Tom Vidnovic remembers it sounding pretty silly on a cold January day about three years ago, when a friend suggested they go traipsing through the woods to look for a plastic container someone had hidden. He probably thought it was even sillier when his friend insisted on bringing along a hand-held Global Positioning System navigational device to help in the search.
Vidnovic ended up finding the container before his friend did - "beginner's luck," he insists - and hasn't stopped looking for similar containers since; so far, he's found a little more than 3,100 of them. It's called geocaching, this high-tech scavenger hunt that is the basis for an exhibition opening Saturday at the Maryland Science Center. The thrill, he says, is in both the hunt and the technology that makes it possible.
"I love getting outside, being in the woods," says Vidnovic, president of the 3,000-member Maryland Geocaching Society. "And as a software engineer, I'm interested in all the technical stuff. This was like a natural marriage of the two."
The essence of geocaching is simplicity itself: Hide something and provide people with clues how to find it. Treasure hunters have been playing that game for centuries. Geocaching simply throws in the Internet (so clues are available to a broader audience) and GPS devices (for pinpoint tracking).
Visitors to the science center's "GPS Adventures" exhibit will enter a 4,500-square-foot maze. Using clues picked up as they go along, they'll navigate their way to hidden rooms containing information on geocaching and the GPS navigation technology that makes it possible. They'll also be able to continue their hunt for containers throughout the Inner Harbor.
Typically, geocachers hide their waterproof containers, or geocaches, somewhere on public property, often in parks or near historic sites.
They then take the exact coordinates from the GPS and post online (geocaching.com is the most popular site), where geocachers are free to jot them down and set off on the hunt. Normally, geocaches include a logbook for people to sign, maybe a stamp, so finders can prove to their friends they were there, and possibly a trinket to take along as a souvenir. If anything is taken, geocaching etiquette calls for the finder to leave behind something in trade. Sometimes, finding the geocache is an end unto itself; other times, clues inside will direct the finder to another location.
"It really is a modern-day treasure hunt," says Susan Kelly, a geocacher since 2006 and former president of the Maryland group. "It's a great way to ... explore, to check out historic sites and other places of interest. It's a hobby [with] something for everyone."
Not surprisingly, geocaching has raised some eyebrows. In this era of heightened national security awareness, having a bunch of strangers wandering around, waving high-tech devices and staring intently at their surroundings can make people nervous. More than a few bomb squads have been called out to check on strange containers found in public places.
But geocachers are unfazed, and as the science center exhibit attests, the fad has started going mainstream. This is the seventh city for "GPS Adventures," which was put together by Groundspeak, the organization responsible for geocaching.com, and Seattle-based Minotaur Mazes.
Kelly has even gotten her 3-year-old grandson, Logan, hooked. "We've been taking him geocaching," she says. "It's just like an Easter egg hunt every day."
If You Go
GPS Adventures" runs Saturday through April 18 at the Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St. Admission to the center is $11.95-$14.95; there is no extra charge for "GPS Adventures." Call 410-685-5225 or go to mdsci.org.
While You're There
If you go to the Maryland Science Center to check out "GPS Adventures," here are five things not to miss while you're there.
"Your Body: The Inside Story": Step inside a beating heart, listen to amplified body sounds (some of which sound pretty darn strange, if not borderline obscene), lie on a bed of nails. Ever wonder what it sounds like to digest a can of soda pop? This is the place to find out.
The Davis Planetarium: All the stars in the night sky put on one heck of a show, and here's where to find out just what you're looking at. There's a live look at the sun (the one that warms our planet, not the one you're reading), a preview of what's in store in the heavens on the night you're visiting and a tour of those heavens with Mister Rogers and friends.
The IMAX Theater: Sure, you can see IMAX films at other theaters, but not on a screen this huge. Fair warning: Don't sit in the front row, or your neck will never recover. A schedule of IMAX's greatest hits, including a visit to the Grand Canyon and an encounter with a pride of lions, runs through March 4. In the spring, Tim Burton's 3D "Alice In Wonderland" hits the screen.
Science Store: Pens that bubble as they write, dinosaur models, rocks from all over the world — you don't have to be a science-obsessed geek to appreciate the stuff at the museum gift shop.
The rest of the Inner Harbor: Step back a century or two below deck at the Constellation. Ride a water taxi over to Fells Point. Have lunch at Harborplace. Try on some new clothes at The Gallery.