May I go play across the street? (Or various other urban spaces)

StreetPong — Be sure to look both ways before ponging the street.

A friend pointed me to StreetPong [video] in Hildesheim, Germany. It blew up the interwebs recently. Unfortunately, most of the English speaking online world didn’t catch that this is a student design project where much of what is seen in the video is an elaborate mockup and video work. It was developed at the HAWK Hildesheim, Faculty of Art.

Be that as it may, it’s a really fun concept all the same. The terminals on both sides of a crosswalk are meant to manage it (signal intent to cross, countdown until pedestrians have right of way, etc.). These sorts of systems exist all over the world already. The student designers here took this a step further to allow people on either side of the street to play a short game of Pong while the countdown, well, counts down.

I am ever getting clearer on the distinction between playful and gameful. While this project uses game mechanics, I’d argue StreetPong is more playful than gameful in that it’s motivation is the experience and the enjoyment of the thing itself rather than the points won. It’s a way to have a moment with a perfect stranger. It’s more relational than competitive.

I’ve noticed a certain trend in public, interactive technology and art insallations. They tend to facilitate momentary interactions with strangers in the same urban space. I love this. Play is often relational and rather intimate. Opening a space for such a thing in our ever more urbanized world is a good thing.

New York City subway — Play within reach.

REACH New York, An Urban Musical Instrument [video] is another example from right here in New York City. What’s fun about this piece is two things. First of all, (depsite the appearance of the photo) most people don’t realize it’s there. It’s installed just above sight lines in the Herald Square subway station. When you wave your hand in front of the “crystals”, tones and even jungle sounds play. This leads to the second fun thing about this piece: triggering the tones activates an identical installation on the other side of the station across the tracks. Unfortunately, the orientation of the two units means that people interacting with the units do so with their backs to one another, rarely realizing that they can actually play with people across the way.

Montreal — Come out swinging.

Montreal gets it as well. Swing sets have been removed from the playground and placed along a pedestrian walkway. The music they play gets better the more people play together.

Musical Light Swings on the Streets of Montreal:

Surrounded on both sides by a new music complex and science center, designers Mouna Andraos and Melissa Mongiat chose to bridge the gap between the two by converting a narrow strip of land into an enormous interactive instrument. Pre-recorded sounds from a xylophone, piano, and other instruments were programmed into color-coded swings that when in use play various notes, however when swung in unison with careful cooperation, more complex melodies and harmonies arise. An additional “secret mode” was programmed to only play when all 21 swings were in use. What a fun idea.


“Emma’s Magic Arms” — 3D printing technology allows a precious two-year-old to play.

Note that little smile. Have kleenex handy. Seriously. You have been warned.

Not quite my meaning of playful technology, but aw heck, this is way too great not to post.

3D printed arms allow 2-year-old to play [youtube]:

This super-sweet toddler, whose name is Emma, has a congenital disorder that means she doesn’t have the muscle strength to lift her arms by herself. But hey, no big deal — this robot exoskeleton can do it for her. And because it’s 3D-printed out of inexpensive, lightweight plastic, replacement is no big deal when she outgrows it (or if she breaks a part).

I don’t believe I’ve written anything on the topic of 3D printing. As you can see from this one example, it is destined to open whole new worlds. Surely it will have a tremendous impact on play technologies (and sweet little girls) along the way.


Your homework assignment.

Compare and contrast the following. This is left as an exercise for the reader.

How the Baining people work [via Kottke]:

The Baining—one of the indigenous cultural groups of Papua New Guinea—have the reputation, at least among some researchers, of being the dullest culture on earth.

According to Fajans, the Baining eschew everything that they see as “natural” and value activities and products that come from “work,” which they view as the opposite of play.

And how some Danes do their work:

The new LEGO PMD is a playground where imagination is encouraged to run wild — both for children who play with the toys and the employees who design them.


Cubelets: My fascination with newfangled blocks meets my fascination with play as emergence.

So many kinds of blocks you could build something to shake a stick at ‘em. [image credit]

Behold Cubelets:

…Cubelets … can be snapped together to make a variety of robots with no programming and no wires. You can build robots that drive around on a tabletop, respond to light and other objects, and have surprisingly lifelike behavior. But instead of programming that behavior, you snap the cubelets together and watch the behavior emerge like with a flock of birds or a swarm of bees.

I have this thing with trying to wrap my head around what toy blocks could be if they met the right kind of tech and had babies. I’m also thinking quite a bit about how play embodies a sort of emergence. And, lo, Cubelets gets at both.

See their video for more on the concept (plus you can get your recommended daily allowance of Dutch accents and beards). And peruse all the different sorts of cubelets.

They’re a bit pricey (and I don’t quite get their pre-ordering scheme), but I like where they’re going and where they’ve already been:

Modular Robotics is a new company, a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University. We are turning our research prototype construction toy into a commercial product for science centers, children’s museums, and hobbyists, and we’re planning to launch our first robotic kits in 2011. We have received initial funding from private endowments and from the National Science Foundation. We believe that toys shape the way that children think about the world.


Wherein I avoid references to “The Matrix” while discussing futuristic playground equipment.

I can’t say for certain, but this may just be the next step in Whac-A-Mole evolution.

Behold NEOS :

NEOS [by Playworld Systems] introduces videogame elements—blinking lights, buttons, beepers and timers—into outdoor playgrounds. Players run, jump, and work together to chase down light as it bounces from panel to panel throughout the rubberized metal structure. The light-tag games are aerobically intense and last just a minute at most.

Remember Hide-and-go-seek? While it is a game, it’s not generally played with any score keeping or carry-over to later rounds. You play until you’re done playing. It’s intrinsically motivating (i.e. for its own sake) rather than extrinsically motivated (e.g. for points or status). And so it’s as playful as it is gameful. Similarly, while NEOS incorporates videogame elements, I’m calling it a playful technology more than it is a game technology. Hence I blog it here for your thoughtful consideration.

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