The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) doesn’t just display hundreds of famous works of art for the public to enjoy for free – now, with a little help from technology, it will be transformed into an interactive puzzle room.

Colin McFadden and Samantha Porter, University of Minnesota faculty that work in a lab sponsored by Liberal Arts Technologies & Innovation Services (LATIS), got the idea for their app “Riddle Mia This” from a Mia announcement. Someone had recently been to a puzzle room and pieced together that it could be paired with the art museum.

University of Minnesota faculty member Samantha Porter helped develop Riddle Mia This.

“What if we made a puzzle room app?” was McFadden and Porter’s first thought, both having experience with “augmented reality stuff,” McFadden said.

Puzzle rooms, escape rooms and riddle rooms have grown in popularity over the past several years. McFadden and Porter felt that they could build on that trend by incorporating technology. The purpose of a traditional puzzle or escape room is to create a space that poses mental or physical challenges for visitors. Porter said that he team wanted to bring that concept into Mia’s existing space.

The first short pitch for “Riddle Mia This” was in the fall, and after an additional round of refocusing and working with Mia, McFadden and Porter presented their final pitch to 3M and other potential sponsors in early January of this year.

Colin McFadden, University of Minnesota Faculty member, helped develop Riddle Mia This.

“After we found out we had won [the 3M Art and Technology Award], that started the clock on the project,” McFadden said. The completely free app will hopefully debut in September.

McFadden and Porter will be hiring undergraduate interns this summer to help develop the app itself, as well as partnering with a nonprofit called Glitch. Glitch started as an undergraduate group at the U, according to Porter, and focus on increasing diversity into gaming and the design process.

The app will use smartphone message and camera capabilities to create an “alternate universe narrative” where users travel around the museum solving mysteries, McFadden said.

The app’s augmented reality features will include X-ray and black light modes to see hidden images behind paintings. “We’re also hoping to work with the museum to incorporate physical features,” McFadden added, offering examples like locked doors and secret passwords.

While 20 to 30 year-olds are the most popular demographic for escape and puzzle rooms, Porter found that all ages were interested in the idea behind “Riddle Mia This.”

“We want people to learn [while using the app], but we don’t want that to be the main focus,” Porter said. McFadden agreed: “One of our goals is not having it be just a scavenger hunt.”

The team wants users to solve riddles and unpack things while using the app, so the hard part will be the “fun puzzle making” as opposed to the technology, Porter said.

“I’m really interested in how the same technology can be targeted at specific groups,” McFadden said. “My dream is for this app to have a version for high school art history students, so that they’d have to know certain things to play.”

The goal for both McFadden and Porter is to improve the technology for educational purposes – the reason that they, as faculty members of the College of Liberal arts and LATIS, are putting time into this is because they believe that augmented reality could be really powerful for undergraduate education, McFadden said.

Funding for the development of “Riddle Mia This” is coming primarily from the $50,000 in prize money they received as winners of the 3M Art and Technology Award, McFadden said. Due to the fact that McFadden and Porter are University employees, most of this money will go to Glitch to fund consulting and to pay undergraduate interns.