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The Zen of Toy Blocks

I’ve written before about toy blocks and the opportunity they afford to embody this idea of playful media I talk about. There’s simply something compelling about this tangible, playful form. Toy blocks seem to distill playful technology down to its essence — so much so that the form naturally attracts reinvention and exploration.

To be accurate, each of the projects I listed in my previous post were generally more of the form of tiles than blocks. Still, the blockiness abides. Project Blox [video] is a new project in the vein of high tech toy blocks developed by students at the University of Texas at Austin. In this case, Blox attempt to be much more blocky than tiley.

Disclaimer: I want to be clear in what I’m about to say that I am not criticizing any of the previous projects or Project Blox so much as using them as reference points as I’m working through the notions of playful media. I’m excited that these sorts of projects exist and am looking forward to working on my own.

“Platformization” is what I’ll call the general trend of mashing up high tech plus toy blocks. That is, the underlying, unspoken design goal is to add technology to a cube or tile in a way that fits in that physical form and then allow development of applications using those processors, sensors, and user interface elements. In and of itself, this is a fine thing. It’s cool, geek out stuff. From my vantage point concerned with playfulness, however, this approach tends to yield small, box shaped computers more than turbocharged toy blocks.

A block has a flat side? That could be a display screen. A block has an orientation? Add accelerometers. Blocks are often very close to one another? Short-range wireless communication is a natural. But do these additions support and enhance the natural modes of play that blocks embody? In general, as it is, I don’t think so. Where there is a screen, a player is unlikely to hide it and thus unlikely to stack or build with the screenified blocks. Where the abstraction of an application (like a maze or spelling game) is the highest order playful interaction, the blocks become a vessel for that application and not actually part of play. Anything that ties the block to a particular use model will naturally limit its other interactions. In the case of Project Blox, for instance, there’s a single display screen. This naturally lends itself to 2D applications with the screen face up. Will a player imagine such a block as a space capsule and move it through 3D space (with whoosing sounds, of course) as it lands on an alien landscape that is peculiarly blocky? Perhaps not.

I find myself thinking on this topic of toy blocks quite a bit. I’m moving far away from the question of “What can we add to toy blocks?” and am landing on “What is the essential playfulness of blocks and how do we extend and enhance it?” That is, first understand what playing with blocks is all about before adding anything to it that interrupts that mode of interaction. I’m not suggesting we scrap the idea of adding tech to toy blocks. Quite the contrary. That said, I think the key is in choosing user interface elements very carefully to respect the magic of playing with blocks — the creative, imaginative, tactile, educational, and even social goodness. Of course, I’m still working out what this means. Perhaps in contrast to whiz-bang displays, it may mean very low-fi user interface elements connected to very hi-fi smarts. I hope time will tell.

(Project Blox via Engadget)

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