Jack Carney, Aim Hometown Innovations Contributor
To the naked eye Mulberry Fields Park in Zionsville looks as it usually does – an open grass-field bordered by a skate park, basketball court and splash pad. But look a little closer and you can see a fantasy land full of digital kittens, robots and dinosaurs.
The Zionsville Parks and Recreation Department has partnered with Geo AR Games to create this virtual-reality world, transforming Mulberry Fields into a digital playground that can be explored through smart phones and tablets. The park is one of the first in the nation and the very first in the state of Indiana to implement this technology that was developed by the New Zealand-based company.
From August through October, visitors will be able to download the free Magical Park app onto personal mobile devices and then play augmented reality games within the park’s confines. The games are motion activated and allow users to interact with computer-generated objects that appear on screen as they move through the park. Mindy Murdock, Zionsville’s Director of Recreation Services, explained that she and her staff were looking for ways to engage tween-aged kids – kids approximately between the ages of 9 and 12 – when she discovered Magical Park and Geo AR Games back in 2020.
In Murdock’s view, part of the challenge with this age group and young teenagers is luring them away from their phones and devices. Fortunately, Magical Park offers a clever marriage of screen time and physical activity.
“We can’t reverse technology or progress, nor should we try,” Murdock said. “What we can do is create healthy relationships with technology by using the screen to get kids outdoors and moving around. Using augmented reality is also an opportunity to reach older kids in our community and motivate them to get out and use our parks.”
Murdock came up with the idea to bring this technology to Mulberry Fields when she stumbled upon a news article out of Florida. A park in Coral Gables had become the first in the U.S. to implement a digital playground through the Magical Park app. Murdock was intrigued and called up the app’s creators to begin the process of bringing the magic to Zionsville.
“It’s unique and something different,” Murdock said. “So I was like, ‘hey, let’s give it a shot and see what we can pull in and see what people might think about it.’”
The Zionsville Parks and Recreation Department has contracted the app for three months this fall, but Murdock says her team will study the usage data and conduct a community-wide survey after the trial period ends. Depending on the results, Zionsville may bring the experience back full time in 2022.
The app itself offers users a choice between six different interactive games, each with a unique mission. These tasks include: herding kittens, collecting dinosaur eggs, freeing trapped aliens from cages, putting robots back together and cleaning up your choice of a park or an ocean.
According to the Geo AR Games website, on average kids run between 500 meters and two kilometers (over 1.2 miles) while playing one of the games.
Murdock noted that the games may remind users of the popular Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game that became wildly popular for a time in 2016. The main difference is that the Magical Park app games are ‘geofenced.’ In other words, the games are contained to the park’s parameters as opposed to Pokémon Go which existed in a seemingly endless playing field.
“There’s a safety feature there, so that parents don’t need to worry about the kids just wandering into the parking lot or over to the road,” Murdock said. “The game itself will tell them they need to stop and turn back around if they want to keep playing. It’s nice to have that feature.”
The app is free to download and anyone is welcome to stop by Zionsville and try it out any time between now and the end of October.
“It’s exciting to be one of the only parks in the state to offer this app and to be on the cutting edge of technology, play and outdoor recreation,” said Mayor Emily Styron. “This is a great opportunity for outdoor play in a fun, safe environment and gets kids to explore our parks in a unique way.”