Children growing up today know only a world where computers touch every part of our lives — from the mundane alarm clock and fitness tracker to the ever-present smartphone and laptop. Computers are likewise integral to furthering some of our greatest human achievements, from artificial intelligence to space exploration to medical breakthroughs. So the existence of Living Computers: Museum + Labs near Safeco Field in tech-savvy Seattle should surprise no one, but the family-friendly activities, exhibits and irresistible treasures within certainly will.
My family and I went for a visit, mainly to check out the museum's current special exhibition called Totally 80s Rewind: The Exhibit. For parents knocking on the door of middle age, it's a delightful nostalgia trip — one that's perfect to share with your kids.
But first, a highly interactive exhibit about robots greeted us. At one station, we remotely controlled the Telepresence Robot equipped with a camera, screen, and microphone. It literally lets you be in two places at once! At a tabletop display, we customized and controlled a smaller Dash robot on a flat surface. With luck, you may get to see the impressive industrial-grade robot, like ones on factory floors, performing repetitive tasks with unwavering precision.
Next, we embarked on that fantastic '80s nostalgia trip, taking our kids along for the ride. Walking through a realistic re-creation of a classroom, arcade and suburban living room reacquainted us with the 1980s. I sat cross-legged on the floor of the living room exhibit with a Nintendo Entertainment System, just like my brother and I used to, and popped in the Super Mario Brothers game cartridge. That rectangular controller now felt smaller in my grown-up hands, but the muscle memory of which buttons did what came back instantly.
In the '80s video game arcade, I showed my son how to rapid fire up the side of the row at the slithery Centipede. My husband, meanwhile, created a program to find all the prime numbers between 1 and 100 in BASIC on an Apple IIe with our daughter. As if you had your own time-traveling DeLorean, this exhibit transports you back into the '80s with serious attention to detail — from the decor, to the playable video games, to the items strewn about, to even the boxy teacher's overhead projector in the classroom. Relive the powerful beginnings of our digital world just as they were starting to take shape. And the best thing about this exhibit is that you get to touch and interact with everything! You can even show your kids what an old-fashioned rotary phone looks like.
The best thing about this exhibit is that you get to touch and interact with everything.
Moving through the rest of the first floor, we found displays featuring virtual reality, art creation, oceanic shark research with underwater data collection — all for exploring. Don’t miss the self-driving car simulator tucked in the corner. The wrap-around immersive projection screen and realistic footage make you feel like you’re really in motion. Fun fact: It took a 3D printer 44 hours to create car’s chassis. Overall, the first floor and mezzanine are full of hands-on displays and activities that are most interesting for kids ages 5 and older.
The Gamemakers Space on the mezzanine was my school-aged kids’ favorite area. Visitors can play games on handheld devices, consoles, desktop computers and stand-alone appliances like Alexa. The kids especially loved playing Minecraft and Super Mario Brothers. Pro tip: Try to cover the rest of the museum first and make this area your final destination since kids will likely want to spend the most time here.
The second floor holds troves of computer history that illustrate how far we’ve come as a technological society. A large cold room contains examples early mainframe computers. What is striking about these computers is how enormous they are and how much power they consume. You can even create keepsakes on the IBM 029 Keypunch computer. My husband remembered learning on this machine when a "computer program" was a series of physical cards with tiny rectangles punched out.
Example after example of personal computers, industrial computers, cell phones, music players, software packages and marketing materials on display remind visitors of all the chapters of the computer revolution in our lives. There's even an open storage room with shelves stacked to the ceiling showing just a sliver of how vast their collection is.
With many noted factoids and hands-on experiences, everyone from kids to hardcore computer professionals can find something at the museum to geek out over. The museum shows how the computer revolution entered our society and continues to redefine and impact the world.
If you go…
Hours: Open Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. The first Thursday of the month the museum is open until 8 p.m. and offers free admission from 5–8 p.m. (expect a crowd). If you're lucky and plan ahead, you can snag free admission through the Seattle Public Library's museum pass program. "Totally 80s Rewind: The Exhibit" is on through the end of 2018.
Cost: Adult admission is $16; seniors and students are $14; children ages 5 and under are free. A family membership for $90 might be a good deal if you think your crew might like multiple visits.
Best times to visit: After 1 p.m. on weekdays the school groups have generally cleared out. On weekends, aim for as close to opening time as possible, especially during home games.
Age recommendation: Kids ages 5 and older will get the most out of all the hands-on features, but there is enough to entertain preschoolers that bringing them along (they're free) is fine.
Parking: There is free parking in the designated lot on the north side of the museum or the location is well-served by transit.
Snack time: No food is sold inside the museum but there is a seating area with tables if you brown bag it. Within a 5-minute walk north of the museum, you’ll find Macrina Bakery & Cafe, Starbucks, Jimmy John’s Sandwich Shop and Krispy Kreme.
Events: The museum features ongoing maker workshops, classic movie nights and programs tailored to aspirational young computer scientists. Check out the calendar for details.