Q & A With Lowell Robinson Regarding The Exploratorium’s New ‘Sound Uncovered’ iPad App

Q & A With Lowell Robinson Regarding The Exploratorium’s New ‘Sound Uncovered’ iPad App

835017_512x512Today The Exploratorium, the world-renowned ‘hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception’ in San Francisco, launched their second iOS app, Sound Uncovered.

The app is designed to take users, both young and old, on an exploration of auditory illusions and acoustic phenomena’. In order to gain some insight into the thought process behind the creation of this free iPad app, I spoke with the Director of Online Engagement for The Exploratorium, Lowell Robinson. He was gracious enough to answer all of my questions and I’ve posted his answers are posted below. It is a rather interesting read (if I do say so myself).

LowellbioSm-150x150Hello Director Robinson, thank your for taking the time to answer a few questions about the Exploratorium’s new app, Sound Uncovered.

You’re most welcome. Great to connect with you!

In October 2011, you released an app called Color Uncovered, which was an engaging exploration of color-related topics and featured a number of experiments that captivated readers (young and old). With your new app Sound Uncovered, you plan to take “users on a journey through auditory illusions and acoustic experiments”. Can you tell our readers a little more about the app and what you mean by this?

Sound is a subject the Exploratorium has explored for a long time, like color. Some of our earliest physical exhibits were about auditory perception, and we’ve done websites about listening and music. Sound is a very rich area for us because it connects to a lot of other subjects (physics, engineering, perception, psychology, music…) and there are compelling phenomena that work well in a digital environment and for providing that direct, visceral experience.

It’s not just about sound but about how we perceive and process sound. We don’t just hear with our ears, but with all of our senses, and the brain is actively working to make sense of the world. What’s great about illusions, whether they’re optical illusions or auditory ones, is that they’re fun but they also show us how things work behind the scenes, so to speak. It’s a way to get at scientific phenomena that take place all around us in our everyday lives.

How did you decided on the app’s twelve experiences? Were they based on material from exhibits currently at the Exploratorium or is it entirely new content created specifically for Sound Uncovered? If any were adapted, were there any particular challenges in taking tangible things from the physical world and recreating them for a digital platform?

reverseSome of Sound Uncovered’s activities are based on classic exhibits at the Exploratorium and some are new experiences that we created just for the tablet format. It might help to start with a bit of information about the Exploratorium.

A good way to think of the Exploratorium is a mix between a laboratory and museum. We’re constantly experimenting and exploring, and we invite those who visit us to do the same. On staff, we have scientists, artists, educators, writers, coders, welders, the list goes on. At the beginning of any project, we start with a cross-disciplinary team with different strengths and talents, so ideas can come from anywhere. Regardless of whether it’s a physical exhibit or a digital experience, we all build off the work of others and try to bring something new to whatever we create. The added value that digital provides is that you can create a layered, media-rich explanation or description behind the primary experience. And, of course, you can take it anywhere you want, share it with other people and hopefully discover new things each time you use the app.

One of the central goals in all of our work is to provide space for an authentic experience that directly involves you. When creating digital exhibits about illusions, sonic or visual, we are always careful to make sure you understand that the illusions are real, not some kind of trick on our part, and we give you ways to test them on your own. That is part of what we believe makes a powerful experience and helps people be more active learners.

As some of our readers may already know, the San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum is currently closed until April while it is being moved to a new larger home at Pier 15. When you set out to develop Sound Uncovered, how did you envision it? Is it meant to supplement the real-world experience of visiting the museum or do you see it as a way to give people unable to visit the actual museum (due to geographical constraints, etc.) a taste of what they are missing?

highnoteSound Uncovered is meant to be a stand-alone experience, not directly connected to our physical space. We actually have a long history of creating media, websites and online activities for remote audiences. Our online work reaches more than 12 million people per year, and now with apps and social media, we are branching out even further. We want to promote the idea that learning can happen anywhere. Sound Uncovered was designed to be engaging, playful, surprising – our hope is that this will spark authentic moments of discovery, whether that’s triggered by the app itself, a conversation that might follow or a connection to something else in the world that you find later on. But if it makes you homesick for the Exploratorium, please come visit us at the museum! We would love to see you anytime after April 17, 2013.

You were quoted as saying, “What’s great about Sound Uncovered is that people can directly manipulate, examine and play with sound – not just passively consume a textbook description. The app becomes a portable laboratory, empowering learners, parents, teachers, and anyone who is curious.” I know I’m excited to try out the app for myself as well as with my young daughters. Was the app designed with a particular age group in mind, or will both parents and kids get something out of the experience?

Our hope is that everyone can get something out the app. All of the experiences in Sound Uncovered contain multiple layers, and there’s a wide variety of content, so it’s really designed for people of all ages. If a user is able to read, that may help him or her enjoy the app independently, but as a parent-and-child experience, it really works for younger kids as well. Just like color, sound is an enormous subject and we hope to continue adding to it over time.

In my 5 year-old’s Kindergarten class, a rolling iPad cart has replaced the traditional computer lab. I understand that your first app, Color Uncovered is actively being used in a number classrooms, during the development of Sound Uncovered, did you seek out feedback from members of the teaching community to see how they might incorporate Sound Uncovered into their curriculum as well?

We’re lucky to have a lot of amazing educators on the Exploratorium’s staff, working in all facets of learning development. Collaborating with teachers and scientists on staff is definitely part of our development process. I think Sound Uncovered would be a great thing for children and teachers to explore together in a classroom, but this app doesn’t strive to match a specific curriculum. It’s about curiosity, engagement and active exploration. Our hope with any user is to help him or her become a more critical thinker, and we believe developing these skills is what helps learning take place.

It’s been over a year since Color Uncovered was released, how much of that time was spent on the development of Sound Uncovered? Were there lessons you learned when you developed the first App that you were able to apply to the second?

car-engineWe were very surprised by how well received Color Uncovered was. One of the most encouraging signs for us was that the main complaint was that the app was too short! People were hungry for more. We spent part of this last year making updates to Color Uncovered (we added five new pieces to the original dozen) as well as building Sound Uncovered. All of our work is developed entirely in-house, so it’s a unique creative process.

With our new app, we tried to keep the same element of surprise and discovery, but because sound can be kind of abstract, we added more layers of supporting content to help people understand what’s going on and connect it to other things they might encounter around them. We also wanted to make use of the microphone and let people record their own voice, test out their hearing and do their own experiments.

I know that it seems silly to ask seeing as Sound Uncovered just launched, but now that you’ve covered both sight and sound, what’s next for the Exploratorium apps are there additional titles and/or content planned for the series? Have you figured out how to get taste, touch or smell from an iPad?

I think a scratch-and-sniff iPad app would be fantastic; would you like to work on that with us? At the Exploratorium, we’re always thinking about what’s next. Moving to our new space at Pier 15 is very exciting for us, not only because it’s a new location downtown right over the Bay, but as an institution, we are diving into new areas of interest that we’ve never done before as well as expanding on ones we love. We definitely plan on continuing to add to Color Uncovered and Sound Uncovered, but beyond that, I think I’ll leave that as a surprise.

Download both of The Exploratorium’s free apps




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