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)


The Evolution of Playgrounds

Designed playgrounds are a modern concept. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art has very recently opened The Playground Project tracing the history, influences, ups and downs, and fads of playground design. The evolution of playgrounds continues and now even incorporates digital technologies.

The Work Behind Child’s Play — Carnegie Museum’s “Playground Project” Traces an Evolution [New York Times]:

“A playground is a place where you explore things,” said Daniel Baumann, one of the survey’s three curators, … “And that’s also what a museum should be.”

Baumann’s statement reminds me of what I wrote on the concept of using the amusement park funhouse for museum exhibit design.


Playing Around at CHI 2013

Last month I got to attend the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (everybody just calls it CHI — pronounced Kai). This year it was in Paris, France. Not a bad gig if you can find it.

I presented two of my research projects as Works in Progress. Fidget Widgets is still quite early on. Open Sesame is further along. You can see more about Open Sesame sans the academic pay-wall over yonder.

Next to one of my two posters, Asaki Miura presented her work: Social Playware with an Enhanced Reach for Facilitating Group Interaction. Again, here’s more on her project minus the academic pay-wall. “Enhanced Reach” is the name her team gave to their wireless wearable device. It reacts visually to the geometric arrangements of those who wear it near one another. They found that it aided children with developmental impairments to socially interact and play with one another. In one instance, this playful technology motivated a little boy to leave his mother’s side for the very first time. This is the power and promise of playful technology.

Playful technology helping children with developmental disordersNote Asaki’s pointer — it’s Mickey Mouse’s hand