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Munzee – Geocaching with QR Codes

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The evolution of the geolocation stashing game continues as technology advances. First, there was letterboxing. Created in Scotland in the 1850’s, it involved hiding a box somewhere then providing written clues on how/where to find it. It was 150 years before the next generation appeared – geocaching in 2000 – enabled by the Internet and GPS. Both of these activities involved finding a container and signing something in it. Now even that simple task has been rendered obsolete by techology.

Say “hello” to Munzee. It’s the latest entry into the geo-game realm – and it is very cool.

In letterboxing, you need a compass. In geocaching, you need a GPS device. In Munzee, you need a smart phone with the Munzee app and a QR code reader.

A Munzee

This is a Munzee. It’s a registered QR code on a sticker, a magnet or a tag. When you find it, you scan the code with your smart phone, digitally signing and recording the find via the Internet. How cool is that? You can make your own through the web site or you can buy them from Munzee, all ready to go. We ordered 50 stickers. It cost $17.50. No sign or guardrail is safe now.

The word Munzee comes from the German word “mûnze” (moonˊ-za) which means coin. Originally conceived using coins for game pieces, it evolved away from that but the name stuck.

Munzee has only been around since 2011. It’s the brain child of a group of hobby geeks in Dallas, TX. They originally thought of the idea in 2008 but QR technology wasn’t ready for prime time yet. Now apparently, it is.

Munzee on a sign

Munzee sticker on the back of a sign.

In many respects, Munzee is like geocaching (although none of the developers had ever geocached before). It uses GPS to place and track down the munzees. The entire gaming environment is run by a central web entity – munzee (dot) com. It does, however, have its own language. Munzees aren’t hidden – they’re deployed. Munzees aren’t found – they’re captured. People who play the game are called munzers. Munzers find deployed pieces on the Munzee web site, then track them down with the Munzee app on their smart phone. The capture is done through the app, which opens the QR reader for you.

Munzee capture

Natasha captures a munzee.

Although the parallels are obvious, so are the differences. Munzees can be hidden anywhere, including places where a geocache isn’t practical or allowed, like National Parks. That said, there are already hybrid geocaches that have a Munzee code inside it, so you can get both.

Munzee in a geocache

Munzee in a geocache.

The entire Munzee environment was designed with an eye towards competition and rewards. Munzers rack up points. Families, teams and corporations have had Munzee competitions. Businesses have seized on Munzees as a way to market themselves. Unlike a geocache, a Munzee can easily be put inside a business, which will bring munzers inside. Restaurants put them on menus. Boutiques put them on shelves. Some businesses offer discounts or deals for getting Munzee points at their establishment. Munzee has opened up a whole new world of possibilities previously unheard of in geo-games. Or, you can just go out and have a good time with it, which is what we do.

Consistent Internet connectivity is crucial to munzers. The game is played in real time. That’s why you won’t find any back country munzees – yet.

Munzee on a fence.

Coming soon to a fence post near you?

Developers are working feverishly to create an offline environment for Munzee. The results are encouraging. It is now possible to do a search for Munzees in an area, download them as GPX files and load them into a GPS device as geocaches. Then you disappear into the dead zone, locate them and capture the QR code. The find is queued up and sent when the Internet re-appears. This new capability will enable the deployment of Munzees anywhere. Here’s a link to a web-based search page that will do all that for you. It’s not yet a capability in the munzee (dot) com site. I expect that will change soon.

Also coming online are geocaching apps that will integrate munzees. CacheSense already does it. It’s the one smart phone app you can use to search for, locate and record both geocaches and munzees on the fly. Soon they’ll all be doing it or they won’t be in business anymore. Here’s a separate link to CacheSense for iPhone.

One other thing – munzee is free. You don’t pay anything for membership or the app.

So that’s Munzee in a nutshell. We just stumbled on to it five days ago. They were popping up on our CacheSense screen and we had no idea what they were. As soon as we tried it, we were hooked. It’s a natural extension of geocaching with some new twists. Now we do both. Give it a try. We think you’ll like it.

Munz on … Boris and Natasha

Intro to Geocaching – Software

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Natasha is off course.

Natasha is always pushing the envelope. Important safety tip: Don’t geocache where deadly force is authorized.

Hi again,

This is the fifth of five installments on Intro to Geocaching.

Here are the other four.

GPS 101

Geocaching 101

Geocaching with Smart Phones

Geocaching with Handheld GPS

If you use a smart phone for your geocaching, then most of what follows doesn’t apply.  With Internet connectivity and a geocaching app, you’re all set.

However, if you start to use a handheld GPS device for geocaching, you will need a software package on the computer which will find, sort , organize and download geocaches from geocaching (dot) com to your GPS device.  That’s the subject of this page.

Geocache files have a file extension of  (dot) GPX and are usually referred to as “GPX files”.  They are text files which contain all the information about a geocache.  They are quite small – only a couple of kilobytes each.  If you are dealing with a few single geocaches, you can work with them individually.  But if you are looking at a couple of dozen or more, that can get to be overwhelming.  Enter the software. These programs can take any number of GPX files, combine them into one big GPX file which can then be downloaded on to your GPS device, which is connected to the computer by a USB cable.

The software also has various sorting tools and other menu items to combine multiple GPX files into a big  GPX file according to difficulty, location, cache size and other parameters.

Remember, these programs are loaded on your computer – not the GPS device.  Your GPS device will be connected to the computer with its own USB cable and will show up in My Computer (or whatever it’s called) as a removable disk.  Once you have your geocaching files sorted, filtered and downloaded, you simply drag and drop them on to the appropriate folder according to the directions that come with your device.  When everything is loaded on the device, you safely disconnect it (Right Click > Eject in Windows) and you’re ready.  If the last couple of  paragraphs make absolutely no sense to you, it’s time to discover your inner geek.  That’s part of the game.

IMHO, there are only two Windows geocaching programs worth considering – ExpertGPS and GSAK (Geocaching Swiss Army Knife) – and yes, that’s its real name.  Both run on Windows platforms only – no Mac or Linux, although you can run it on a Mac if you’re running Boot Camp or Parallels.  You could also run it in Linux on a virtual windows machine.

For Macs, the favorite is probably MacCaching.  For Linux, check out Open Cache Manager.

All these programs will very capably store, filter and manipulate your geocaching data.  For what it’s worth, I use ExpertGPS.  I think the interface is more informative and user friendly.  That said, GSAK has been around a long time and has a very strong following. It has all kinds of macros you can run which enable it to do things that ExpertGPS will not – but after eight years and 3,000 caches, I haven’t found the need for them yet.  If you’re just starting out, I think you’ll be happier with ExpertGPS.  The only way to know is to try them out.  You’ll want to decide on one or the other because they both cost money after the trial period.  During the trial period, you’ll get nag screens and believe me, they are well named.

Yours truly in the Black Hills.

Our favorite geocaching place. Yours truly in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The other geeky thing you’ll have to master are pocket queries on geocaching (dot) com.  To use these, you have to be a premium member.  A pocket query allows you to go into an area and create a custom search for geocaches that fit a specific set of parameters.  For instance, if Natasha and I are going to power cache, we’ll select an area to go to, then build a search for traditional caches with a two star max difficulty and no micros.  That way, we minimize our time on the hunt and maximize our finds.  (When power caching, we usually set a five minute time limit.  If we don’t find it, we move on.)

Pocket queries can also be done along a route. The limit is 500 miles or 500 geocaches per route query.  You select the start and end point, how far off the road you want to go, size, difficulty and other parameters, then create the query.

Completed pocket queries are downloaded to the computer in ZIP file format and have to be “unzipped” to get the files.  In Windows, simply right click on the ZIP file and select “extract all” from the menu. Your Super GPX file will show up. Then drag and drop it on to your connected device. The GPS device will take that single file and break it up into individual caches, which will show up in your cache listings and searches.

Here’s a link that explains in detail how to create a pocket query.  You can also just Google it and lots of help will show up, which is why I’m not covering it here in any detail.   However, I can offer some tips to make your searches and queries more effective.

When you start your query, uncheck the block to run it.  Then go through the settings and start tweaking your parameters.  When you’re done, click on the SUBMIT button.  The query will come back as a sample which you can view on a map or in a list but it hasn’t actually run yet.  That’s important because the web site only allows  five queries a day.  However, these practice ones don’t count.  Check out the results.  Need more?  Less? Closer?  Farther?  Go in and adjust accordingly.  All you have to do is check or uncheck boxes or type in a couple of numbers.  When you have it just the way you want it, then go to the top, check the run box and you’re in business.

Another possible hiccup is the name of the file that is downloaded.  By default, the search engine gives it a random alpha-numeric filename.  You can check a block to add the query name to it and you should always do that.  Remember to give your query a name that you’ll recognize, like BlackHills2013.

Alien geocachers

Geocaching is a great way to meet other like-minded people from different places, as Natasha demonstrates here.

Of course, you don’t have to create a pocket query.  You can also go into geocaching (dot) com, open a map of your target area and start looking.  Just mouse over the cache symbols for information. If you like the looks of it, download it.  Once you’ve got enough on the computer, you can compact them with your program or send them directly to your connected GPS device.  As you get into the game, you’ll find there are lots of options and ways to do things.

There are lots of other software programs out there that will allow you to manipulate your caches, data and finds in more ways than you can imagine.  There’s one in particular called CacheStats.  If you’re one of those geofanatics that revels in the numbers, this will give you what you want.

There are also lots of online sites that can enhance your searches and provide all kinds of help and ideas.  Just start Googling it and you’ll see what I mean.  I really like Google Earth.  There is geocaching KML file that runs on Google Earth and shows you the geocaches in the current view.  It’s not super-accurate but if you’re just scouting out an area, it’s a great tool. If you see something you like, you can connect to geocaching (dot) com directly from Earth.  You can even run a split screen if you want.   Download the KML here.

As I said earlier, if you are geocaching with a smart phone and an app, you don’t need to do deal with software or do pocket queries – as long as you have Internet connectivity.  For instance, when we roll into an Interstate rest area or a gas station or restaurant, we get out the Droids, fire up CacheSense and see if there’s any caches about that we can pick up real quick.  The Interstate corridors have all got Internet/cell phone connectivity and we haven’t found a rest area yet that doesn’t have at least one geocache. It’s a great way to stretch the legs.

On the other hand, we use pocket queries  for areas that we’re traveling to that don’t have Internet capability.  The Black Hills of South Dakota are a great example.  We try to get to the Black Hills once a year for geocaching.  IMHO, it’s got the best geocaching in the country.  It’s also a dead zone for cell phones and wireless – handheld GPS territory all the way.  So we have ours loaded up and ready to go before we leave.  Yellowstone is the same way.

So that’s it.  Hope you learned something and that you’ll get out there and try it.  Feel free to post any questions or feedback, including suggestions for future pages.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

 

Intro to Geocaching – Getting Started

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I’ve gotten some questions and feedback on how to get started in geocaching, so I’m putting together a short series of four posts to point you  in the right direction.  This is the first one.  The second one will be on hardware.  The third one will be on software.  The fourth one will be on other equipment recommendations.  I can always add to the series so if you’ve got questions, comments or ideas, send them along.

Geocaching originated in Beavercreek, OR and has been around since May 3, 2000.  On that day, a computer engineer named Dave Ulmer hid a bucket in the woods and posted the latitude and longitude online in a GPS users’ group.  He called his new activity “The Great American Stashing Hunt.”  He did it to give his fellow GPS users a target to test the accuracy of their devices and had no idea what it would turn into.

A day later, fellow GPS enthusiast Mike Teague found it and posted his story on the group page.  Geocaching was born, although it didn’t get called that until several weeks later.

Today there are an estimated 5 million geocachers hunting 1.8 million geocaches in every country in the world, including Afghanistan and Antarctica.

Here’s a link to a geocaching dot com’s  history page.

Here’s a link to a good explanation and summary of geocaching on Wikipedia, including all the different kinds of caches and different organizations that list them.

Original geocache plaque

Dave Ulmer’s original stash is long gone, destroyed by a road crew. In its place, some geo-fanatics put this plaque with a geocache nearby in 2003. If you’re ever in the Beavercreek, OR area and want to stop at this holy shrine, the geocache is called “Original Stash Tribute Plaque”  on geocaching dot com.

Mainstream geocaching is the province of geocaching dot com, by far the biggest and most expansive geocaching site.  Starting out as a hobby site in 2000, it grew by leaps and bounds and is now run by a corporate entity called Groundspeak.  If you want to geocache, this is where you start.

To access full cache details, you have to register for a membership.  There are free memberships and premium (paid) memberships.  They cost $30 a year per account.  Here’s a link to a summary of the differences between them.  You can also register at that link.  If you just want to grab a few caches when you’re out doing something else or just try it out, a free membership should work just fine.  If you eventually migrate into caching at different places and need to to do searches remotely or along a route, you’ll want to go with the premium. You can also mix and match.  When I was geocaching with my kids, I had a premium account and they had free ones.

A geocaching membership also gives you access to waymarking dot com.   This useful tool has all kinds of destinations along with geocaches and benchmarks that are nearby.  It’s great for traveling and caching on the fly.  

There are other sites that list geocaches, such as Navicaching, Terracaching and Opencaching.  They require separate memberships but they’re free.  I’m signed on to them and a couple more but they simply don’t have the extensive cache lists and features that Groundspeak does.

Now you need something to geocache with.  If you have a smart phone, that may be all you need.

Geocaching technology has changed a lot in the last several years and smart phones have led the way.  Gone are the days of printing out cache sheets and sticking the serial GPS device out the window to get a signal.  Paperless caching is now the norm and smart phones enable geocaching on the fly, which was unheard of five years ago.

Smart phone geocaching apps can search, locate, map, list and log geocaches anywhere you have Internet connectivity.  They continue to proliferate and improve but they are only as good as the phone they are installed on – and not all phones are created equal.  Smart phone manufacturers have to make compromises in design, components and function to fit everything together.  Sometimes, the GPS function is a low priority. The GPS chip and/or the firmware may be slow and inaccurate.  It may be good on the Interstate highway but lousy on a back road.  The only way to know is to try it out and/or do some research.

The best way to get some background on geocaching phones is to do a Google search on “geocaching with (your phone model).”  There’s lots out there.

We’ve been through the wringer with phones.  Our Blackberry Storms were excellent.  Their GPS was fast and accurate. We geocached all over the country with them and used them until they literally wore out.  Next we got the Samsung Galaxy.  It was horrible.  We took them back and got the HTC Thunderbolt, which was the state of the art phone then.  It was horrible too.

That’s when I went on Google and ran down some information about phones.  Motorola phones use high grade GPS chips.  We traded in the HTC for the DroidX2 and have been very happy with them.

Luckenbach, TX

Our smart phone found the three geocaches in Luckenbach, TX but not Waylon, Willie and the boys. There’s more caches here than people – except on weekends.

I understand the i-phone is also quite good.

If you’ve got your phone, then it’s time to load a killer geocaching app.  If you have a Droid, the three best apps are CacheSense, Neongeo and c:geo.   The features of all three are pretty much the same – touch screens with color, searching, navigating, logging.  I give the edge to Cachesense for two reasons. 1)  It loads much faster than the other two  2) It has a feature that lets you create template messages for your logs.  All you have to do is click on found and the templated message is called up.  If you like it, send it.  No more typing on a tiny keyboard.   A lifetime license for CacheSense is $10.

Neongeo is very similar but without the message templates.  It is Android only and costs five bucks.  It’s developer is very active and responsive to the community.  He turns out new features on a regular basis, often in response to geocacher input.  Over the last year, Neongeo has taken the Droid geocaching world by storm.  It’s an excellent app.

C:geo is also very good and has been around the longest.  It was the first app to deliver live, real-time geocaching on the fly.  It’s an open source app that works on Android only. Its interfaces and features aren’t quite as rich as the other two but  only hard core cachers would notice the difference.  The fully functional version is free.  C:geo has two potential downsides.  It doesn’t work on iphones and they don’t get along with Groundspeak.   Rather than use Groundspeak’s programming API, they “web scrape” the data they need.   Groundspeak considers them a rogue element, but that’s a developer problem and doesn’t seem to affect the end user experience.  Before CacheSense and Neongeo came out, we used c:geo all the time.  It was way better than Groundspeak’s own app.  But there’s always the possibility that Groundspeak will run them out of town.  C:geo has a cult following of sorts. The continuing conflict between the two is kind of a geocaching soap opera.  Here’s a C:geo FAQ link with some good information about the whole thing.

You really can’t go wrong with any of these three.  There are lots of others out there.  App stores have dozens listed  and I’ve tried several of them. These are the only ones I would recommend.

The iphone has its own apps and there’s quite a list.  You’ll have to do some homework and testing but from a hardware standpoint, the iphone itself is a solid platform for geocaching.

Here’s a link to Groundspeak’s phone apps page.

One final note – if you have a free Groundspeak membership, they limit your smart phone downloads to three geocaches a day.  Premium membership is unlimited.

If you don’t have a smart phone or if the one you have is useless or if you plan to geocache in the wild, then you’ll need a dedicated handheld GPS device.  We’ll discuss those in our next post.

Good hunting …. The Cachemanian Devils

Our new blog

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Sgt. Blogger

My student teacher – Sgt. Blogger. Here he makes a point during a “teachable moment.” You’ll see him around the new blog “Teaching Kids Math and Other Stuff.”

Hi again,

I’ve had three real passions in my life – my family, the outdoors and teaching.

My family continues to evolve as my kids have grown up, I got re-married and now we have grandkids.  You’ll see them in some of our posts and pictures.

I grew up in the Allegheny Mountains of central Pennsylvania running around with the guns and the dawgs.  Then the Marine Corps gave me my outdoor fix for 20 years.  Now, adventures in retirement get me outside.  That’s all covered by this “Off the Beaten Path” blog.

I’ve always felt that my real calling was teaching.  My mom was a teacher and I guess I inherited the gene. She always said that good teachers are born, not made.  I discovered early on that I was good at it and liked it. 

The Count

Count Cachula, a regular guest lecturer.  That’s one blog post. Ah ah ah

The Boy Scouts, martial arts and the Marine Corps gave me plenty of practice on how to teach and no shortage of subjects .  When I retired from the Corps, I never really considered anything else but teaching as a second career.   I taught middle school math for five years, freelanced as a Microsoft Certified Trainer for another five years then went back to a different middle school for five more years.  During most of that time, I was also an adjunct instructor at a local community college teaching computers and general education subjects.  In 2008, I got re-married.  Pam and I both retired and became geocaching fanatics.

Teaching was the hardest I ever worked.  At times it was more stressful than combat.  I had a lot of success in the classroom and was nominated for the Who’s Who of American Teachers three times.  Teaching is first and foremost a leadership challenge.  Running a classroom is a lot like commanding a military unit.  You have to lead by example, establish routines, make your standards known and enforce them firmly but fairly.  When a classroom is firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing quite like it.  I found it to be very rewarding and satisfying.

I always thought the biggest part of my job was to model successful and responsible adult male behavior since students see so little of it.   In TV, movies, video games etc, men are routinely portrayed as losers and idiots.  I was determined to change that perception. On the back of my car, I had Marine Corps and recon stickers and my NRA life member sticker.  I had a dad come up to me at parent conferences one night and say “We’ve never met, but I could tell from the stickers on your car that you’re the kind of guy I want teaching my kids.”   I live for high praise.

Johnny Bravo

Another adoring parent. He also appears on the guest lecturer circuit.

Like most teachers, I was a pack rat and never threw anything away.  In addition to this “geostuff”, which I used in the classroom a lot, I’ve got a ton of material unique to the teaching side of things.   This includes years  of accumulated ideas, opinions, forms, sheets, letters, exercises and evaluations.  Some of it is on paper, some is on my hard drive and some is in my head.    It seemed like a shame to toss it or forget about it, so I decided to give it a new lease on life and blog it. 

Introducing “Teaching Kids Math and OtherStuff.”   The title is self-explanatory.  Most, if not all, of the content in my teaching blog will be useful to parents, coaches, youth leaders and even grandparents (whose ranks I have now entered.) If it gives one good idea or one chuckle to one person, it will have been worth it.

You’ll  find some opinions and reflections on this site which you may or may not agree with.   You may find my sense of humor a bit wacky but it goes with the territory I’ve been in for five decades.  There are several issues in particular that I wrestled with for years without a good resolution. You’ll be seeing a series called “Classroom Capers”  where I free write about anything that comes to mind.  I hope you find something of interest or value somewhere on the site.

I’ll keep adding stuff until I run out, which will probably never happen.  Where appropriate, I’ll cross-link things.  I welcome your feedback and ideas.

Click this link  Teaching Kids Math and Other Stuff to get started.

Thanks …. Dan

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