Move over, Pokémon Go


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

As you walk through the Origins Exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Mesa, you may want to know why Mars is red or whether the moon is actually round. The Dr. Discovery app being developed by a team of researchers at ASU can answer those questions and more.

Creation of this app is led by Brian Nelson, associate professor with Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; Judd Bowman, associate professor and Cassie Bowman, associate research professor, both in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Discovery is being designed for exhibits at the Arizona Science Center and the Arizona Museum of Natural History. It encourages museum visitors to ask questions and provides vetted, up-to-date responses from its database. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Dr. Discovery currently covers more than 12,000 questions on various topics from astronomy to geology.

“We are also developing a location-aware version,” Nelson said. “Bluetooth beacons will track visitor movement in the exhibits and as people go through the museum, the app will offer customized content about displays. This also allows us to provide data to museum staff on which exhibits tend to spark the most questions or where people spend the most time. Analyzing patterns of use will help with development of future exhibits.”

The app is still being tested and refined and is now available on iPad Minis to visitors who check them out at either museum most weeks on Thursdays through Saturdays. It can answer questions in both English and Spanish, and Nelson said there is a wide variety of users at each location. The long-term goal is to release the app on Apple and Android app stores, so any museum’s staff can download it, apply the framework to their exhibits and make the app available for use by their visitors.

Nelson is also researching whether embedding the question-asking functionality in a game format would increase the number of visitor questions and stimulate more interaction with exhibit content. He said the goal is to encourage museum patrons to ask questions, seek information and look for related information when they leave the museum.

“I visited science museums as a kid, and it would have been great to have something like this to answer our questions. There aren’t always volunteers or staff members available to help people or interpret some of the less interactive exhibits,” Nelson said. He also explained that, since it is impossible to include every possible inquiry and response in the database for each museum, the app includes a series of tiered responses that will respond with: “If you are asking this, the answer is this;” and a further refined potential response tells users that the answer to their question is unclear, but then shares a fun fact related to the topic of the question. “We developed that in response to user feedback,” Nelson said, “because we learned that people don’t like to just be told, ‘I don’t know’ when they pose a question.”

This grant includes an evaluation component focused on allowing the researchers to help museums collect and analyze anonymous data on users of the app. They can gather data on things like the top 10 questions asked on a specific day, most popular topics for questions and areas of confusion for visitors.

The research team is applying to NSF for additional funds to expand the app and conduct more research on use and applicability in various settings.