Hong: Smart phone apps and science – it’s chemistry

Scientists and gamers collaborated to put real chemicals back on the shelves.


AlbertHongBelieve it or not, science, particularly chemistry, was incredibly popular with American teenage boys around the 1950s, so much so that kids started wanting chemistry sets that contained real chemicals. Some even contained uranium and due to concerns about safety, chemistry sets fell as fast as they had risen during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

With laws like the Toxic Substances Control Act, chemsets these days are lacking the most important materials needed: actual chemicals. The Chemical Heritage Foundation, an organization trying to incorporate dialougue about science and technology in society, has brought the vintage chemset back with their new iPad game, ChemCrafter, developed by local design studio Bluecadet Interactive.

CHF, a local museum/library focused on the history of chemical sciences and more, held their second Game Night on First Friday of this month. The museum floor was open to visitors who wanted to see the history of chemistry and its applications today, including some actual vintage chemistry sets from companies like the Porter Chemical Company and A.C. Gilbert.

Amanda Shields, Curator of Fine Arts and Registrar at CHF, detailed the importance that these vintage chemsets had on influencing past and present chemists.

“We actually have quotes from famous chemists that were inspired by their experiences with chemsets to go into the field,” Shields said. “That was the heyday of the chemistry set.”

Shelley Wilks Geehr, director of the Roy T.  Eddleman Institute of CHF, discussed with Eddleman the possibility of bringing back the chemistry set, this time through an iPad app.

“The reason that chemistry sets aren’t fun anymore is because they don’t have chemicals, but in the digital environment, you can have all the chemicals you want because nobody gets hurt,” Geehr said. “You can’t poison the cat.”

However, with no technical expertise, Geehr had to look elsewhere for a group to be able to develop something for teenagers to enjoy. Luckily, Bluecadet was just the technical talent she was looking for, recently having worked on the interactive screens for the PMA’s Treasures from Korea exhibition and the redesigned website for Tyler School of Art.

Rebecca Smith, Kathryn Stracquatanio and Aaron Richardson were the core team behind ChemCrafter, which was developed in the Unity 3D engine.

In ChemCrafter, you have a chemistry lab laid out in front of you where you can experiment with water, acids and salts, all displayed in a ‘50s cartoon style with accompanying music. You create various chemical reactions through touchscreen tasks like mixing, shaking beakers and turning on burners.

It was a challenge for the team to find a balance between holding the players’ hands too much through overly-detailed experiments and giving too much freedom, which would likely cause players to only produce one successful reaction out of 100 different possibilites.

“There’s so much science and there are so many ways that we can play,” Stracquatanio, a user experience developer at Bluecadet, said. “How do we organize all this data and all these formulas into a gameplay that continually ramps up for the user?”

As the player advances through each experiment in three books, they are given new materials to play with and more energy earned after each successful experiment, netting the player special badges to show off to friends. There are even five hidden reactions to compel more experimentation.

In order to immerse itself with its clients and the world of chemistry, the team at Bluecadet did a lot of research on their own as well as got their hands on some vintage chemsets through eBay to stay ahead of the game in terms of development.

“We really pride ourselves on finding the best interactive experience for the client and really understanding what that is,” Smith said. “We really try to evolve with the audiences and the tech environment.”

You can download the game for free on the iPad now. For Android tablet users, talks are already in place for a compatible version, as well as a sequel in which three more books would be added.

Albert Hong can be reached at albert.hong@temple.edu

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