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Cellphone Adventure Brings San Diego History To Life

March 21, 2011 10:47 a.m.

In an effort to give visitors a new way to see the park, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative created the Giskin Anomaly - a cellphone adventure that's part scavenger hunt, part walking tour. We'll talk about the game, a new contest designed especially for Steampunk lovers, and other ways technology is being utilized in the park.

Related Story: Cellphone Adventure Brings San Diego History To Life


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A high-tech fantasy scavenger hunt invents a new way of seeing and hearing Balboa Park. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, it's like a video game in the real world. The Giskin anomaly survey project is an interactive cellphone adventure in the park that combines history with phantasmagorical technology. We'll hear from the creators and any operatives who'd like to call in with their findings. Plus we'll hear the bag pipes as perhaps you've heard them before, played by composer Matt welch. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS.

It's part science fiction, part scavenger hunt, and part history lesson. It's called the Giskin anomaly. Players in Balboa Park are searching for clues that will lead them to trapped thoughts from the past. All you need is a cellphone, some imagination, and you'll be seeing and hearing Balboa Park in a way you never have before. Joining me to further explain this inventive interactive game concept are my guests, rich Cherry is director of the Balboa Park online Collaborative. Rich, good morning.

CHERRY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Ken Eklund is game designer and writer of the Giskin anomaly. Good morning.

EKLUND: Hey, good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you taken part in the Giskin anomaly search in Balboa Park? Tell us what you found. If I have us a call here with your questions or your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. I'd like to start just basically asking you both, maybe rich first, tell us a little bit more about this game. What is the back story?

CHERRY: Well, the back story is, we were looking for a way to engage visitors in Balboa Park, in a new and creative way, teach them about the history of the part, introduce them to portions of the park that they may not have been to, all while having fun. And the genesis of this is that that's other games like this going on across the country, and museums are seeking new ways to engage the next generation of museum goers, and we thought we'd kind of play in that space of Balboa Park being the wonderful space that it is.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, Ken, since you're the writer of this game if you can tell us a little about what the Giskin anomaly is, in order, what is the word Giskin? Where does that come from?

EKLUND: Well, the word Giskin, it's someone's last name. Erhardt Giskin is the inventor of the anomaly detector, a device, fictional, I have to add here, a fictional device that enables us to pull thoughts out of the past.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so as I understand it, there are thoughts from the past trapped in Balboa Park.

EKLUND: That is independent our fiction. And the anomaly detector finds out where those thoughts are located. Where they were thought, and where they're kind of come to lodge, if you will, and then one of our characters, Pandora, has the detector, and finds where the thoughts are. And another of our characters, drake, comes along with a decoder, and decodes the thoughts so you did hear them and understand them.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Pandora, and Drake, they communicate through cell phone messages, they leave voice mail messages for each other.

EKLUND: Correct, those are not their actual names though those are their code names because they wish to keep their identities secret from each other. So their conversations are entirely carried out through voice mail.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we see pictures on the website of the Giskin anomaly of Pandora who is searching with this device to find where these thoughts might be in Balboa Park, but how do people in the park who want to follow this trail, how do they do that?

CHERRY: So basically we have windows tags in the number of institutions and museums, and it starts off at The Old Globe, you dial into the 800 number and dial in an extension, and you start to hear drake and Pandora talk about their work that they're doing, and it leads you on to the next clue, where you'll find another marker with another number to dial into.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'd be interested in hearing from people who have actually followed this trial, and find out what it's like. If you would like to give us a call, is number here is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Do you find that people grasp this concept pretty easily?

CHERRY: Well, it's a little hard to explain when you're not there and kind of doing it. Once you play one of the voice mail messages, it's pretty easy to kind of get the stream of how it's going. So yeah, we find it's a little challenging. It's also we've created kind of a little bit of subversiveness around how it's actually played out, so if you go and ask the people at the Old Globe and they're following the instructions, they'll kind of say, you know, we're really not supposed to talk about it, but if you just dial the number, it'll kind of introduce you. So it's supposed to be that they're working a little bit undercover at the park so they don't get in trouble.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I understand. And what -- is this based on another type of game? Or is this your creation entirely Ken?

EKLUND: It's pretty much my creation entirely. I mean we're all familiar, I think with the idea of an audio tour. This is an audio tour as kind of completely reimagined by a game designer. So I kind of hesitate to bring up the word audio tour. Because it is so different for those people who don't like audio tours. They should try this one.

CAVANAUGH: Because it comes with a back story involved, and also, if someone is able to follow the trail, what is it that they get at the end? Anything in particular?

CHERRY: Well, they've definitely learned something.


CHERRY: The story is kind of a dual narrative. So there's this fictional story that's happening in the present with these two characters actually running around doing the survey. But there's also a very distinct story line that is happening in this one, that is based in 1941 to 1944, when a lot of people don't know that the park was actually taken over by the military. And there's a whole backstory around that. And the two characters in the historical part of the narrative, a sailor, and his Japanese-American girlfriend. So there's a lot of history that actually comes cross that's related to the park, related to what the country was going through, in a time of war, related to how people were thinking about it, and what was going on. So it actually ties back to material that's actually historical, researched by Ken at the history center, you know, from the museums in the park where they have their little nuggets of stories of what happen indeed their institutions. All of the museums were actually taken over in a very short period of time to be hospital beds for the war effort.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Ken, how did you pick from this rich history of Balboa Park which thoughts might be trapped and which thoughts might be part of this Giskin anomaly?

EKLUND: It was -- it took a long time, I think of going through the history, and trying to think it in terms of boiling down these great movements that were happening in San Diego, and how to coalesce them into an actual individual character. But you know, it's just kind of part of the magic I think of creating games and creating narratives this way, where you begin to say, well, you need to have a sailor who interacts. And then you want to which had the Japanese American experience. There's another character who's Hispanic. You want to include that experience. You want to -- we have Rosario, the rivoter. You want to include that. So it really is kind of looking at not just Balboa Park history but San Diego history, and then wrapping it and coming up with individual characters, and not only that, but individual locations, you know, to imagine them in the park, what they remember seeing at that time, where they would be when they go to meet an officer, where that would have taken place. And then by that means bringing people to these interesting and kind of secret places in the park.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to in just a moment, we have a little bit of a clip of people who have left comments about following this audio, this cellphone trail basically through the park, and what they have had to say about it. Upon but I wanted to ask you before we hear this, just to make it as clear as we possibly can for people, when people stop and they find that marker, and nay call in, and they add that little extension, they will hear the thoughts that this character, Pandora, has actually discovered. And it -- it's a narrative, isn't it?

EKLUND: Yes, indeed. There's a continued -- there are kind of two interwoven stories, there's the story of Pandora and drake, and that's the sort of banter that you hear that kind of walks you through. Those are your guides, so to speak. But then they are discovering these thoughts throughout the war years left by not only the sailor and his girl but their friends, Rosario, and buddy, and other characters who come in. And it's the detector, of course is kind of following this trail. There are traces that lead from thought imprint to thought imprint in our fiction.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In your fiction.

EKLUND: And so -- but I want to say it's something that you can kind of just follow along for fun. But if you want to dig out's deeper story, the story goes deeper. It brings up these themes of sort of change in Balboa Park and in San Diego. So on the one happened, it's kind of a very quick, fun thing to find the next marker and get the directions, and move to the next marker, but then also the story has these kind of levels just going deeper and deeper about the meaning.

CHERRY: And I think one of the things is that drake and Pandora are actually learning the story along with you. So they're not sure how it's going to turn out. So it adds a little -- quite a bit of kind of mystery as you go. So it's very engaging of as much as I was responsible for kind of bringing this all together, the first time I got to play, it was just fun.


CHERRY: And I think you'll hear that in the clip of people leaving messages of people have been -- we have had more than 5000 phone calls into the system so far of the.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everyone know they can call us and 18888955727 and tell us about their Giskin anomaly tour of Balboa Park. But right now, let's hear an audio clip from people who have played the Giskin anomaly at Balboa park.

NEW SPEAKER: That was phenomenal of course that was great. Wasn't that fun? Yeah!

NEW SPEAKER: You're doing a fantastic job here of sharing the history of the part in a very creative and engaging way.

NEW SPEAKER: And I was curious, what is an anomaly?

NEW SPEAKER: And I really enjoyed learning about the stairs to nowhere and the fact that there used to be a honeymoon bridge. And I hope to hear a lot more episodes and learn more about the park. It'll keep us coming back for more.

NEW SPEAKER: We can't wait for more clues. I guess we'll have to drive back down. Thanks, bye. Bye!

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that's an audio clip of people who have played the Giskin anomaly in Balboa Park. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. If you played or if you want to know more, that's 1-888-895-5727. My guests, rich cherry, director of the Balboa Park on line collaborative, and Ken Eklund, game designer and writer of the Giskin anomaly. Now, I wonder, were there any difficulties, Ken, in actually bringing this project to fruition? Did you get any -- Ken or rich, I'm sorry, was there any problem? Did you get any resistance from people?

CHERRY: Well, first as you noted earlier on, it is a little hard to explain to everyone. So getting people to buy in -- and museums are kind of a little bit conservative, was a little difficult. And then the idea this we're actually gonna place markers out in the park, you know, people were concerned about what kind of a precedent that set, and what would that mean, and were people gonna be going into all the museums and asking questions about this, and how was that gonna work out. And who was -- you know. So it took us about a year from when we had the idea to actually, you know, rolling it out. But the rangers in the park have been extremely supportive, and they've worked with us to kind of mitigate any concerns that anybody else had. So it wasn't too bad. Not for this kind of thing, so this kind of a sea change in how people actually perceive the park.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we heard from the audio clip that people are discovering things about the park by playing this game. There used to be a honeymoon bridge, the stairs to nowhere were mentioned and so forth. So they are seeing and certainly hearing the park in a very different way. Rich, how will you know -- do you have any markers or anything about whether or not this is successful?

CHERRY: Well, just from a numbers standpoint, we have had more than 5000 people actually call into the system, and it is a little bit of a soft thing. But we actually do some surveys out in the park and see if people know about it. And we know that definitely the museums know about it. The people at the front desk have received some questions but they haven't been as onerous as they had feared. So we're very happy with it, and another things that is actually has done, case in point, I'm sitting here, is that it's shed a lot of light on the other stuff that's going on in the park that's not a big show at a museum.


CHERRY: And we think kind of from the feedback that we have had on line, and through the voice mail system that, you know, we're having an impact on cultural tourism, people talking about coming back down from son Jose to actually play again. That's a big deal.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is a big deal. Ken, if the game itself is a little difficult to describe, I would imagine that the contest that goes along with the game is even a little bit more challenging. Tell us about that.

EKLUND: Well, I think it's resonating very well within its particular community. But you're talking about the steam clunk challenge. And to go back for a moment, Erhard Giskin invented his detector, let's say in the year 1998, or so, and so he probably used parts that his father or an uncle left him so much we're back to essentially around the turn of the century, and so we've put on a contest essentially, saying would you please design what the Erhardt Giskin anomaly detector looks like in the steam punk style, which is kind of like the Jules Vern style of Victorian science.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Phantasmagorical.

EKLUND: Yes, indeed. So we're -- we are very much looking forward to finding out what it is that the anomaly detector looks like. We can only kind of begin to imagine what such a device may actually -- the actual appearance of it, the knobs, the tubes, the copper wiring. You know? The -- who knows?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And so have you gotten a lot of submissions yet?

CHERRY: I think it's a little early yet to actually build a physical object, I think people are kind of looking to experience more of the story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see, I see, I see. And how long will people have to experience this in Balboa Park?

CHERRY: At a minimum, it's gonna be up through June.


CHERRY: But one of our goals in this, and kind of the over all efforts of the Balboa Park on line collaborative, you know, we're gonna be here for a while. And we'd actually like to do additional episodes of this, that explore other parts of the history of the, pa. We're coming up on the 20 fellowship hundred year anniversary of the 1915 Panama American exposition. And we think it would be really great to have something like this every year that explores a different facet of San Diego's history. And hopefully in 2015, when all of that comes together as a big celebration, have a game or an episode that actually reflects what was going on in 1915.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I can see that. That would be -- fascinating. It's part of the Balboa Park on line collaborative to get more technology, to use technology to explore the park a little bit more. Do you have anything else going on? Any other kind of plans?

CHERRY: Just a few things.


CHERRY: You know, we've been -- this project was kind of envisioned by Peter Elsworth at the Liglar Bendle foundation back in 2008. And I was brought on in 2009. We are doing an enormous amount of work in the park. Right now, we have 12 employees, we've received $675,000 in federal funding to help with some of the work that we're doing, we've launched 16 websites for the museum on a common platform, including a recently redesigned Balboa which is really fantastic, if you haven't been to Balboa recently, you should check it out. We've actually digitized more than 150 objects from the various institutions, we have a rapid scanning lab, we're capturing photographs, we're doing film, we're doing videotape, we're doing audio, and putting that stuff on line. So for instance for the air and space museum, we put a hundred thousand images from their archives on flicker, and we've engaged since May of last year, more than two million visitors have kind of come to that thing which is actually four times when they normally get to their website. And so we're [CHECK] saying this is -- you know, this isn't an F16C, it's an F16D, or this is my friend bob, and he did this that and the other thing, besides what the information that the museum had. We're also doing training for the museums. We are working on all kinds of projects in the digital realm to kind of bring the museums together. So we thought ran fiber optic cable between all the museums, so we're connecting them like a real campus whereas each institution was kind of independent. And we provide technology services that help them with their basic technology servicer and desktop. [CHECK] digital asset management which helps them manage the thousands and millions of images that they have of the different things in their collection. As well as we've rolled out some public wireless so that people in the park can actually access that. And along with the cellphone adventure, we've also launched the Balboa Park ap, which actually gives you real time calendar data, that's actually fed from Balboa [CHECK] show up in a bunch of different places, and our goal in the near future is to actually start reaching out to newspaper sites and feeding them a stream of the hundreds of events that are going on in the park besides the Giskin anomaly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's really amazing the, the potential that's there, to utilize the park in so many different ways of I'm wonder, Ken, with this wonderful story, this history that you have uncovered through this story, through this Giskin anomaly, and there apparently will be more as time goes on, in Balboa Park, it seems like it's a wonderful way to let people know about other areas of history in San Diego. I'm thinking along perhaps the bay front and downtown San Diego. Is there any idea that perhaps this sort of interactive cellphone touring might -- might be something that you want to expand upon in other areas of the city?

EKLUND: Oh, absolutely. And you know, we've talked about maybe the Giskin anomaly detector going elsewhere in the country too, and kind of creating a body of linked knowledge, really, about this. But I think the thing which is really -- I mean there have been a number of cellphone type of tours. But I think the thing that I want to emphasize about this one, the difference is the mechanics of it are really, really very simple. It couldn't of sounds complex in this conversation that we have had. But really what BPOC has done, what we have worked to do is to make it so that technology works, so you don't even see Tit's just a very simple thin. Because you use your cellphone, essentially to make calls and listen to voice mails so that's very accessible, it's not a smart phone only thing, there's no GPS that you need to have or anything like that. You're just using a phone as a phone, and you're listening to phone messages. The challenge of it, if I -- maybe that word is too strong, but you're challenged really to believe in the story, and to kind of play along, and so it's like you said, at the very beginning of the show, it's just sort of -- you need to bring your imagination to it. And so I think that's really exciting, and that's a message which can any to a whole bunch of place, a bunch of places want people to imagine, you know, what would this place look like if we were to invest in it, if we were to invest our time in it, if we were to plant trees, if we were to make it into a park? Any number of messages not only oriented towards the past but oriented towards the future can be made kind of present for people. And I think that's tremendously exciting.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, it's my favorite kind of game. It sounds complicated bump it's not. So I want thank you gentlemen so much for talking about this. Rich cherry, director 'of the Balboa Park on line collaborative, thank you.

CHERRY: Thank you so much.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Ken Eklund, game designer and writer of the Giskin anomaly. Thank you.

EKLUND: Thanks Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Episodes of the Giskin anomaly can be played throughout 2011 in Balboa Park, the condition test to design the anomaly detector [CHECK] if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Rouge listening to These Days on KPBS.