Playing with how we think

An article I wrote, “New Widgets Let You Snap, Crackle… and Think”, was recently published by LiveScience and Yahoo News. According to the public relations office at my university, my article achieved some of the biggest media metrics in their history. Maybe we’re onto something…


Help us with a fun Playful Technology study for the Fidget Widgets research project

We are Mike Karlesky and Kacie Kinzer from the Game Innovation Lab at NYU. We are conducting a research study on the objects people fiddle with while at work and how they fiddle with them. This study is in support of a project called Fidget Widgets.

What object(s) do you play with while you work? How do you fiddle with them in your hand? What are they made of? What do you enjoy about them and how they feel? Do they have special meaning to you? When do you play with them?

Please consider submitting a video or photo and a bit of text for our study. See our Video page for help on simple options to capture video.

You can review our About page and Consent page for full details before submitting.

Go here to participate:

Feel free to forward this post on to anyone you like. You can also retweet this if you like.


It Begins

I tend to think that play may very well be at the center of the next hundred years of development in education, health, economic development, technology, work, and quality of life. It’s my hope that we will collectively rediscover our essence as human beings — homo ludens (Man the Player). It appears I am not the only one of this mind.

“Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the industrial age — our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value.”

—Pat Kane, The Play Ethic

Charlie O’Donnell, a Brooklyn area venture capitalist, had this to say in a very recent post The Return of Play:

If I was going to start a venture capital fund around a theme, I’d pick something a little different. Forget Enterprise, or Mobile… It wouldn’t be “networks” or any other standard classification of startup. No geographic focus.

I’d start a fund around “Play”.

What I’m most bullish about is wide open, free-form play—the act of exploring, creating, and being curious.

Scarcity + high demand = Happy VC all too willing to fund playful things and entrepreneurs ready to play.


Fidget Widgets: Twiddling your thumbs for fun and profit

[Cross posted at my personal site]

A Marginally Good Idea

Things to play with in our lab. For thinking.Ever have an idea come to you all in a flash? I had one of those thoughts two years ago, and it’s slowly grown from a handful of interesting observations and questions into an ongoing research project. A really cool research project: Fidget Widgets.

Let’s back up. Watching a student in one of my classes bounce the arrow keys on her laptop keyboard led me to think about “software with margins.” And this led to investigating doodling, fiddling, and fidgeting behaviors. Fast forward and Fidget Widgets were born.

So What’s a Fidget Widget?

A Fidget Widget is [see video below]:

  • Tangential. One “mindlessly” engages a Fidget Widget while mulling an idea or paused in work.
  • Playful. The goal is the experience of the interaction not achieving a goal with the interaction itself.
  • Digital. To allow for more supple experiences than possible in physical objects (e.g. infinite resources, large virtual worlds in small spaces, etc.) Fidget Widgets are programmable. Interactions are reactive, though not necessarily predictably so.
  • Tangible. Engaging the bodily movement of fidgeting and doodling inherent in our physical inspirations, Fidget Widgets embody physicality beyond only screen-based abstractions.

Ultimately, our goal is to allow our users to select an interaction to play with in order to temporarily but measurably improve creativity, focus, or calm while working. We have much more work ahead of us to get there.

What We’ve Published + Latest News

My advisor and I published a Work in Progress Fidget Widgets: Secondary Playful Interactions in Support of Primary Serious Tasks at CHI 2013 in Paris. If you’re interested in a brief overview of all the fascinating background work, this paper has you covered.

We just recently learned that our full paper Designing for the Physical Margins of Digital Workspaces: Fidget Widgets in Support of Productivity and Creativity was accepted for publication at TEI 2014 in Munich. This is my first full paper publication as a graduate student (I could get used to this globetrotting).

In other news, I now have the good fortune to be working ​on Fidget Widgets with Kacie Kinzer of tweenbots​ fame. We have good things in the works (more below).


Early prototypes of the Fidget Widget concept. These aren’t games; these are playful interactions. See one of our papers to learn more.

What We’ve Learned So Far

We’ve learned so much. Doodling, fiddling, and fidgeting behaviors are widespread and not much research has been done of them. There’s a strong link between brain mechanisms and the hand. Mind, affective state, and bodily motions are all interrelated. People have strong opinions about the items on their desk they reach for while working. In fact, despite being fun and engaging, the prototype interactions in the video below have generated considerable feedback about the form factor and materials. Nearly universal in what we’ve heard is a desire for highly tactile, satisfying, and pliable objects. Rigid boxes of electronics are not the way to move ahead.

What’s Next

The two most immediate challenges are both design related: research study design and product design.

Conducting experiments with users are easiest when they have a direct experience with a manipulable intervention. Here our Fidget Widgets complicate much of traditional research design because they are intentionally tangential, mindless, and goal-less. At present we’re looking into some of the innovative research done in developing the concept of Flow that shared some of these same research challenges.

What we’ve heard from users is that they want highly tactile experiences. The feeling in the hand requires much stimulation and variation. This will require lots of work with materials and sensors and unconventional electronics design. First, however, we’re stepping back and launching into design research to look at what sorts of objects our user population is already interacting with at their desks.

My advisor recently connected me to Kacie Kinzer. She and I are cooking up something online that we hope will attract some good attention and collect a rich picture of the items and materials and behaviors people employ when they fiddle with things at their desks. When we launch that, I’ll write more about it all.


Playing with Ideas (By Crocheting a Coral Reef)

Note the crochet. Image credit: Allison Maslow.

Margaret Wertheim and her sister started a project to crochet a coral reef. You might think to yourself that this sounds somewhat interesting but possibly just quaint and maybe even frivolous. Au contraire, mon frère. You’ll need to watch the TED Talk linked below to grasp just how cool this is. It turns out that crocheting coral reef forms is a real-world example of geometric hyperbolic spaces that stymied mathematicians for ages. And that’s only one reason among many as to why this is a TED-worthy topic.

Wertheim and her sister went on to found the Institute for Figuring. The whole idea is to engage abstract concepts through embodiment — literally playing with ideas in physical form. They think of their organization as a “play tank” (what a great notion). Embodiment is a fancy concept connected to another fancy concept, the philosophical idea of phenomenology. To greatly over simplify, both of these words speak to thinking and experiencing reality as an integrated experience through the body itself — that there is no separation of mind and body. Play is usually engaged bodily through physical artifacts and technologies (whether low or high tech). Thus, play is actively perceiving, experience, and thinking in the world. Who knew yarn could be so heady?

Margaret Wertheim: The beautiful math of coral [TED Talk]:

Margaret Wertheim leads a project to re-create the creatures of the coral reefs using a crochet technique invented by a mathematician — celebrating the amazements of the reef, and deep-diving into the hyperbolic geometry underlying coral creation.

By masterminding a project to model a coral reef armed only with crochet hooks, Margaret Wertheim hopes to bring some of the most complicated mathematical models embodied in our universe into the minds (and hands) of the masses.

Previously on Note the Smile (and kinda sorta related): When shopping for a piece of technological gadgetry is also playing with it.


(Thanks to Scot Sroka)