NORFOLK, Va. - Going nowhere fast in rush-hour traffic downtown, quickly losing hope that I'd reach yoga class on time, I was reminded by my iPhone that there was a little patch of peacefulness nearby.
I pulled off the main road and soon was sitting in a garden by a riverfront pagoda, a place I'd visited occasionally but hadn't thought about recently, until I started playing SCVNGR.
To play SCVNGR (pronounced "scavenger"; www.scvngr.com), you download a free app for your iPhone or Android phone, then go to places and complete challenges to earn points and unlock virtual rewards, such as badges, and real-world rewards, such as discounts at restaurants. Don't have an iPhone or Android phone? You can play via text message.
Norfolk tourism officials worked with SCVNGR's developer to offer four interactive treks in one of the first partnerships nationwide between a convention and visitors bureau and a geo-gaming platform. A walking tour, a driving tour, a tour focusing on the Ghent neighborhood, and a pub crawl lead players to museums, historic churches, shops, and the city's "restaurant row" on Granby Street, among other attractions.
"We wanted to provide an opportunity for visitors - and residents, too - to learn more about Norfolk in a fun and mobile way," says Erin Filarecki, a spokeswoman for VisitNorfolk. "This is taking touring to the next level - trekking through a city, making it more fun, adventurous, and fresh."
SCVNGR also offers Find Your Philly with five treks - Art, Culture, Science, History, and the Convention Center - developed by local organizations, including the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Independence Visitor Center Corp. Users can earn rewards toward discounts and free products by visiting places in and around the city and completing challenges.
There's also a SCVNGR trek for the Franklin Institute.
Chicago's tourism bureau recently launched several treks, including ones that let you explore the city's musical roots and spots that President Obama and his family visit when they are in town.
Other tourism apps may provide self-guided walking tours, but SCVNGR offers a unique level of customization, says Seth Priebatsch, the company's chief ninja, or CEO (the gaming company likes to use fun titles).
SCVNGR has about 1,000 clients who pay to build interactive tours on the game, including the U.S. Navy, Sony Pictures, and Princeton University, says Priebatsch, who founded SCVNGR while a freshman at Princeton two years ago and now runs a company in Cambridge, Mass., with about 40 employees.
"Our core goal is to build a game layer on top of the world, one massive game layer that everyone can play wherever they go and everyone can build," Priebatsch says.
The apps launched in May, and the number of SCVNGR players is expected to hit a million by the end of the year or early next year.
SCVNGR is location-based, like traditional scavenger hunts. But instead of spending hours focused on a hunt, you play SCVNGR in short bursts, at your own pace as you go about your day.
The app is easy to set up and use. When you start the app, it displays treks as well as individual places nearby that have their own challenges. You also can search for places.
The treks include simple challenges, such as getting a photo of yourself standing at attention next to a statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur or answering questions, such as what is the special of the day at the Five Points Farm Market.
At the pagoda, a gift to Norfolk and Virginia from Taiwan, the game challenged me to meditate for 10 minutes. I was pretty successful until startled by a bumblebee flying by my head.
You can use the app to share your explorations on Facebook and Twitter, but you don't have to be that social if you don't want to.
The only problem I encountered - and it was minor - was with the social check-in feature, to check in with others at the same spot by bumping smart phones. My husband and I had little luck getting that to work with our iPhones.
Priebatsch said a recent update to the app included tweaking of the social check-in function.
"It's a pretty cutting-edge piece of technology. We're still working out some of the kinks."
Continental app. If I had to compare Continental Airlines' new app to air travel, I'd say it rates a business-class seat. It's better than economy, but not snazzy enough for first class.
The free app for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch does the basics just fine. It easily lets you book a flight, get flight-status updates, view your account, check in, and get your boarding pass.
The app allows users to manage their frequent-flier accounts, check the hours of the President's Club, play Sudoku, and even follow Continental's tweets. It also provides DirecTV listings, a currency converter, and airport maps.
But of all the features, the only one that functions without the Internet - in other words, the only one that will work during the flight, as Continental does not yet offer in-flight wireless service - is Sudoku. That means travelers can't check the TV listings while actually watching TV, nor can they plan ahead for a tight connection because the airport map isn't accessible when the device is in airplane mode.
In addition, the airport maps aren't searchable. When you double-click an image, the app zooms in to show the shops, restaurants, gates, airlines, and lounges - but not restrooms - and you do the scrolling.
In contrast, Point Inside, which provides the maps for Continental, makes a free app that is truly searchable. The "Point Inside Maps for Airports and Malls" includes all the information provided by the Continental maps in an interactive format. In addition, it provides a single button for locating the nearest ATMs, restrooms, and restaurants. And these maps download into an iPhone, so they can be used during a flight.
"Our app was designed to give Continental customers easy access to their Continental travel information," says Jared Miller, Continental's managing director of self-service and emerging technology.
The other features were included as a "convenience," he says. "The current maps provide utility in helping travelers navigate the airport."
The app, like the business-class section of the plane, will still get me to my destination in relative comfort, but it left me wishing for a little more. - Karen Schwartz
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