By Eric Seiverling
When you think of Pittsburgh’s technological leaders and innovators, the city’s universities and hospitals come to mind.
But how about lions and tigers? Elephants and giraffes?
Thanks to its new cellphone app for Android and Apple users, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium in Highland Park is preparing to give its visitors an experience like no other zoo in the country.
The app, scheduled to launch this weekend, has been in development for nearly two years, and will feature a map that tracks visitors’ locations inside the zoo, interactive games, photo moments, species information, 360 degree videos inside animal cages, and information about plants found throughout the zoo. The app will also allow visitors to see daily activities at the zoo, purchase tickets online, and view behind the scenes conservation efforts on their home computers. The app will also be Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliant.
The app was funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation and developed by Schell Games, a Pittsburgh-based full-service game development company specializing in interactive and virtual reality experiences.
“The Mellon Foundation actually approached us about doing something like this to make a person’s visit to the zoo super modern,” said Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium Communications Manager Laura Gething. “We really want to appeal to this generation. With this prototype, we feel we’ve created the first of its kind. No other zoo has this kind of app. This was a major undertaking, and to see it come to fruition is a proud moment.”
Developing the app involved zoo employees and Schell Games developers collaborating, including one-on-one meetings and researching articles about wildlife.
“Our team definitely has an increased knowledge about the zoo’s animals,” joked Sabrina Culyba, principal designer and project director at Schell Games, whose client list includes Sea World, Disney, and Google. “This project was very collaborative, but it was great to work with someone in our own backyard and having so much face time with them.”
True to the zoo’s mission, the app will also allow the zoo to be more environmentally friendly. The app’s tracking system can be used in place of paper maps for the 77-acre park, and the species information in the app can replace physical signage that can block people’s views of the exhibits.
“Information about the animal species changes so quickly,” Gething said. “This will allow us to give information to visitors without any wait time.”
Both Gething and Culyba are quick to point out that the app does not replace the experience of seeing the animals up-close and personal.
“We care about the experience and we don’t want technology to be distracting,” Culyba said. “We don’t want to replace the live animals. We want people’s time on their phones to be as short as possible.”
“We don’t want people buried in their phones,” Gething said. “It’s tough to balance something like this. We want to give it value but we don’t want it be overwhelming.”
Upon entering the zoo, visitors can download the app at a free wi-fi hotspot provided by the zoo.
The app is already available in the Google Play Store, and is currently in its soft launch. The zoo plans to give visitors test phones to see how the app functions. The families will then be debriefed about their experiences with the app.
“Play testing is important because we don’t want to wait until it’s finished before we learn about any changes that need to be made,” Culyba said. “It’s important to test before you think you’re ready.”
And while the app has yet to be officially launched, Gething said the zoo is already planning for future updates and changes to the app.
“We currently have 300 fish species indexed in the app, but our aquarium evolves every few weeks,” Gething said. “Our plan is to stay on top of what goes into our tanks.”
But for now, the zoo is proud of its efforts to provide an experience that will make visitors go ape.
“We are one big family and when push came to shove, others stepped up,” said the zoo’s manager of media and public relations Tracy Gray. “It was a lot of work, but they knew it was something unique. Plus, the animals are their babies.”