Want an efficient route? Use Google Maps. Want a whimsical route? Use Serendipitor.

University at Buffalo professor’s app adds whimsy to mapped routes:

Shepard and a few colleagues have developed a mobile application for the iPhone and iPad that helps its users stumble onto something new or see a familiar place in a different light.

Their Serendipitor app uses Google Maps to provide a route to a requested or random destination, but with a set of whimsical instructions to follow.

Walk behind a dog until it notices you. Find the nearest tree and sit under it for one minute. Locate a dark alley and walk down it, and if you can’t find one just close your eyes.

“The applications that I write are trying to get us to stop doing this,” Shepard said, holding his face close to his phone, “and start looking outward again.”


The Young & The Scoreless

Fascinating article from Kill Screen, The Young & The Scoreless:

We enter this world a wondrous bundle, 100 billion neurons strong and bearing more synapses — those flashpoints of memory and sensation — than the adults we will become… when we are born we’re more aware and learning faster than we ever will again. Researchers, comparing the brain scans of babies to adults, have found that the only grown-up experience that even approaches this awe-inspiring awareness that we feel as infants is when we watch a really, really good movie or play certain video games. Only then is the back of our mind lit up like a child’s. Only then are we so fully immersed in a world that isn’t really real.

The article chronicles attempts by game designers wrestling with the challenges of engaging children in real play beyond mere media consumption of video games as well as returning adults to child-like play states. The science involved and the motivations of these designers and technologists are compelling.

Near the end of his presentation Takahashi gets to the heart of what he wishes to create — a return to a child-like, exploratory mind. A return to pure play.

Takahashi’s creation may be a valiant attempt at returning adult gamers to a childlike mind, but this is a nearly impossible thing. Scientists and academics who study small children, who know better than anyone the intricate mysteries of the very young, often talk about how much they would give to experience the world as their subjects do. Some say they’d give back all the awards and accolades they’ve ever received to be able to be three-years-old for just one hour.

Ultimately the people and projects in the article move on or fall short of their goals. As I read, I found myself cocking my head to one side and thinking there was an obvious problem. Though everyone in the article is speaking about creating true play and crafting playful experiences like none other, it’s always in the context of video games. Perhaps they are mistakenly conflating playful with game and are trapped in game-like thinking. What I believe they actually seek is a technology-enhanced creativity and exploration rooted in free play (think playing with blocks) that is not central to games (jumping over mushrooms to save princesses). Of course, I’m always trying to see the world in terms of playful technology. So there is that.


Wherein a cardboard box is more like a garden than a skyscraper

Let me paraphrase a quote I cannot seem to find (if you know of it, please drop me a note). I recall someone once expressing a thought along this line: A new idea does not come so much as a eureka moment but as a series of small discoveries.

What I wrestle with in writing this blog is the process of hanging thoughts on a feeling — a kind of sense I have that there is an unexplored, significant, uniquely playful direction in which to take technology. At present, I can barely draw the boundaries of this notion and yet I can still feel its edges even as I struggle to put words to it. So recent days have been exciting as I’ve experienced several small discoveries in just what this idea of playful technology might mean.

The word playful is distinct from game and even from play.

For a long time I’ve made the natural association of the word playful with the word play. On its surface, it seems rather obvious. I’m beginning to think more deeply about this and seem to be moving to a richer understanding of these words. Play encompasses many expressions of the term, encompassing games and non-games alike. What if something that is a type of play is not necessarily playful?

English being both a language wonderfully descriptive but also at times quite ambiguous, let me get at this distinction with some simple questions. Can you imagine describing a game as playful? I bet you can. Can you also imagine describing a very different game without the word playful ever entering your mind? I know I can. Isn’t that interesting? If a game is a kind of play then how can one game be thought of as playful and another as something that’s not particularly playful? I posit this is because the semantics of playful and play are not nearly as related as we may think.

When I introduce the phrase “playful technologies”, the people to whom I’m speaking will invariably ask me to explain. For the last few months this is how I’ve started that conversation…

Me: “You know video games?”
Them: “Yeah?” (They say with a certain expectant, upward lilt of recognition.)
Me: “Okay. Not that.”

Slowly it’s begun to sink in that this is a more profound distinction than my pithy, if confounding, way of starting conversations might first seem. In fact, not realizing it, I began to get at this very notion a few months ago when I wrote about gaminess and ungames.


Playfulness embodies a sort of organic emergence.

In general, games are goal oriented. Their structure leads the player down a sometimes lengthy path bounded by a variety of rules to achieve some aim. The whole experience involves many layers of long-form design towards that end. Playful experiences are much different than this. At the core of something playful, there exists an emergence — a capacity to spark behaviors or experiences that very well may not have been designed or even intended, a complexity that arises from a multiplicity of simple interactions.

I recently read a transcript of a presentation given by Brian Eno entitled Composers as Gardeners that helped me see this. Eno’s central point is this:

My topic is the shift from “architect” to “gardener”, where “architect” stands for “someone who carries a full picture of the work before it is made”, to “gardener” standing for “someone who plants seeds and waits to see exactly what will come up”.

A game is architected. Something that is playful is “grown”. Grown in the sense that seeds are planted and at each interaction with a player those seeds instantaneously grow into forms and combinations not necessarily envisioned by the gardener. But just as elaborate architecture can include garden terraces, this distinction between games and playfulness does not preclude a game from including playfulness — hence the possibility of both games that are playful and games that are not. With its block-based world construction, Minecraft is a great example of a video game that is also very playful (and very popular because of it).

And now onto this business about cardboard boxes.

How many times have you heard the well worn trope about kids playing more with the box a toy came in than with the toy itself? Isn’t it interesting that something about this statement rings true however exaggerated it may be.

Blocks (and many other playful objects) have this emergent quality. There’s just enough there to play with but the experience has not been mapped out to a distinct endpoint as in a game. There exists just enough properties and interactions to allow combinations of simple interactions without end. In the very best kind of playfulness, there’s hints and suggestions as to how to play but nothing guiding or constricting that freeform expression. The player explores and combines what is already there. In my opinion, this is why so many technology-laden toys fall flat (see The Zen of Toy Blocks). The technology has been incorporated and a few specific interactions designed in such a way as to map out how to arrive at an endpoint. This is not the essence of playfulness, let alone much fun.

Technology added to games has opened an amazing new world. The same has not yet happened in playfulness. I’m certain I have not expressed my notions here with perfect clarity. And, of course, I’m still working these ideas out. That said, I believe the way forward is to explore playfulness as emergence through technology — using technology to imbue objects, spaces, and experiences with the seeds of many simple but emergent interactions. With technology, what has been limited by physical constraints in space or time can be made vastly more intricate. The goal is to not create something more complex. Rather, I’m proposing that playful technology involves the interweaving of a tremendous number of simple interactions that can be combined in compelling, enthralling, and very new ways only possible through technology.


(Image by Paul Lim under Creative Commons Licence)


Wonder Object: Playful Mechanized Objects by Gary Schott

From Gary’s Eskimo Kisser seriesGary Schott is a jeweler, artist, and metalsmith.

Gary creates small kinetic sculptures with a certain whimsy and playfulness. Though certainly not of the high-tech of my interests, Gary’s work succinctly captures both the essence of playul design and the connection of play to intimacy. Whether it’s millions of transistors or three gears, playful technology is wondrous.

View a short documentary on Gary’s work [Vimeo].

(via Colossal)


Petting Your Password

My grad school funding at present is connected to an interdisciplinary program focused on security research. That may sound far removed from the direction I’m supposed to be taking developing the ideas of playful technology and all that. But hold on. Let me throw some knowledge at you.

Security is essential. Or rather, being able to trust our fancypants computer systems is essential. Security also tends to be seen at odds with usability. Certain design principles can alleviate much of that tension. That said, certain security interactions remain a pain and inspire frustration at best and outright circumvention at worst. The intent of my funding is to look at security from a very broad perspective — including Human Computer Interaction. My advisor and I are exploring how we might use playful interactions to offset certain necessary usability costs in security systems — a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down (and, yes, that’s stuck in your head for the rest of the day now).

Some security-related interactions (particularly authentication) are just no fun. Passwords expire at seemingly inopportune moments. They’re hard to remember, and there’s so many to remember. Rules for creating them cause you to grumble @&#%! (hey, that’s a good password right there). A notion we discussed at length is the nature of passwords and security as part of an ecosystem. That is, that security is something you tend like a garden. Katherine even drew the parallel of viewing passwords as having a lifecycle towards asking how a compost heap of old passwords might help fertilize a new crop of digital certificates.

All this lead me to certain ideas (that we’re not at present pursuing) about creating a kind of tangibility to passwords or security tokens or simply security itself. These things in and of themselves are quite ethereal and very unreal, though the implications of compromised security are very real. There’s an inherent misalignment in how humans view and interact with security. How might we address this?

It occurs to me that we have passwords that are tangible in some sense already. Two-factor authentication systems often make use of pocket-size hardware tokens. It also occurs to me that the form factor and smarts in these tokens is not that far removed from the likes of Tamagotchi digital pets. So, what if all the techno mumbo jumbo of your digital security profile was crafted into the character of a digital pet? There’s something hardwired into us that enjoys the act of nurturing. Tamagotchi demonstrate just how compelling that interest to nurture can be — even if virtual. Actions like walking, feeding, and taking to the veterinarian your digital pet could map to updating your passwords, reviewing privacy settings, responding to policy changes, and maybe even acting socially/communally in the digital equivalent of a dog park. Heck — old passwords and credentials could even be subject to a pooper scooper.

This is the sort of application of playful technologies I have in mind. And, now, I get to work on such things fulltime. My actual, current research project is quite a bit broader in scope; we’re yet working to flesh out the concepts. More on that in the months to come.


(Image: SecurID by Purple Slog under Creative Commons license)
(Image: Tamagotchi by quimby under Creative Commons license)