Peering at a QR code through my phone’s camera like a spyglass, I zoomed in on a pearlescent purple orb to obtain my digital prize—keeping my fingers crossed that an NFT collectible landed in my digital wallet.

It’s part of a scavenger hunt being held in New York City, designed to encourage engagement and exploration around a tourist-friendly part of Manhattan. For the next couple of months, crypto payments provider MoonPay and real estate developer Howard Hughes Corporation are pairing NFTs with the real world.

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The Seaport Scavenger Hunt runs through October. But the chance to find 10 purple “pearls” that yield NFTs and a shot at weekly prizes—such as concert tickets or a curated gift box from local businesses—beckoned me to the Seaport, a historic enclave located near the southern tip of Manhattan, on the hunt’s first day.

According to MoonPay CEO and co-founder Ivan Soto-Wright, the hunt’s benefits are primarily twofold. The event is a low-stakes way to spur crypto adoption—onboarding participants with digital wallets—and it also gives its winners more control.

“Imagine you win and the prize is tickets to a concert, but you’re not able to go,” he told Decrypt. “You can now take that prize, which is on-chain, and put it on OpenSea—and anyone could go buy it in the secondary market.”

For non-crypto natives, navigating NFT marketplaces like OpenSea may sound advanced. However, MoonPay has established itself as a company that fills gaps in the current crypto landscape, helping customers make cryptocurrency purchases using a credit or debit card.

A view of Manhattan's Seaport neighborhood. Image: André Beganski/Decrypt.

“You could do this, in theory, using a lot of Web2 technology,” Soto-Wright said, alluding to current internet technology that predominantly isn’t based around the blockchain. Still, Soto-Wright said the hunt is unlocking “value beyond just a closed system.” 

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There’s another element to the hunt, Soto-Wright noted, that benefits local businesses at the Seaport. The scavenger hunt collects data on participants, like where they’re from, and paints a picture of foot traffic for marketing purposes, he explained. It could also push visitors to engage with local businesses for the first time.

As a collaboration with Howard Hughes, the scavenger hunt is billed as being broadly accessible. An advertisement for the hunt at the Seaport’s entrance makes no mention of crypto, NFTs, or Polygon—the Ethereum scaling network that powers the NFT minting process. It’s just a digitally enhanced scavenger hunt.

The lack of lingo is entirely by design, Julie Allen, Howard Hughes’ senior vice president of digital and creative told Decrypt. It aligns with the initiative’s simplistic and streamlined nature, in her view.

“If my mom can't figure it out, then I don't want to implement it,” she said. “Because it has to be that simple and easy for people to pick up.”

On the hunt

I’m not the average “normie” who may be stumped by the underlying crypto tech, but I gave myself a 30-minute window to locate and scan as many pearls as possible. Each scanned pearl earns you one of the 10 free NFTs, represented by artwork from Johana Kroft, and collecting the whole set opens up the possibility of earning prizes.

While I didn’t expect to collect them all, I hoped my endeavor could yield a handful. And with a tour of the Seaport from MoonPay under my belt, I knew my odds were pretty good, already armed with the knowledge of where a few QR codes were tucked away.

It turned out that finding the pearls was the easy part; I located six of the 10 within that half hour. Technical issues, on the other hand, turned the process of claiming my digital collectibles via MoonPay into a real challenge.

The webpage on my phone froze repeatedly and stifled my search’s progress with each QR code scanned, presenting a black screen each time—except for one occasion. Every time I tried to claim an NFT, I also had to retrieve an emailed verification code to log back into my MoonPay account, which added to the clunkiness.

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A "pearl" perched on a Seaport streetlamp. Image: André Beganski/Decrypt.

At a cocktail party celebrating the scavenger hunt’s kickoff, MoonPay’s Director of Web3 Engineering, Chris Choyce, tried to help me out. After some troubleshooting, he admitted that a fix was warranted. Another member of the media told me that he had experienced a similar issue on the day.

Not long after, a member of Mayor Eric Adams' pro-crypto administration used the gathering as an opportunity to highlight what he sees as the city's tech prowess, speaking alongside others like Soto-Wright.

"We can't thank you enough for showing the world a prime example of why New York City continues to be a global hub of innovation," said Kevin D. Kim, the city's commissioner for the Department of Small Business Services. "We are thrilled to see the Seaport activated in this way."

NFTs in NYC

Thinking the tech hitches might be a relatively isolated issue on opening day, I enlisted a random Seaport visitor named Sandy Lal. After guiding him to a pearl, Lal’s scan worked flawlessly. Still, there was a moment of confusion.

“What the fuck is an Ethereum account?” he asked, staring at a transaction preview for minting his Polygon-based NFT. After explaining to him that an Ethereum account is essentially a digital wallet, he tapped “accept,” and that was that. The tech is abstracted, but not entirely invisible. Still, people were able to figure it out.

Advertising banners for the Seaport Scavenger Hunt. Image: André Beganski/Decrypt.

A MoonPay representative told Decrypt that the technical issues have since been resolved and said that they were not related to the firm’s minting tech. Instead, MoonPay pegged the issues on website glitches, firewall hurdles, and further needed mobile optimizations.

If all is indeed working well, could MoonPay’s scavenger hunt serve as the blueprint for other location-based experiences, from the Seaport to Central Park and beyond?

The concept was rich and provided a real-world use case for NFTs, with prospective benefits for all involved—an innovative way to bridge the gap between crypto and the real world. Alas, as with many things in crypto, the early user experience may have needed more time to catch up with the vision.

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