institution: Royal Ontario Museum
category: Exhibition Media or Experience
A BALANCING ACT
In early 2014, nine massive blue whales (about three percent of the total Northwest Atlantic population of this endangered species) were spotted stranded in thick ice off the coast of Nova Scotia—all nine were dead. Blue whales typically sink when they die, so when researchers at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum learned that three of the carcasses had washed ashore on the coast of Newfoundland, they knew they had been presented a rare scientific opportunity.
Choosing a 75-foot-long, 90-metric-ton mature female they named Blue, Museum officials rolled up their sleeves and embarked on a three-year journey to make sure this tragic loss of life wasn’t in vain. ROM’s team extracted Blue’s skeleton, preserved her 400-pound heart, and harvested enough of her DNA to embark on fully sequencing the blue whale genome—a scientific first.
All this work culminated in the Royal Ontario Museum’s newest exhibit Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story, which features Blue as its crown jewel. To help tell the story of this incredible species, the Museum partnered with Bluecadet to create a pair of interactives that strike a balance between learning and play.
LICENSE TO KRILL
On its surface, License to Krill is a fun, retro-inspired video game in which players compete for the highest score, but the creation of this simple three-button interactive was anything but. Every step of process was iterative and exhaustive, whether the teams were crafting the rules of the game to reflect the real challenges that blue whales face in the world’s oceans (surfacing for air, it turns out, can be a deadly experience) or ensuring that the elaborate lunging act the whales employ when feeding on krill was biomechanically accurate. In the end, the partnership had created a competitive experience that remained true to the science and even converted the skeptics into high score hawks. And if that isn’t proof enough of the project’s success, License to Krill may just be the world’s only competitive plankton-eating experience.
Blue whales don’t have the sense of smell, they don’t see in color, and among their closest land mammal relatives is the hippo. We know these things because of research on their genome—the genetic instructions encoded in a living organism’s DNA that, when unlocked, can be a powerful tool for understanding the natural world. The Bluecadet team partnered with the ROM’s curators and researchers to build Code Blue, a multi-screen interactive that marries the rigorous science produced by the Museum’s blue whale research team and an elegant user experience by incorporating intuitive interactions like a simple slider or a dial. The result is a powerful argument for initiatives like ROM’s groundbreaking effort to sequence Blue’s entire genome but doesn’t require a PhD to understand.
Whether we were building blue whales out of cardboard, or coding MVP software sketches, or experimenting with technical hardware, these deliberative design and development practices allowed us to keep all members of both teams focused on the key goals and techniques that would make these lessons fun to learn and might one day make a discernable difference in the plight of one of the planet’s most graceful lifeforms. Thank you, Blue.