Monday, August 19, 2013

Exploring the World of Geocaching

A couple weeks ago, I decided to start geocaching. I have always liked hiking and exploring plus I figured geocaching was an interesting way to engage with my research interest on locative technology and people's playful interactions with place via their mobile devices.

Briefly, geocaching is activity wherein average people across the world hide a box (cache) which contains a log book and possibly trinkets. The cache hider then enters the geocache's GPS coordinates and description  into an online database. The people like me try to find them the caches on their GPS device or smartphone using the location coordinates. Then the finder goes online to log the find and share their story.

There are various versions of geocaching and sites, but the most commonly used one is Geocaching,com. The site also has best introduction on the topic. 

I've now found four geocaches in three different cities and used both my mobile device and two different GPS devices (Garmin and TomTom) so I feel enough of a non-muggle (yes, they use that term as much as I hate it) to comment on it.

Applications and devices
I am in limited budget, so when I noticed that the official geocache mobile was $10, I was nonplussed. $10 is one of the most expensive mobile apps that I have encountered and it is a lot to fork out for someone just trying out geocaching.

So I found a free open-source app for Androids- c:geo. For novices, c:geo is not the simplest app to use but once one gets more familiar it becomes easier to use. Now, I like using it so much, I can't see why anyone would pay $10 for the "official" app.

The activity
I like going for walks and hiking and don't need much motivation beyond some pleasant scenery to get me going (although a good pastry at the end certainly doesn't hurt). But I thought geocaching might add a dimension of fun to a hike, engage my daughter, and possibly learn something about a location. I also thought it might make going for a walk in a dull or nondescript location more enjoyable.

So in most of these regards, geocaching is a hit with my me and my family. If you are going to go on a hike anyway, it definitely adds to one's enjoyment and is not a distraction.

My daughter enjoys the hunt for the cache when we are close, but mostly she's in it for the treasure contained within. From my small sample, this has been a bit of a bust as half our geocaches we found were empty or had essentially garbage (business cards, broken stuff, etc.).

I really like the "Earth Cache" type that I did as I learned a lot about the difference between geodes, vugs, and other cavities.  But to log it the cache, one needs to have a portable black light. I hate it when people set up such ridiculous and frankly elitist requirements to any activity (as really who owns a portable black light). So if this is any reflection of the requirements allowed for Earth Caches then this isn't really for me.

I've heard that people are competitive about the amount of geocaches they find. This element of the activity doesn't appeal to me. But I do like the ability to log one's finds and have that as a personal travel log.

It is rewarding to find a cache after a difficult search, all the while not trying to clue the muggles into what you are doing.  On our last geocache (in Peterborough, Ontario), the cops pulled up beside us and waited for us to leave. I'm not sure what trouble they thought a couple with a young kid were going to get into.

I didn't really like using a GPS device as it provides so little information beyond the location. I want to know about the context of the cache, other people's comments, and ideally background information about the area of the cache's location. So I'm not going to buy a GPS handheld device.

My smartphone app does offer this background info nicely. But with roaming costs being what they are (exorbitant), I doubt I'll do it much beyond the major metropolitan areas where my coverage is included in my existing package. For this reason, I'd like to see more geocaches in my city than is currently available.

My daughter and I enjoyed geocaching and will likely do it again (during the few months of agreeable weather we have in Ontario, of course). And as I mentioned, if I'm going on a hike/walk anyway, I may check it out to see if there is a geocache en route.

Overall, I would like more playful ways to find the cache then just plugging in coordinates and then go. I'd also like to see more information about the cache's context than seems commonly provided.

I'm new to this, however, and maybe there are solutions to my problems or workarounds? If so, please let me know.

Related activities
In researching this article. I uncovered many other activities that use locative technology to encourage physical explorations whether finding objects, (via QR codes), solving clues or puzzles to find a location, or various other games fostering playful interactions with the world.  I've compiled a list of location-based games on Delicious, but here's a good article highlighting ten GPS-related games.

These sound appealing to me and would likely be a hit with my kid, so I want to try some of these out. There are so many though. Anyone have any recommendations?