Not many workplaces contain vast bins of Legos, but at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab, the popular Danish building blocks are a needed tool for creating the toys of the future.
The Media Lab's Toys of Tomorrow group is charged with conceiving the technology behind toys which will hit store shelves five to ten years in the future.
"The basic charter is, is there something about new technology that we at the Media Lab can give to play?" said Brian Smith, assistant professor of media arts & sciences at MIT. "Half the charter is to build things that are weird and fun and kind of nutty."
Fitting the bill is the Squeeze Tuba, a U-shaped foam tuba the size of an adult's arm which is covered in soft, squeezable velvet. The Squeeze Tuba serves as an accessible entree to music for kids, who are more typically introduced to music via dry theory and principles, according to Tod Machover, a 45-year-old assistant professor of Music and Media at MIT.
"For years I've wanted a musical interface that would let me push and twist and jab," said Machover, who is also a cellist and a composer. "Most of the (musical computer) interfaces that have been built so far ... are plastic and rubber, (and) we're looking into things which are sort of soft and squeezable."
The Squeeze Tuba has internal sensors and sensors sewn into its fabric which can be programmed to emit notes and noises. Sometimes, a particular pressure produces a particular note, but the tuba can also be set to emit a continuous sound whose quality, such as pitch or clarity, changes when the tuba is manipulated. For example, if someone plunges their fingers into the Squeeze Tuba and moves them aggressively and rapidly, the sound will be "electronic and quick," Machover said.
The Squeeze Tuba will not have to be plugged in to work. "Whatever's needed to make or transform sound will be inside the toy," Machover said. But the instrument will be capable of being linked to home theaters or to other music toys so that "you can pass your melody around," he said.
The Squeeze Tuba or instruments of like ilk will probably be commercially available in two years, according to Machover.
"We wanted to make them quite inexpensive and completely conceivable to distribute in a fairly large quantity and ... make a dent in the way kids are introduced to music," Machover said.
Introducing kids to stories of the past is the idea behind Story Mat, the brainchild of Kimiko Ryokai, a 23-year-old Media Lab graduate student from Japan.
The Story Mat prototype is a quilt Ryokai's mother made when Ryokai was a child. The quilt is strewn with a townscape including houses, trees, lakes and a meandering railroad track, and Ryokai spent hours as a child telling stories on the mat by moving stuffed animals or other toys across it from house to tree to lake. For reasons long forgotten, many of Ryokai's stories took place on a patch of quilt bearing a parking lot with seven numbered spaces.
"It's too bad that I can't get to the stories I told many years ago," Ryokai said.
With Story Mat, Ryokai hopes to provide a link to stories previously told. A basic voice recorder picks up the verbal story and a mat-sized sensor underlies the quilt to capture the travels of the toy, which can then be retraced on the quilt by an overhead projector casting down a beam. Originally, the toy contained a wireless mouse, but that could only register relative position. The tracking would be interrupted if a child picked the mouse up and put it down elsewhere instead of sliding it along the quilt continuously. Electromagnetic sensing may solve that problem. Potentially, touching a toy to a particular location on the Story Mat could activate the audio and visual record of a previous story which began at that same spot.
Story Mat may prove especially helpful in fostering creativity in hierarchical cultures such as Japan, according to Ryokai.
"There's a very strong seniority in Japan and children are more passive than in the U.S.," Ryokai said. "In Japan, storytelling is adults telling kids stories, who listen."
Ryokai said her mother was surprised, though pleased, that Ryokai is basing her graduate work at MIT on the quilt.
"She would never imagine that it would go to the U.S. and be played with by many children," Ryokai said.
The Media Lab is chock full of stuffed animals and the Story Mat toys are just down the hall from chickens in varying states of assembly. The demo chicken -- the one with a soft yellow chicken belly covering its steely electronics-filled spine -- can be used to interact with a cartoon swamp on a projection screen. Wiggle the toy chicken's wings and the onscreen chicken flaps up in the air, beyond the reach of the onscreen cartoon raccoon. Waddle the chicken toward the swampy onscreen horizon and the onscreen chicken heads straight that way, though it displays a penchant for veering to the side.
"Our stated mission is to think five to ten years out, so sometimes things work but a little sketchy, because the hardware isn't discovered yet," said Bill Tomlinson, a 26-year-old Media Lab graduate student. "This was made to run on a home computer in five to ten years, rather than our million-dollar SGI (Silicon Graphics Inc.) in the basement."
The SGI system handles the graphics rendering, but the characters' behavior is controlled on a PC, and the projection screen could some day be a television or home theater, Tomlinson said. The chicken interacts with the computers via radio frequency and the software controlling the action makes the characters freeze up every two minutes for around two seconds, he said.
"It's all written in Java, so it garbage collects every once in a while," Tomlinson said. "When you have a couple of hundred thousand lines of code, inevitably that happens."
More information about MIT's Media Lab can be found on the Internet at http://www.media.mit.edu/.