PINOKY: Bringing your stuffed animals to life. But not in a creepy way.

Go ahead. You try wiggling your ears without help. It’s tough.

Two weeks ago I had opportunity to present a research game called Scoop! at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (What a mouthful. Everybody just calls it “CHI 2012”.)

One project was the singlularly most delightful of everything I saw. From the PINOKY abstract:

PINOKY is a wireless ring-like device that can be externally attached to any plush toy as an accessory that animates the toy, such as by moving its limbs. A user is thus able to instantly convert any plush toy into a soft robot. The user can control the toy remotely or input the movement desired by moving the plush toy and having the data recorded and played back. Unlike other methods for animating plush toys, PINOKY is non-intrusive, so alterations to the toy are not required.

Trust me. You want to watch the video. Not only does the device allow you to animate parts of essentially any plush toy, it’s also able to wirelessly communicate with other actuators and even record and playback simple motions. This means one can cause a fuzzy octopus to dance.

It was remarkable to experience the reaction of the audience. Despite their probing questions, hard core researchers and sensibly minded professionals alike were all charmed by this very playful technology. I was gratified that the team that developed PINOKY did not attempt to use this concept to somehow gamify plush toys. This was play — pure and simple.

For more, including a photo gallery, see this Wired article (from which the photo at the beginning of this post comes).


My hometown earns Playful City USA honor

Grand Rapids earns Playful City USA honor from KaBOOM!

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – In line for a possible $15,000 grant from Sprite, city parks also could get up to $30,000 from Dr Pepper.

Grand Rapids is one of 213 Playful City USA communities being recognized this year by the Washington, D.C. non-profit KaBOOM! for efforts to increase play opportunities for kids.

This is the second time that Grand Rapids has been named a Playful City since the program started in 2007. The honor stems from several factors including the city’s overall commitment to building new playgrounds and improving existing ones, KaBOOM! spokesman Mike Vietti said.

(via Friends of Grand Rapids Parks)


Making Faces on the Subway

And there’s even cooler nerdtastic digital signage on the inside of the newest model trains.

I’ve been living in New York City for just over half a year now. Apart from my official computer science graduate studies in play+tech, one of my favorite topics of study is the subway system and the behaviors surrounding its use. I love the subway. I am becoming a total subway nerd.

First of all, what you need to understand is that the trains run fairly reliably, but there’s not much in the way of communicating arrival times when the trains are off schedule (and schedules are not usually posted in the stations to begin with anymore). So, people anxiously look down the tunnels for hints of headlights in the distance. Keep in mind that the tunnels often curve away from the stations so there’s not much to see. Some stations have digital signs for arrival information, but they aren’t always accurate. Reportedly, because of the limits of old signalling equipment and maybe even concerns about terrorism, the city isn’t terrifically motivated to deliver accurate arrival times. I could be wrong about this. My point is that train arrival is often frought with anxiety.

I found this behavior of impatiently and habitually peeking down the subway tunnel rather fascinating. It’s an unintended user interaction model afforded by the subway’s design. It seemed something really interesting could be done with the tunnel entranceway or that moment when a train appears there.

For an HCI (Human Computer Interaction) class with my advisor, we were recently given the assignment to anthropomorphize an everyday item and to depict our concept as a storyboard. Inspiration struck. My storyboards are embedded in this post.

Storyboard #1 — Click to embiggen.

Since more robust arrival information isn’t available, perhaps the digital signage of the newest model trains could be reconfigured to transform the train itself into a character. In this way we could communicate something valuable about the train’s status while simultaneously engendering empathy with the riding public. Something like a real life Thomas the Tank Engine. The approach of creating a face has the added benefit of cross-cultural communication — by and large facial expressions are universal.

One of my team members suggested that we go further by incorporating sound into the mix. So we envisioned changing the familiar bing-bong of the doors opening to speed up when the train is on time and chipper and slow down when it’s behind schedule and melancholy. We even talked about adding a new child’s voice to the automated messages talking about how the train is feeling (no storyboards for these ideas).

Storyboard #2 — Click to embiggen.

The second thing you need to understand about the trains is that there’s an understood etiquette of sorts. When a train is at a station, it’s about to leave any moment. If you run to it and the conductor sees you, they will generally hold the doors so you can jump on. This works fairly well. Except for when the trains are stalled at the station due to construction or dispatch tie ups. At which point the train will sit at a station for an extended period of time with its doors open. For the average subway rider, seeing this is cause to rush to the train; they have no way to know how long the train has been there. Cars closest to the stairways fill to capacity while others remain relatively empty. And riders dash to the cars only to realize that they ran like an idiot for no reason.

So why not anthropomorphize the train to communicate when it’s sleeping? Or for that matter, there’s several facial expressions that could deliver valuable information on the train’s status all along the subway platform.

While technically this constitutes anthropomorphic design, I say these ideas are also a fine example of the potential for injecting playfulness into everyday technological systems.


“Activity oriented toward intrinsic goals, almost by definition, is play.”

I have been chastised. I posted a somewhat provocative question and then left it alone for over a month. Guilty as charged. In my defense, I’d like to point out that all the comments on the original post and in the reddit thread are available for everyone to see. Also. I plead grad school.

As I have been reflecting on everyone’s responses, I first had a moment of second guessing, wondering if I had asked the wrong question. Perhaps asking about your favorite toys would have been a better approach. I quickly realized that this question could easily introduce all sorts of factors beyond the essence of playfulness — sentimental associations that muddy the waters, as it were. I truly hope you all have toys that you love because of who gave them to you. But this wasn’t our purpose presently. I’m satisfied with my original question and very much so with the comments that came in response. Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts.

In reviewing the responses, I wasn’t surprised by them. I was surprised at their consistency. The same few toys or sorts of toys dominated. Building blocks, toy cars, dolls, even crayons. I assumed going in that there would be unusual gadgets or doodads making surprise appearances. Not the case. Even the Slinky that was listed shares a certain similitude with the other toys.

According to psychiatrist Peter Gray, “Activity oriented toward intrinsic goals, almost by definition, is play.” The “classic” toys that made so many appearances in the comments and reddit thread all share a central trait. They facilitate an engagement with the world that is intrinsically rewarding — building, exploring, pretending, creating. The process is as much as or even more rewarding than the end goal. In a sense, building the castle is more playful than playing with the castle.

Most digital toys are extrinsically oriented. That is, there’s an end experience in mind that is the “reward.” That reward generally amounts to variations on sensory stimulation. The human sensory system adapts to stimulation quickly; thus, pressing buttons and watching blinking lights are novel experiences that taper off in their ability to stimulate. Video games have a similar arc; however, they stretch the time of engagement considerably by straddling powerful extrinsic rewards (points, status, rich sensory stimulation) as well as an intrinsic reward (discovering the rules of the system). Through the power of computation, video games are able to change up each of these components to remain comparatively fresh for a long while.

On the other hand, however, building, exploring, pretending, and creating are all rewards unto themselves all throughout. These are playful all throughout. Hence, the toys that are endlessly playful are those that facilitate these intrinsically rewarding, playful experiences. So this brings me right back to the question I have been wrestling with for several years now: how do we use the power that technology affords us to facilitate, enhance, and even supercharge the intrinsically playful? That said, I think I’m making progress.


“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

We interrupt this blog to bring you this special post

To all five of my regular readers, this post is an experiment in data collection and participation and not the sometimes mildly semi-interesting articles and links I usually put up. In fact, if you could spread this particular post around, that would be seriously awesome.

If you’re new here, hi there. My name is Mike Karlesky. I’m a computer science Ph.D. student. More on me here. My topic of interest is playful technologies (or also what I call playful media). What’s that you ask? Well. I’m not talking about video games. Shoot. This is a long story. It’s probably easiest if you read this post and maybe look at this page or possibly skim this list of articles.

Please help me out by sharing your experiences with toys

I’ve been thinking a great deal about toys and what constitutes the “toyness” of toys — what is it that makes them playful towards embodying those properties in more complex technologies? My thoughts have recently landed on the idea of emergence (see post previously referenced), and I hope to explore this notion through your experiences.

This is where I hope you come in. I’ve disabled the normal comments for this post and replaced them with Disqus because Disqus allows comments to be commented upon and voted up and down. I’m conducting a completely non-scientific survey towards informing my future research — all by way of the comments on this post.

Here’s my question: What toy could you play with for hours on end & why?

Childhood toys or a toy you play with as an adult. Solo play or play with others by way of a given toy. I’m really interested to know:

  1. What toys crystallize the play experience for you in that they are endlessly playable?
  2. Why do you feel that is?

Feel free to post links and photos (especially for toys with which a white American Midwesterner such as myself might not be familiar). Please comment on others’ comments and please vote up any comments that echo your feelings on particular toys. If this works well, I hope the most popular comments will be the most informative. Remember, the question is for toys that you once found or still find repeatedly and consistently engaging in play at length. One comment per toy but feel free to comment multiple times.

My conjecture is that many modern digital toys do not embody playfulness as much as consumption (e.g. educational goals or entertainment/amusement). Consequently, one can be “done” with these sorts of toys quickly in that they have a limited scope of experience. Hence, because of this, we have the aphorism about cardboard boxes being better toys than that which comes in them. Consider, however, as a counter example that toy blocks seem to be endlessly playable. The definition of a toy is tricky. Many American children love playing with those spring-like door stops. Is that a toy? Do your best. I’m not considering any sort of game, video or otherwise, to be a toy — though perhaps there are objects within the games that you treated as toys (everybody plays with the mousetrap but rarely actually plays the game that contains it). And, yes, there is Minecraft; we can go with that.

What will happen with the comments collected?

Great question. I’m really not entirely sure. For certain, if enough comments come in (fingers crossed), I will synthesize and summarize what we have collectively learned in another post at a later date. And please feel free to do the same. I can’t promise anything more immediate than this as my actual thesis work will not begin for a while yet and then take quite some time to complete. Nevertheless, I hope this Internet study will inform that research towards building something of immense awesomosity that will contribute to how we play together in the future.

Thank you so much for your help. I hope you find this as enjoyable as I am excited to see what unfolds.

*The title of this post is, of course, a movie quote.

UPDATE (Feb. 13, 2012): The 5 Best Toys of All Time — it’s tongue-in-cheek but also kinda not. {via @mvandervoord}

UPDATE (Feb. 16, 2012): Gave same questions to AskReddit.

Page 1 ... 3 4 5 6 7 ... 27 Next 5 Entries »