Exploring the senses at the Ontario Science Centre

A friend from university was in Toronto for the week, so that was a good excuse to go to the Ontario Science Centre. The current special exhibition is about Mars exploration and worth a visit, but the highlight of my trip was a challenge posed in the Weston Family Innovation Centre.

The science centre assistant explained that we were going to be blindfolded, and we had to find our way from a random point in the room back to the stairs where we began. Before the blindfolds were put on, we had five minutes to familiarize ourselves with the layout of the room and the different sounds and textures. (No smells to work with, and I certainly wasn’t going to taste anything!)

J- and I went first. We were blindfolded and taken somewhere, led around a few times, and sent on our way. Gino accompanied me and W- accompanied J- – not to help, but just to make sure that we didn’t bonk our heads on something. When it came to finding our way back, we had to work by ourselves.

I heard the faint tones of a piano keyboard to front-left, and I knew that was the oil-bubble exhibit. (I’d played with it a number of times.) I also knew that the exhibit was close to the center of the room, so walking away from it would get me to some kind of wall. On the way to the wall, I felt the tall plastic poles of the craft center in which I’d once spent an hour or two creating random things using felt and fuzzy pipe cleaners. I knew where I was. Finding the wall was then easy, and I knew which way to go. After that, it was just a matter of tracing the wall (which took me into a little-used maintenance area, apparently) and getting back to the stairs.

As I stepped on the red floor that marked the goal area, the science centre assistant noted my time and said he was blown away. It turned out that the science centre had been running the challenge for five months, and at 4 minutes and 29 seconds, I was just a few seconds behind the first-place record established by a guy who was actually blind and who had done the challenge twice. I laughed and told him that my background in computer science meant that I’d written my share of maze-solving problems. Also, I’d been into assistive technologies in my senior year, so navigating blind didn’t scare me–I knew totally awesome people who could do it. =)

I didn’t mind navigating without sight, building the map in my head. In fact, I enjoyed listening to the different sounds and figuring out where they were, guessing my location and confirming or adjusting my mental model with each thing I ran across. The experience reminded me of the Tactile Dome in San Francisco’s Exploratorium (another wonderful science center!), where I had a lot of fun figuring out what objects were embedded into the walls.

If I were to do it again (which is unlikely as this was the last day of the challenge), I would use just one long cardboard tube instead of trying to navigate with two, as I liked having a free hand to feel the textures and make sure I was on the right track. I would sweep the tube in front of me like the way that blind people use their cane to quickly check their path, and I would walk faster because I could trust it to tell me where the wall was.

That’s what it felt like, and I encourage you to give it a try if you encounter this challenge yourself. =) (Maybe your local science centre might find it interesting!)