Snake the Planet!

Snake the Planet! by MPU is a new project in Sydney that takes the classic mobile phone game ‘Snake’ and “adopts it for the urban canvas”.

When ‘Snake the Planet!” is projected onto buildings, each level is generated individually and based on the selected facade. Windows, door frames, pipes and signs all become boundaries and obstacles in the game. Shapes and pixels collide with these boundaries like real objects. The multi player mode lets players intentionally block each other’s path in order to destroy the opponent.

With ‘Snake the Planet’, any facade becomes a screen for urban gaming.

MPU (Mobile Projection Unit) plans to develop the work further towards an iPad application and eventually release the code as open source for other artists and designers to build on. It’s built using the increasingly popular OpenFrameworks

Looks like a nice piece of work and – note to my students – the video does a great job of both documenting, presenting and explaining the piece.

In a nice piece of synchronicity, I just found out that one member of MPU is Rene Christen, an ex-student of mine from COFA (the other MPU members are Lukasz Karluk and Nick Clark). One of the Creative Producers was another friend, Tim Buesing. I didn’t even know they knew each other. Sydney’s a small world.

(Oh, and strictly speaking, Snake was a video game before it made it onto the Nokia. I remember playing the BBC Micro version as a kid).

Understanding Interactivity Through Play

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Some months ago I officially became Dr. Polaine (Andy Polaine, PhD. for you Americans) and have been planning to write a series of posts about the main themes of my thesis, Developing A Language Of Interactivity Through The Theory Of Play, for some time.

So to coincide with a post over at Core77 about the journey of doing a design PhD, this is the first installment to introduce the main themes and to provide a link to download the entire thesis (5.9MB).

The background to doing the PhD was largely everything I had learned since the early Antirom days when we were trying to discover and uncover the essence of interactive media and really trying to understand what makes it different from other media. At the same time I was getting more and more interested in storytelling and was fascinated by fact that great stories, regardless of their content and style, tended to adhere to clearly defined structures that had been honed over thousands of years.

These converging interests gave rise to some apparently simple questions: What makes one interactive experience more engaging than another? What makes an interactive experience engaging? Why are some simple interactions so satisfying and others so dull? Why do technological marvels sometimes fail to satisfy whilst a cardboard box can provide hours of entertainment?

They sound trivial, but turned out to be very difficult to answer in a rigorous way. The easy answer is, like love and pornography, “I know it when I see it,” but that doesn’t really help anyone develop a strategy to analyse or create new interactive works. New Media (to use an uncomfortable term) has had its fair share of academic attention, but most of it I have found pretty tedious and often distanced from my own experience of creating and using interactive media. So at the one end we have the media and cultural theorists and at the other we have the HCI folk. In the middle somewhere are the media art aficionados.

At Antirom we were playing with the affordances of the tools, playing with our understanding of narrative structure, playing games and, most importantly, playing at making interactive ‘things’. We were not terribly sure what one should call these ‘things’ that we were making. Sometimes it was tempting to refer to the medium itself, such as CD-ROMs, but this only described the storage format, not the interactive experiences. Partly because many of these interactive experiments were incomplete and partly because we felt they were experiments in play in both their creation and usage, we settled on calling them ‘toys’ for the most part. Sometimes we would take the code guts of one ‘toy’ and re-use or re-combine it with another and these guts we would call an ‘engine’.

Thus, within the same breath, we would use both non-industrial and industrial terminology for the same ‘thing’. It soon became clear to us that the “interactives” (as we now describe them) we were making a marked departure from the media forms that had gone before and that a language to describe them, think about them and create them also had to be invented. The media theory we had imbibed as students, that helped us deconstruct the complex layers of semiotics in traditional media, was rendered weak and impotent.

I couldn’t use HCI or common user-experience frameworks to examine an interactive artwork and at the same time I couldn’t view a commercial website or application design with a media arts lens. Yet I felt I could understand an interactive artwork with the same sensibility as a might analyse a piece of iPhone UI design, but there wasn’t a framework for me to articulate that understanding.

This is what became the subject of my PhD, which explores a still-developing discipline and thus borrows from a wide range of existing, established and not-so-established disciplines. Art and media historians and theorists may feel it does not draw upon enough cultural theory, nor does it draw on the often opaque language of those disciplines. HCI proponents will want more empirical and technical data. Behavioural psychologists may also have wished for more direct experimental data and linguists a deeper examination of the semiotics, semantics and syntax of interactivity.

The key to the whole exploration is play. Understanding how play and playfulness work, what constitutes play (still undefinable) and how much everyone like to engage in play when given the chance, is central to the thesis. But along the way it was necessary to draw upon a wide range of disciplines – from design, art, cognitive science, linguistics and more.

I argue that play is such a fundamental building block of culture, society, technology and cognition that it is the ideal lens through which to examine the interactive experience. It is versatile enough to cross boundaries and fundamental enough to be understood intuitively. Through an understanding of the intersection between movement, embodied cognition, metaphor and play, a set of principles of interactivity are developed that are flexible enough to analyse and be applied to a broad spectrum of interactive experiences, from interactive artworks to services to individual user interface elements.

The four main principles are a deconstruction of the interactive experience, which might last a second or several days. You can squash or stretch the timescale, but I have found the principles to hold true regardless of the context. I’ll post more detail on each one in coming weeks, but here they are for now:

  1. The Invitation to Play
  2. The Playing Field & the Rules
  3. Challenge, Boredom and Anxiety
  4. Triviality, Open-endedness, Promises

Writing a thesis like this is like painting a large bridge – once you get to the end, you have to start all over again. Naturally, in the six years it took me to write the thesis (part-time!), technology and culture moved on rapidly. The iPod was in its second generation when I started and the iPad was just about to be released when I finished. The latter was important because it confirmed my thoughts on “the disappearing interface” and the need for a deep understanding of metaphor when examining interactivity.

Social networks also exploded onto the scene as I was writing my PhD. The final section of the thesis is somewhat of a postscript and proposes that these principles provide a way to examine the phenomenal growth of social networks and the fundamental cultural shifts we are experiencing today as a result of the friction generated between emerging networked technologies and the industrial age structures they are dismantling.

In future posts I’ll go into more detail on the various sections, but in the meantime I’d welcome your feedback via the comments or Twitter.

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

The COTEN project is gaining momentum and there are some excellent discussions going on. A lot of the conversation is about different teaching and institutional structures and the styles of learning they encourage or discourage.

I just wrote a response to a post, which delves a little bit into my PhD subject, which is about understanding interactivity through play. As I came to the end of my PhD I realised that the principles of interactivity that I developed (more on this soon) held true for a number of other areas, including teaching and service design. I posted a response on the COTEN forums, but I’d like to air it here as a blog post in its own right:

Teaching, Learning and Mazes

Over my years of teaching I’ve tried all sorts of approaches, from leaving things very open to having things very structured. I have found it to be totally context dependent. Some students love to be left to their own devices while others crave structure. The challenge is to cater for both. It also depends on individual courses and the backgrounds of those taking them.

I also realised that the more I hands-on helped, the more helpless my students became because I was doing all the learning on their behalf. When I first started teaching, it took me a semester before I realised that helping them less actually helped them more because they worked things out for themselves and learned by doing.

Finding the right balance is the main skill of teaching I think and you really have to go with your intuition combined with direct student feedback and ignore most of the other pedagogical literature. I’m sure colleagues will shoot me down for saying that, but I found this when I did study the literature and work on this on a short post-grad course in teaching at higher education level – in the attempt to create the perfect course, it just got over structured and sapped the life and energy out of it for both me and the students.

Writing my PhD on interactivity and play, I developed a set of principles for understanding interactivity through the lens of play that I think applies here. Bear with me, because it’s going to sound like I’m going way off topic, but we’ll come back to the point:

The central principles, among others, are about finding the “magic circle” – the space of play that defines being in play and out of play (such as the lines on a football pitch, the sides of a cardboard box, etc.) and the rules of play. These rules allow for different behaviour during play (e.g. you can tackle someone holding a ball to the ground) than during “normal” life. One of the things that I argue is that knowing these two things is essential to any interaction – from interpersonal through interface to society. On the interactive interface front, users need to understand what game they’re playing and the interface needs to be set up in the right way. In this way you can explore, analyse and design for both tightly controlled UI environments such as an iPhone app or a part of an operating system, but the principles also allow for the same analysis of an interactive art installation. The key is understanding the context. In the latter example, it might be desired that the interactor is deliberately tricked or gets lost or that the interface is ambiguous unlike the clarity of an iPhone app. On the other hand that iPhone app might have playful elements that encourage you to explore the boundaries of the play space (the magic circle) and help you to learn the interface without ever really feeling like you’re learning at all, such as the iPhone’s “one free interaction”.

In the art installation example, the critical aspect of getting the interaction right is that interactors understand that they are meant to be lost. That is, they understand that they’re supposed to not understand the interface straight away and that discovering how it all works is part of the experience. Experienced videogamers will understand this idea straight away, because in most videogames the point is not to read the rules and then play the game, the point is that finding out what the rules are is part of the gameplay experience.

It struck me a while ago as I was deconstructing all of this how much it parallels the learning experience. Learning, by definition, involves a journey into unknown territory, otherwise you would not need to learn it (because it’s not unknown). This is often and usually inherently uncomfortable – nobody likes to feel stupid or confused. It’s rather like being in a maze – at least it is if the teaching and learning experience is going well, because when you are in a maze you know that you are meant to be confused and that somewhere there is a way out and/or if you yell out, somebody will come and help you. This kind of learning experience is usually very positive and why we hear so much terminology of good teachers being ‘guides’. But simply giving someone a map would be “cheating” in play and game terminology and we all know that this takes the fun out of playing.

Another kind of learning experience that is extremely negative is feeling lost, but not knowing you are in a maze that you are supposed to work your way out of. When that’s the case, you just feel lost and confused and it’s all pretty scary because wherever you turn it seems like a dead end. In this example, a map of the maze is equivalent to the tools and methods and technology or techniques that lost students often cling to at the expense of the learning experience they might have if they could work out their own way out of the maze. It’s a completely understandable emotional state, but it doesn’t lead to much lifelong or long-lasting learning.

In both cases you are in a maze, so the context is the same, but the overarching difference is the conceptual space you are in mentally. Setting up this space – the magic circle and the rules of play – seem to me to be the skill that not only the teacher needs to bring to the learning experience, but also that the institutions structures need to encourage.

Most of the time it seems that a lot of effort is spent on making maps to the maze and not on trying to develop the mental space. I think this is because the former is concrete and feels manageable and measurable, while the latter is highly personal and not directly measurable (but the results do show). It’s rather like the difference between Apple’s approach to usability and Jakob Nielsen’s obsessively warped understanding of it (in which he exclaims that, “users don’t know where they can click” when referring to a multitouch device).

Sparks – Playful Innovation

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Philips Design has created a boardgame called Spark to help generate insights. It looks like it is a pretty simple premise – there are a set of characters (basic personas) and a set of situations. As you roll the dice and the characters land on the situations, you have to brainstorm the implications.

According to Slava Kozlov, Senior Consultant in Strategic Futures Design at Philips Design:

“You can experiment without taking risks. Suspend your values and beliefs and adopt different roles which allow you to consider issues from a different angle. Learn how to deal with new situations effectively. Think more unconventionally while remaining relevant. And, in the process, enjoy yourself more!”

In many respects it’s not all that innovative. Personas and scenarios are often used in brainstorming sessions. But one of the aims of this approach seems to be to take the activity away from the slightly forced nature of some brainstorming sessions. In theory (as much research shows) the more participants’ minds relax into a playful state, the more laterally creative they should start to think.

There is a quite a bit of talk in the PDF article about “serious games” and a mention of The Serious Games Institute. I’m not a fan of this kind of terminology, the same as the idea of serious play. I understand why people use this, but it is an immediately apologetic framing of play. Play is play and it is important – it doesn’t need the prefix of being serious to make it so. It doesn’t do much to advance the value of play.

As for the game, I can imagine in a corporate culture that this could be a useful tool allowing people to enter into a suspended-judgement, creative idea generation space because is “only a game”. Of course the flipside could also be the case – that it or its outcomes are not taken seriously because it’s a game. It is good to see these ideas becoming more accepted and mainstream though.

There’s a video of Birgitta ten Napel talking about the game on the Philips site too.

Social Play

I’ve just finished up a chapter in my PhD about social play. Most of it is about online interaction, but quite a bit is about how to bring strangers together to make connections in public spaces.

Serendipitously, Iain just posted this clip thanks to Knotty’s. If you don’t get why social networks work, watch this:

New magneticNorth web site

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Great to see magneticNorth’s new website live. Brendan gave me a sneak peek of it yesterday and I love it.

The navigation is very playful and intuitive. Actually it is intuitive because it is playful. You basically scribble a doodle and this makes a mask into which a piece from their portfolio opens. You can then click on that item to view more info about the work or simply make another scribble to look at a new piece. The navigation across the top is a history that you can move back and forth through or reset.

What is nice about the whole thing is that you just don’t have worry about doing anything ‘right’. You can scribble any shape and you can scribble over the top of other scribbles and everything automagically sorts itself out.

Go and have a play yourself and tell me what you think.

[UPDATE: Quite some debate started about this, which I’m very happy to be part of. I wrote a long response, which is almost a post in itself, but decided to leave it in the comments.]

Chrome Experiments

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Josh Nimoy has made a version of his (unpleasantly named) Ball Droppings piece for Google’s Chrome Experiments site. Simple and addictive, you basically draw lines and adjust the dropping rate to set the balls in bouncy, musical motion. The Javascript version doesn’t work in Safari (sigh), but Firefox on the Mac does the job.

The whole Chrome Experiments site is worth poking around – there are some nice interactive toys there. Casey Reas’ Twitch is a fun set of little challenges that move from browser window to browser window:

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Christoph Résigné’s Amiga Workbench Emulator is ridiculous, but very well done too.

Browser Ball is a ball that you can throw around different browser windows. Its author, Mark Mahoney asks, “If I tell you it’s less lame than it sounds, will you give it a shot?” It is, indeed, less lame than it sounds and strangely compelling (though it send my CPU crazy).

There are plenty more of these little experiments with the technology. It will be great to see if Google Chrome is actually any good once it comes to the Mac (I haven’t tried it in BootCamp yet), but many of these experiments work in other browsers.

Exploring these ideas will, no doubt, lead to some interesting applications, but they’re fun in their own right too, so take them in that spirit. The comments say it all:

By Bill the non computer geek on April 01, 2009
Saw the demo. So just what does this do? I see a ball bouncing to different windows……so?

By sam on April 29, 2009
you shouldnt be here

(Thanks to Rachel for the heads up).

Tonematrix

Inspired by the Tenori-On, Andre Michelle put together Tonematrix. Each square creates a wave force that spreads across the grid (I don’t think that affects the sound though).

It reminds me quite a bit of a piece Andy Allenson made at Antirom years ago that was a multi-user grid sequencer. The smart thing about it was that you could adjust the grid cell amounts to produce complex polyrhythms. It was done in Director and I can’t find it online anymore unfortunately, but it was very compelling. I was always amazed that he got it working over the network too – around 10 years ago now.

I am glad to see sound finally getting some attention in Flash (now that pixels have arrived too). The work Andre has been doing is amazing, but I’d really like to see it being used for more unique, unusual and playful experiments rather than reproducing vintage sequencers and synthesisers (that’s what Reason is for, right?). Somehow that seems to be a missed opportunity – Tonematrix is a more interesting direction.

More on Andre’s blog.

(Thanks to Matt Delprado for the heads up).

IDEO Play with VR

Regular readers will know I’m pretty cynical about VR and I’ve never been much of a fan of the CAVE system. The last time I used one at iCinema I was treated to an interface that looked like it was designed in 1989 and a headache from the glasses.

The above video is from IDEO’s trip to WATG’s labs, where they have an iCube set up. It’s pretty entertaining to see Dave lose his balance as he stands on the edges of virtual walls and it’s clearly working on a fairly immersive level in a way I have never experienced in any VR that I have tried. The reason, usually, is that the equipment and the environment are so imposing that you can’t really ever engage your willing suspension of disbelief and immerse yourself. That’s the irony of immersive VR systems.

I think part of the reason this is working well here is because WATG are hospitality architects, so they know a thing or two about making compelling environments and have some decent 3D chops. The landscape Dave is wandering around in looks at least as good as Unreal Tournament 2003 instead of Manic Miner.

It also helps that the headset is rather smaller these days, though the joystick device that the woman guiding him uses looks like a cordless power drill. It’s hard to tell what this would really be like when the novelty wears off.

I can see it’s use in terms of an architectural projects and, maybe, a product design, but I’m still wary that you would get much of a real feel for either of those things from the VR version. VR still feels like a technology waiting for a use rather than a useful technology. (Check out the beginning of this video where she’s standing lost and forlorn inside a Windows desktop – this would be my nightmare).

One last thing, I wish IDEO wouldn’t tag it “serious play” as if they need to justify using the word play. I know they use it to reference Tim Brown’s talk, but play is play and it’s a legitimate as anything else.

One free (playful) interaction


Snapback pages from Chris No on Vimeo.

Great collection of “free interactions” and insightful commentary from Chris Noessel on the Cooper blog. Basically these are little interactive extras, sometimes by-products of a design, sometimes seemingly deliberate (like the iPhone example above). Things that you like to just play with and that have no obvious, functional ‘use’, hence the term “free interaction”.

I don’t think we should be surprised that things like these make a difference – play and playfulness is critical to an interaction whether it is physical or virtual. Whether it is the weight of a nice piece of cutlery in your hand or an elastic interface element on-screen, they all make the everyday object and usage more engaging. It’s often an unconscious affect going on too, but designers who understand this do very well indeed.

It is also a different mindset. It’s interesting for me that Noessel calls it a “free interaction” because that comes from a position that ‘normally’ interactions should always have a tool- or purpose-like function. That mindset seems to be oblivious to the idea that creating pleasurable affect is an important and useful function.

I think it is great, although strangely newbie (he is no newbie), that he ends with a Call To Action for interaction designers:

Since we want our designs to be humane and, presuming they fulfill their utilitarian purposes well, emotionally satisfying, I suggest that designers begin to include one free interaction in their designs to enable the channeling of energy and simple expression. Design this interaction such that:
  • It’s “free,” i.e. having no significance to the task or content
  • It’s discoverable in ordinary use of the product
  • It’s quick and repeatable (Less than half a second.)
  • It’s pleasant

Almost everything I’ve been involved with in interaction design has been about trying to foreground this playful aspect.