“The Souls of Toys”

An excerpt from On Dolls, a collection of essays and reflections that explore the seriousness of play and the mysteries of inanimate life… French poet Charles Baudelaire reflects on the souls of toys:

The overriding desire of most little [kids], on the other hand, is to get at and see the soul of their toys, either at the end of a certain period of use, or on occasion straightaway. On the more or less swift invasion of this desire depends the lifetime of the toy. I cannot find it in me to blame this infantile mania: it is the first metaphysical stirring. When this desire has planted itself in the child’s cerebral marrow, it fills his fingers and nails with an extraordinary agility and strength. He twists and turns the toy, scratches it, shakes it, bangs it against the wall, hurls it on the ground. From time to time he forces it to continue its mechanical motions, sometimes in the opposite direction. Its marvelous life comes to a stop. The child, like the populace besieging the Tuileries, makes a last supreme effort; finally he pries it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul? …

Photo credit: T-O-Y, Toy (Woody from Toy Story) by Fernando de Sousa, used by permission via Creative Commons


Futurism, Steampunk, and Technology with a Sense of Humor

I just read a great article Being More Human: Intel’s resident futurist on how the steampunk culture offers clues to building a better tomorrow. In it, Brian David Johnson (Intel’s futurist) had many very interesting things to say — all of which are well worth reading. This statement stood out:

Steampunk reveals three relationships that people want with their technology. First, they want their technology to have a sense of humor. Humor and jokes give us a way to connect with and understand each other. Also, humor is a great cultural indicator that we understand each other. Studies show that if I can make you laugh, you not only think I’m smarter but also feel a deeper human connection to me. If we want to have a closer relationship to these technologies that are filling our lives, it makes sense that we would want them to get our sense of humor and make us laugh.

Until reading this article I had never connected the whimsical and the technological inherent to Steampunk’s art and culture to my own interests. Upon reflection, it’s quite obviously there.

Johnson speaks to something very important to me in the work I am doing: Play is intimate and relational. Increasingly, we will look to our technology to support our humanity in our connectedness. Playful rather than only productive technology is a path to that new world.

(Image borrowed from Steampunk Pacman.)


2013 Trend: “Play as a Competitive Advantage”

It’s that time of year. No, not the holidays — time for end-of-the-year numbered list retrospectives and new year predictions.

Market analysis firm JWTIntelligence has identified 10 trends that will shape consumer mindset and behavior in 2013. Number 1 on the list? Play. Or, more specifically, Play as a Competitive Advantage:

Adults will increasingly adopt for themselves the revitalized idea that kids should have plenty of unstructured play to balance out today’s plethora or organized and tech-based activities. In an age when people feel they can’t spare time for pursuits that don’t have specific goals attached, there will be a growing realization that unstructured time begets more imagination, creativity and onnovation—all competitive advantages.

Whether this “trend” will translate into reality in 2013 is anyone’s guess. I do think the core observation is true. However, playing solely for sake of competitive advantage and not simply for play’s sake kinda misses the point.


An autocorrect walks into a bar…

Ever have autocorrect help you craft an unintentionally hilarious text message? Entire websites are now devoted to this shared experience.

A team of Artificial Intelligence researchers are, in fact, trying to harness these unintended consequences for good. Playful good.

Predictive text errors inspire AI comedians:

Their software, which will be presented at an AI symposium in Arlington, Virginia, next month, plays the humour card in two steps. The first is timing — if the software turned words in every sentence in an application into offbeat puns, it would just be tiresome. So it changes words only occasionally, interjecting at random intervals. Second, it derives comical terms by plundering dictionaries of related words on subjects that are favourite comedy staples, such as religion and sex.

“It might be funny or not, we cannot control it,” admits Valitutti — but the idea is that sometimes it will be. One application for the software, he suggests, is to inject such humour into a reminder system, so instead of being told your cakes are about to burn, you might get an absurdly comical message that still encourages you to turn off the oven.

In my view (and many others), fun and play are core parts of our human experience. Shouldn’t software and technology support this aspect of our life just as much as they do our productivity and communication?


Shadow Monsters

Note the growl.

I put on my culture pants and headed on over to the Museum of Modern Art yesterday with the founder of PlayScienceLab (apparently, this is how I roll now) to take in the exhibit Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000.

The final piece in the otherwise non-digital exhibit was an interactive installation by Philip Worthington entitled Shadow Monsters [youtube and another youtube!]. This thing is so utterly brilliant. Worthington plays with combining shadow puppets and the fear of monsters lurking in the shadows. What comes out on the other side is so much fun I can hardly stand it. Like everyone else, I had a huge smile on my face the entire time — whether I was watching or making monsters.

Would-be puppet masters stand in front of a lighted wall, and a camera captures their silhouettes. The images are then manipulated and projected onto another wall that our puppet masters are facing. The effect is as though the lighted wall is casting their shadows — their monster-ified shadows. “Holes” enclosed by shadows become eyes. Curved or ‘V’-like shadows become mouths with fangs and teeth. Circular shadows sprout spikes and noodle-like hair. Growls, burps, and farts complete the ambiance. Did I mention that this thing is brilliant?

This piece captures the essence of a playful technology. Rules are at play, but this is not a game. There are no points to be won; the objective is the enjoyment of the experience itself, the discovery of the embodied self playing a monster in the shadows. There are elements of discovery and of cooperation in the act of an emergent creation. One thing it does lack is longterm engagement. After the initial moments of joyous discovery, I’m not sure if this is an experience that would motivate continued, repeated playing in the future.

I love this piece so much. It reminds me of a concept I cooked up a while ago. Darn these classes! I really need to make that thing happen.

UPDATE (Oct. 6, 2012): And… the aforementioned founder of PlayScienceLab, Ali Bryant, left the first comment below. Yeah. She’s pretty much right.