app will “create a problem solving experience using both the physical space of the museum and also the content of the museum.”

As founding members of the Advanced Imaging Services for Objects and Spaces (AISOS) group at the University of Minnesota, McFadden and Porter have plenty of experience with AR, VR, and “advanced imaging technologies.” With a background such as this, combined with a newfound enthusiasm for the continually expansive puzzle room scene popping up around the Twin Cities, the inspiration for Riddle Mia This began to fall into place.

“Quite honestly it’s because we’ve both been doing a lot of puzzle rooms independently and really liked the experience,” McFadden said. That, combined with their day-to-day work at the University of Minnesota, allowed for everything to come together. “It sort of just clicked.”

But while the ideas were coming together, the two realized they’d have to seek additional support for some of the technical design and implementation. “We are academic technologists, we are puzzle room enthusiasts, but we are not game designers inherently,” Porter explained.

With that, they then reached out to GLITCH, a community-driven arts and education center for emerging game makers. According to Porter, “[GLITCH] is an arts nonprofit that’s interested in exactly this type of project. They support new designers, and also increase diversity and diverse viewpoints in terms of what games are—so we’re consulting with them throughout the process. Through them, we are going to hire two student fellows to do a lot of the real development for the app over the summer.”

With the continued development of Riddle Mia This bringing together local community partners and cultivating excitement for current and future museum-goers, it has also had a positive effect on the individuals who work at the museum, as well. According to Douglas Hegley, Mia’s chief digital officer, Riddle Mia This and previous technologies funded through the 3M Art and Technology Award, help the museum staff look at their space through a different lens. “It’s important that we learn from them about how to really think differently about a museum—what it is and what takes place here, what do people love doing, and what will your friends be excited about doing?” Hegley explained.

With an anticipated release date of September of this year, Riddle Mia This is bound to attract new faces to the museum—McFadden and Porter both hope the app will resonate particularly with younger audiences. However, it will undoubtedly also give regular and experienced museum-goers a new outlook with which to view the pieces they’ve come to recognize and love. Not only will this present an opportunity to look at various works of art in a new way, it also has the potential to craft a new layer of social interaction and discussion surrounding these pieces while adding an entirely new dynamic to the museum itself. That, and it should be a lot of fun, too.

Applications like this could be very interesting for the future of virtual museums.  Such applications, combined with the Storytelling (the way visitors learn interesting information about the specific event), Presence (the feeling that the visitors have, which makes them feel like they really participate in the specific event/experience) and Gamification (elements that motivate the users to keep using the application) fields, which are studied in the Thematic Area 4 of the ViMM Project, could create an interesting and innovative virtual experience. Finally, such applications are expected to attract even more people to museums, which (depending on the content of the museum exhibitions) can be very helpful to the preservation of cultural heritage.