Silver Screen Sweetness

Movie theaters where the audience does more than only watch together? How about they play together.

Given that these technologies are several years old, I am admittedly a bit late to the party. This does not diminish HOW FREAKING COOL THIS STUFF IS.

The basic interactions models are these:

  1. Capture live video of the audience and use the aggregate motion of the crowd (basically lean to the left / lean to the right) as input to control the play interaction (e.g. direct vehicles or characters on-screen in simple video games).
  2. Bounce a beach ball among the crowd and track its shadow on the movie screen to respond to and direct game play.
  3. Capture the collected motion and position of the audience’s laser pointer dots on the movie screen as input to painting applications, uncovering hidden images, or to traditional video games.

The original work on these applications is detailed in the paper Techniques for Interactive Audience Participation. (Incidentally, one of the authors of this paper is Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture fame.) That paper as well as video and more detailed explanations and examples of use of these technologies can be found on the Audience Interaction page. Most recently these same techniques have been used for interactive advertisements preceding films in movie theaters.

It’s exciting to think of what could be implemented with this sort of audience interaction technology. Examples: creating choose-your-own-adventure-style films where the audience votes an outcome or directly involving the audience in certain action sequences. Using indirect means of measuring an audience’s input (like what’s been detailed above with perhaps the addition of auditory input) would prevent the cost and complexity of per-seat input technologies. Given the transition to fully digital film distribution and projection, the necessary computing hardware will soon be present in all theaters to render the actual result of audience interaction on-screen.


Unstructured Free Play Interfaces: David Rockwell's Imagination Playground

The New Hotness if ever I saw it. Check out the Imagination Playground’s official site. It covers several interesting concepts of enabling play with technology (not necessarily “high tech”, but the playground project is all about assembling an environment of play interfaces).

From a Fast Company article David Rockwell’s Imagination Playground:

That led Rockwell to set out, pro bono, to develop a playground that promotes free play rather than the jungle gyms and swing sets that emphasize motor skills. The designer focused on basic elements such as building blocks, sand, water, and found objects, and updated the whole concept for the 21st century. Rather than a flat field with climbing structures, an Imagination Playground provides a multilevel play space. “It’s the same thing you would have in the country with a hill or a series of rocks,” he says. “It’s space to explore.”

Of particular interest to me with regard to the technology of playful interfaces is creating human computer interactions (on-screen or in-atoms) that encourage and enable unstructured free play. So I kinda freaked out when I read about this playground design. Granted, it’s not computer-enabled, but COME ON. It’s a genius design and has to be a totally fun user experience.

Every adult I’ve showed this to echoes the article’s author: I wish I could play on this.

Rockwell’s design incorporates several really cool elements. One is a sound garden of pipes, tubes, and other sound shaping components that can be combined creatively. Another is a shallow pool that allows kids to make dams and have water flow fun. One of my favorite memories as a kid was doing this very thing in a giant mud puddle on the playground. I feel quite certain that those muddy dams engaged me in ways few other structured play experiences did.

Some play researchers contend that unstructured free play is intimately linked to developing cognitive flexibility. While this idea is always related to childhood brain development, I’m interested to see what can be done with adults along these lines. For example, perhaps workplace white boards could enable new ways of engaging thought processes through unstructured free play. The challenge is in creating a technology that presents a multitude of, perhaps even nearly infinite, playful experiences despite the inherent limitations of the technology (i.e. any interface is constrained by its form factor or the abilities of the technology due to cost or what have you).

(via Friends of Grand Rapids Parks twitter feed)


Playful Technologies for Urban Economic Development

The Art of Building a City got me thinking of play and economic development. The article makes the case (using my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan as an example) for public art as a driver of economic development. Could playful technologies do the same?

I’m thinking of installations like the Crown Fountain in Chicago’s new Millennium Park. This fountain is a shallow splash pool bookended by two giant video walls showing a rotating collection of faces. Every so often a face will pucker up and spit a stream of water into the splash pool. It’s incredibly fun and draws people’s attention for long periods of time. People come from all over to cool down and play with the video walls.

Step one in economic development is drawing people to a given area. In urban settings, green spaces and public art have a certain capacity to accomplish this. Couldn’t a playful technology be an excellent capstone to the construction of public spaces? The answer is yes (but I just might be biased).

Imagine if cities hired imagineers to design their public spaces to complement the artists, landscape architects, and urban planners already employed.

To get more of a flavor for what I’m talking about check out the following two installations, imagine parks and city squares having these sorts of technologies, and then go “ooooh” and “ahhhhh”:

  1. Temporary video installation in London’s Trafalgar Square
    A large installation of lights, cameras, and projectors places video of other people in the shadows of passersby.
  2. Hand from Above (scroll down to see video of the awesomosity)
    “Inspired by Land of the Giants and Goliath, the project aims to remind us of mythical stories by mischievously unleashing a giant hand from the BBC Big Screen. Passers are playfully transformed being tickled, stretched, flicked or removed entirely in real-time by a giant deity.

Caution: Adults at Play

When one mentions play, most listeners immediately think of children. Certainly, considering play in relation to children is an important topic. I’m, frankly, more interested in thinking about play as related to adults. I believe it to be field of study mostly left fallow to date but one of great importance.


Reality is that adults do play.


Play is more than goofing off, but goofing off is a perfectly wonderful thing.

Play for adults is a means to blow off steam and a means to increase creative productivity. It’s also an important means of bonding. One can even frame sex as a form of specialized pair-bonding play. If you really want to catch adults in the act of play, watch them with their children: 50 Million Adults Play Casual Video Games to Bond with Children, Grandchildren.

But let us not only look for all kinds of purpose and benefits to play. Every so often, let’s just play for the hell of it. And, as Stuart Brown encourages in his TED talk, let’s infuse every moment of our life with play.


We have a stigma about adults and play, and it’s nonsense.

Does a Man at Play Seem Unseemly? — A member of the Naked Scientists online forum makes some intriguing observations regarding adults at play against the philosophical writings of George Santayana:

(Naked Scientists is entirely safe for work; it’s a science radio program.)

Slavery is, undoubtedly, the most degrading of human conditions; he is a slave when all energy is directed toward avoiding pain and death.  In such a human condition as slavery, the slave is directed from without with little breath and strength available for self-directed enjoyment.  In such a condition play and work take on a different meaning.  They become the equivalent of freedom versus servitude. From a subjective point of view all work and no play is servitude without freedom, i.e. little self-determination.


New York Times: “Taking Play Seriously”

I originally read Taking Play Seriously not long after it was first published. I was totally enthralled. It later played (no pun intended) into my eventual ah-ha moment of recognizing my interest in studying and working on playful technologies. It seems altogether appropriate as the first post to this blog.

Fantastic reading as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, you need a (free) NYTimes account to read it online, but it’s well worth the trouble.

It’s difficult to distill all the amazing goodness in this article. Nevertheless, here are a few choice excerpts:

Discussions about play force us to reckon with our underlying ideas about childhood, sex differences, creativity and success.

Armed with research grounded in evolutionary biology and experimental neuroscience, some scientists have shown themselves eager — at times perhaps a little too eager — to promote a scientific argument for play… They are studying, from an evolutionary perspective, to what extent play is a luxury that can be dispensed with when there are too many other competing claims on the growing brain, and to what extent it is central to how that brain grows in the first place.

Scientists who study play, in animals and humans alike, are developing a consensus view that play is… a central part of neurological growth and development — one important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.

Squirrel monkeys won’t play when their favorite food sources are unavailable. In humans under stress, what happens with play is more complicated… As George Eisen wrote in ‘‘Children and Play in the Holocaust’’: ‘‘Children’s yearning for play naturally burst forth even amidst the horror. … An instinctual, an almost atavistic impulse embedded in the human consciousness.’’

Recognizing play’s dark side is not difficult… Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the nation’s most eminent play scholars, has seen [dark expressions of play] many times before, but they don’t worry him. In fact, he embraces them… he wrote… ‘‘children learn all those necessary arts of trickery, deception, harassment, divination and foul play that their teachers won’t teach them but are most important in successful human relationships in marriage, business and war.’’

Idealization is a trap. And it seems most seductive when it comes to play, especially one particular kind: pretend play… It includes … : dramatic play, wordplay, ritual play, symbolic play, games, jokes and imaginary friends. And it is the kind of play that positively screams out for hyperbole when outsiders try to describe it. This is where even coolheaded scientists get florid in their prose — and where play advocates like Stuart Brown and play skeptics like Peter Smith engage in their most vivid disagreements about the ultimate purpose of play.

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