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May 31, 2007

High-tech hide & seek

Thousands of people crisscross Pitt’s campuses each day. Faculty, staff, students and even geocachers — modern-day treasure hunters who look for hidden caches with the help of global positioning system (GPS) units.

In a hobby that has caught on around the globe, geocachers hide caches in an interesting spot, then post the coordinates online (most often at with clues for finders to follow. Cache seekers enter the coordinates on a GPS then head out in search of adventure. After the hunt, they post their comments on the quest.

Two geocaches are hidden on the Pittsburgh campus and many more are stashed nearby. Pitt’s regional campuses haven’t been bypassed in the craze either. Caches have been stashed near the walking trail that borders Pitt-Bradford; others border the Pitt-Titusville campus in Titusville’s Burgess Park. Two more invite geocachers to explore some of the wilder portions of the Pitt-Johnstown campus, and a registered cache is within a mile of Pitt-Greensburg.

The caches can take many forms. Traditional caches consist of a waterproof container — think Tupperware — that holds inexpensive trinkets and a logbook for finders to sign. Finders typically take something from the cache and leave something in return, carefully replacing the cache exactly where they found it.

Other caches are “virtual” — perhaps leading just to an interesting place the cache owner wanted others to see. Micro- or nanocaches are too tiny to contain big loot, but ideal for urban environments where a larger container would be too conspicuous.

Some, including one that uses Pitt’s Hillman Library webcam, ask that searchers (with a wireless computer or the help of a collaborator elsewhere) snap a photo of themselves at a designated spot to show they’ve been there.

Geocaching got its start in 2000 when the U.S. government allowed public access to the most accurate signals from its satellite-based navigation system. To mark the change, an Oregon man hid a bucket filled with loot — including books, software and a slingshot — and posted its coordinates in an online forum, asking searchers to take something from the cache and leave something in exchange.

Before long, others followed suit and soon Groundspeak Inc., was formed to tend to the web site. The site lists caches throughout the world and boasts more than 250,000 registered members.

Maria Harrington, a PhD candidate in Pitt’s School of Information Sciences, teaches classes in human-computer interaction and is researching how various elements of user interface affect learning. Among the variables she’s studying is whether a quest or treasure hunt format affects learning.

She said geocaching is predated by treasure-hunt hobbies known as letterboxing and questing. Letterboxers seek hidden caches that contain a logbook and ink stamp. Participants carry their own stamp and logbook, leaving their mark in the cache log and marking their own book with the stamp they find in the cache. Questing leads searchers from point to point, often offering interesting clues or facts about places along the way to the final destination.

Where questing is less public — typically spread to a select group by word-of-mouth — GPS-enabled searching has opened treasure-hunting hobbies such as geocaching to a wide audience. “The technology has changed it to make it truly international,” Harrington said.

Geocaching is simple, inexpensive — and addictive, said recent enthusiast Stephen Conwell, a tax specialist in Pitt’s Office of Budget and Controller.

All that’s required is a GPS unit (a basic one costs about $70), some inexpensive trinkets such as fast-food meal toys, pens, stickers or key chains to trade, and a yen for adventure.

Noting that there are dozens of caches in the Oakland area, Conwell said he geocaches on his lunch hour. “It’s a great way to get exercise,” he said.

Conwell and his 9-year-old daughter Amanda sometimes geocache after he picks her up at Falk Laboratory School. “It’s enjoyable to watch her excitement over it,” he said. Other times the whole family joins in.

Conwell said he finds the hobby a way to bond with his daughter. The two hunt together, then collaborate on their comments, which Amanda posts as a way to practice her typing skills.

Since mid-April, Conwell and his family have logged more than 30 finds, including some containing foreign coins.

Their favorite cache has been one hidden near the Ross Township community center. The family traded some toy animals and a keychain and took a “travel bug” — a trackable item that moves from cache to cache. Its location is logged using a code that appears on a special dog tag that can be bought online.

Some travel bugs have missions — to go to all 50 states, perhaps, or to travel to a certain spot then return home. Already, Amanda is plotting to send one on a round trip to the White House.

In addition to the bonding that goes on in forays with his daughter, Conwell said children make good cover. Passersby might think it odd to see an adult nosing around shrubbery or crawling on all fours, but with a child in tow, it’s not quite as conspicuous, he said. Being observed by “muggles” — the Harry Potter term is used to describe non-geocachers — is to be avoided so as not to have a cache moved or plundered by the uninitiated.

Caches mustn’t be buried, and they must be in publicly accessible places. Still, finding a cache involves skill. GPS units will home in to within a few yards of a spot, but won’t locate it with pinpoint accuracy. That’s when keen eyes (and hints that cache hiders post online) come in handy. The key is “getting acclimated to something that looks just a little bit different,” Conwell said.

Caches are rated for their difficulty in location and terrain so searchers can choose hunts appropriate for their skills. Still, there are dangers: Poison ivy can be a threat and terrain can be a challenge. “Sometimes you have to go through underbrush and jaggers,” Conwell said.

While the Conwells are contemplating hiding their own cache, Pitt senior Jonathan Meck already has done his part to show treasure hunters some interesting spots in Pittsburgh.

Meck, who is majoring in media and professional communication, began geocaching last winter. While he likes being outdoors, “I like it more with a purpose,” he said, explaining his growing involvement in geocaching. “It encourages me when there’s something waiting for me.”

Meck has logged several caches in Frick Park and Schenley Park. For loot, he prefers to leave small toys such as finger traps that he finds at the Shadyside Variety Store.

Hiding a cache is fun, too, and simple: He decides on a spot, then writes clues that will help searchers find it. When the cache is in place, he takes a reading on his GPS, then posts the information online. He’s hidden a multi-part nanocache on the Pitt campus in tiny magnetic containers not much larger than a pencil eraser. Too small to contain items for exchange, Meck’s yield tiny slips of paper the size of a fortune cookie message with coordinates for the next cache. The final, larger cache contains a logbook to sign.

While traditional caches are best suited for natural settings such as parks, inconspicuous containers are just right for urban environments.

Meck said he finds urban caching more exciting because the caches are hidden in places that people unknowingly walk past every day.

Meck’s caches sometimes are hidden in plain view. Some have been in bus shelters; another was outside Heinz Chapel, although he’s since moved that cache.

A good urban cache has to be well hidden and not likely to be stumbled upon by muggles, Meck said. He already has lost two nanocaches — perhaps washed away by rain, carelessly replaced in the wrong spot by a geocacher or carried off by muggles. When a cache is missing, a seeker who came up empty-handed typically tips off the owner, who can then go investigate the trouble.

Hiding, he says, is easier than seeking. With a hiding place in mind, it’s easier to place the tiny nanocache without attracting attention. Plus, he hides all his campus caches at night to avoid detection. “I feel like a secret agent or something,” he said.

Meck said he likes to hide caches “in places I’d like to see” in order to share interesting spots with others. In addition to caches he’s placed in Shadyside and Schenley Park, he created a four-part “Pitt Campus Cache” that leads to landmarks on campus and at Schenley Plaza. “I wanted Pitt to have the publicity,” he said, adding that he also wanted to draw people to the plaza “because it’s amazing.”

Geocachers are a polite community, he said, adding that part of the fun is reading their comments. Meck has found many visitors to his cache took time out to seek it while in town for a Pitt campus visit or tour.

Like many geocachers, Meck scouts out-of-town locations before traveling. His favorite: a cache in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that consisted of a box hidden on a high ledge in a pedestrian tunnel. “People walk through there every day,” he said, pleased to have found something hidden in such a well-traveled spot. “For me it’s thinking about how many people have walked past this and never known it’s there,” he said.

Meck’s geocaching is going international this summer. He’s taking loot from his Schenley Park cache with him on his 10-week radio station internship in New Zealand, with plans to scatter it among some of the island’s 3,000 caches. He also plans to release two travel bugs on a mission to follow him home to Pennsylvania.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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