I have to confess: Guitar Hero kicks ass. There’s nothing better than getting stimulated by several senses in harmony, which is why people love dancing, delicious candlelit dinners or my favourite: snowboarding with music. We seem to dig synesthaesia.  That’s also why rythm action games are so fun (see also Audiosurf and Music Catch) – but what’s really interesting is when the game let’s you play with the music rather than just on it.

Here are three that blur the line between game and musical toy.


Dain Saint and William Stallwood’s Auditorium won the prize for most creative game in this year’s Mochis (which recognises the best Flash games each year). It’s a cross between a musical instrument, a physics based puzzle game and the Aurora Borealis, and seriously addictive. I’d recommend it to anyone.



Way back in 2003, designer and artist Josh Nimoy came up with this very simple concept which has since made it to just about every platform, most recently as one of the purely Javacript games in Google’s Chrome Experiments. In the words of Gosfish Games: 

“BallDroppings is an addicting and noisy play-toy. It can also be seen as an emergence game. Alternatively this software can be taken seriously as an audio-visual performance instrument. Balls fall from the top of the screen and bounce off the lines you are drawing with the mouse. The balls make a percussive and melodic sound, whose pitch depends on how fast the ball is moving when it hits the line. This delightful application allows experimentation with sound and vision which will compound and intrigue you. Whether you are an adult or child, scientific brainbox or avid gamer. It doesn’t have a plot, no heroine, no villain. It has no guns or alien beings. It is simply time to get creative, and those who are creative will love this.”



This blurs the line more towards musical toy or synthesiser than game, but I expect is fun in much the same way as BallDroppings. You manipulate a series of blocks (which look like pucks) on a touch sensitive table, with each one either generating or allowing you to manipulate a sound, all by moving them around.

“The way the Reactable works is deeply inspired bymodular analogue synthesizers such as those developed by Bob Moog in the early 60s. Reactable’s pucks represent the building blocks of electronic music, each one having a different functionality in sound generation or in effect processing. While in modular synthesizers one typically had to connect these different modules with patch cables in a complex and error-prone process, on the Reactable this is attained in a much easier and intuitive way, since connections between the pucks are managed automatically based on their types and affinities and on the proximity between them. As a result, one can construct any specific setup quickly and on the fly, by simply moving the pucks and bringing them into proximity with each other. Additionally, the resulting sonic flows are represented graphically on the table surface always showing the real waveforms that travel from one object to the other.”

Why only games?

With tools like Arduino and Processing, it’s surprisingly easy to experiment with ways of combining touch, light and sound in cool and fun ways. The question is: can these techniques also be applied to the more mundane and functional objects around us? Could we inject the same sense of wonder elsewhere? How much more engaging can we make our world?


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How long until this is realised?

UPDATE  – 2019, if Microsoft is to be believed (well, more or less)

Talking of packaging

January 28, 2009

If you haven’t seen this already, it’s a brilliant parody of Microsoft’s graphic design style.

Amazingly, it was produced *by Microsoft itself* to “to humorously highlight the challenges we have faced RE: packaging and to educate marketers here about the pitfalls of packaging/branding” (words of Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla, cited by iPodObserver ).

There is hope yet for the big guy.

I managed to make it down to BETT on Saturday, and found that yet again, the golden rule of conferences continued to apply: the bigger your stand, the less likely you are to be cutting edge. Here are a few of the things that caught my attention:

Microsoft Surface

Okay, so I’ve just broken my golden rule, but getting to finally play on the Surface was genuinely cool (I promise not to break it again). The technology has been covered absolutely everywhere so I won’t go over it again (not seen it? this is cheesy but gives a good idea); what was interesting was to see some examples of it helping kids get more engaged with learning.


The kids above are playing a spelling game. Each of those little round tokens scattered on the table has a letter on it, and the aim is to press them in the right order to spell the word in the picture. The trick is that you have to press and *hold* them, so to do it before the time runs out you need a few more pairs of hands than just your own.


Why this matters? It was really fun, and quickly got everyone talking to each other. In this particular example, you have the engagement of a well designed game with the quality control that a computer system can bring, highlighting just how useful these table sized displays may become.

Apart from that, there was 3D virtual heart which you could fly around in, a drawing program where you could smear virtual paste around, and of course the usual table sized google maps (the kids absolutely loved that one, see picture)

This makes me really look forward to the rise of tabletop computing (and bartop, of course…).

Guardian news tools

Also interesting were a pair of projects by the Guardian, a major UK national newspaper, to get pre-teen children engaged in the news whilst at the same time teaching them valuable critical reading and writing skills.

The first project, LearnNewsDesk, was a large database of simplified news articles arranged into easily digestible chunks under each school subject area, with exercises and a glossary attached to each story. Kids can also upload podcasts and articles with their own takes on the news. New articles are added daily so the site is a good approximation of the real news.


Why this matters? It’s a good reminder that to be useful and remembered, information must be aware of its context. If you know that context you can add all kinds of metadata as a hook to help that information stick in the mind. In this case, the system provides a great sandbox which teachers can use to help young kids understand some important issues.

Project number two, Newsmaker was the flipside of the news desk, giving children a very simple collaborative, web based tool to create their own paper (see the solitary picture below). At the heart of it is a fixed template into which kids can put their own articles and picture.


One kid gets to be the editor whilst the others take on the roles of journalists and picture editors, with simple word processing and picture editing tools to insert their work. This is cool as it 1) provides a very simple platform for collaboration and 2) lets groups of pupils easily create a professional looking paper.

Why this matters? Easy. Somewhere along the way of trying to teach desktop publishing to ten year olds, schools have forgotten that just learning to lay something out with Microsoft Office is not enough – you need to have something to say with it too.

Peter Molyneux, maker of legendary and beautiful games, once said about hiring 3D artists (and I paraphrase as I can’t find the actual quote):

“It’s easier to teach a great artist to use a 3D modelling tool than to teach an expert in 3D Studio Max or Maya to be a great artist”

Tools like these which do one thing very well are a great way to get straight to the meat of what you are trying to do. Would you rather spend a lesson bogged down in the technicalities of Microsoft Publisher or actually publishing something?


Autology is a natural language search tool which does three rather interesting things.

  1. “Push” search. It watches what you are typing in Word or equivalent and can suggest relevant information. This is apparently already being used by MI5, the FBI, BBC, Reuters, Merrill Lynch, the Deutsche Bundesbank and IBM, and is yet another step towards computers seamlessly integrating with our processes. Instead of having to go to Google, Google comes to you.
  2. Vertical search. It indexes hundreds of high quality secondary school textbooks to increase the relevance of the results. Search focused on particular verticals is clearly going to be an interesting area if generalised search engines reach an upper limit to their accuracy
  3. Search folders. With this feature, a teacher or student can create a themed folder which gets automatically loaded with documents relevant to a particular search query. This is yet another example of dynamically structuring information to be most useful. If you’ve ever used a smart playlist in iTunes, you’ll know how handy this is, and it’s becoming increasingly  important as information multiplies.

Why this matters? I can’t really comment on the theoretically improved quality of natural language vs keywords as I din’t have long enough to test it, but the push search is fascinating nevertheless. In the words of David Black of Autology:

“It is pattern recognition technology which is able to push relevant information to a user. There is no need to go and search for it. It can be pushed to you conceptually, matched to what you are writing about.

“It is like a student sitting in a library and as they are writing their essay somebody keeps coming up to them saying ‘you are writing about this, have you seen this?'”They are not having to go and get it. It’s as near as you are going to get to artificial intelligence.”

From the Birmingham Post

Computers have gone from filling a room to pocket sized, but still require us to play by their rules to get the most out of them. The next step is technology which knows what you need and discreetly sends it your way. Autology may be another tiny leap in this direction.

More highlights coming soon…

What caught your attention at BETT 2009?

Pink Floyd - We Don't Need No Education

Next Wednesday is the start of BETT 2009, the world’s largest educational technology event. 30,000 teachers will be learning about the best, coolest new ways of helping others learn.

This is a very important event, and not just for teachers.

Of technology’s many contributions to human civilisation, education is where the rubber hits the road. Remote learning, electronic paper, digital note taking, individualised curricula, etc… are just the latest episodes in the series which started with the drawing of shapes in the sand.

What separates us from animals is how good we are at transferring knowhow to our children, which allows each generation’s knowledge to become a foundation for the next to build on. However, we are limited by the length of education – older brains may learn more slowly and, anyway, most of us start work at the end of our teens. In the UK, half of adults stopped at or before 16 (data, key). Slightly higher in the US.

As such, if we can make better use of those 12–15 years we can give a whole population a headstart. Humanity on steroids, if you will.

Knowledge is a performance enhancing drug.

As we get a better handle on the rules of learning we can make better tools to help apply them, and to teach our teachers to apply them. Furthermore, what goes in the classroom is only the beginning. The trend towards more decentralised, personalised learning is exactly what we need after formal education. These same tools and techniques may help us with our lifelong learning – whether training to better do our jobs, learn new skills or pursue our hobbies.

Every designer creating tools to help us visualise, manipulate, remember and use information needs to keep a close eye on teaching and education. With more and more people making a living in the information economy, each new tool is another potential mind hack.

The opportunities are huge.

“Acting white”

One caveat, which will be the subject of another blog post. We must never forget the context in which education takes place. For now, this anecdote is as illustrative as any:

“…black students who study hard are accused of “acting white” and are ostracised by their peers. Teachers have known this for years, at least anecdotally. [Roland] Fryer found a way to measure it. He looked at a large sample of public-school children who were asked to name their friends. To correct for kids exaggerating their own popularity, he counted a friendship as real only if both parties named each other. He found that for white pupils, the higher their grades, the more popular they were. But blacks with good grades had fewer black friends than their mediocre peers. In other words, studiousness is stigmatised among black schoolchildren. It would be hard to imagine a more crippling cultural norm.”

Economist article about black inequality in education

It’s not just the black-white issues. Students of all backgrounds have different motivators to take into account.

Eight ideas

Here are some thought provoking resources and events on education:

  1. Go to the BETT TeachMeet, a pecha kucha style event from 6–9pm in Friday 16th. What is pecha kucha? 20 slides * 20 seconds = six minutes and 40 seconds on whatever, in this case exciting ways people have been using technology to teach.
  2. See what happened at BETT 2008. Podcasts. Summary video.
  3. Read about education in 2018. Stephen Downes wrote a paper called The Future of Online Learning which looked 10 years ahead from 1998. He was mostly right, and has now written a fascinating follow up available here. Most interestingly: we learn better by doing, so how can we use games to engage students with memorable simulations? As interestingly, learning may shift towards overlapping communities centered both around knowledgeable peers and trained teachers.
  4. Attend an unconference. Education2020: “If you want to attend an informal, congenial, stimulating event in an amazing location with brilliant and insightful people (including you, of course), then pop along to the Education2020 UNCONFERENCE wiki and get your name on the list. Not only will you be able to enjoy a great educational debate and discussion, you will also be travelling to one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.”
  5. Listen to some podcasts. EdTechRoundup: “conversations about using technology in education”
  6. More – 2020 and beyond. How about another point of view? In this paperFutureLab looks at the impact of “personal devices, intelligent environments, computing infrastructure, security and interfaces”.
  7. Not enough? See 2025 and beyond.
  8. Informal learning. VISION magazine issue 8, page 9.

More on BETT coming soon.

Moore’s law

January 9, 2009

You can now buy a one terabyte drive for £80. Jesus!

Or as the inimitable Ed Saperia puts it:
“The only legitimate use for a one terabyte hard drive is stealing.”


Is tagging physical enough?

December 31, 2008

The Persistence of Memory (Dali)

How do we remember? How much of our memory is linked to places, times and people?

Dominic O’Brien was the first World Memory Champion, and holds is in the Guinness Book of Records for memorising and recalling 54 shuffled packs of playing cards. Who better to explain one of the more common mnemonic techniques of placing the elements to be remembered along a journey and then to imagine yourself physically walking it. In his own words (about a shopping list):

“To remember the list, “place” each item of shopping at individual stages along a familiar journey – it may be around your house, down to the shops, or a bus route.

For these singularly boring items to become memorable, you are going to have to exxagerate them, creating bizarre mental images at each stage of the journey. Imagine an enormous, gulping fish flapping around your bedroom, or for example, covering the duvet with its slimy scales. Or picture a bath full of margarine, every time you turn on the taps, more warm margarine comes oozing out!

Later on, when you need to remember the list, you are going to “walk” around the journey, moving from stage to stage and recalling each object as you go. The journey provides order, linking items together. Your imagination makes each one memorable.”

From his book, How to Develop Perfect Memory (read it on Scribd).

Even better is this video.

The making of memory

This kind of technique is not recent. Steven Rose is a leader in the study of memory, and in his book the Making of Memory tells a story about how the opportunity to train it (mnemnotechnics) was first recognised:

“Within western culture, there is a clear history of this mnemotechnic tradition, running back to Greek times, though the written record of the method is not Greek but Roman, and first appears in De Oratore, a famous text on the art of rhetoric – that is, of argument and debate – by the Roman politician and writer Cicero. In it, Cicero attributes the discovery of the rules of memory to a poet, Simonides, who seems to have been active around 477BCE.

The Simonides story appears and reappears throughout Roman, medieval and Renaissance texts. In its basic form it tells how, at a banquet given by a Thessalonian nobleman, Scopas, Simonides was commissioned to chant a lyric poem in honour of his host. When he performed it, however, he also included praise of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. Scopas told the poet he would only pay him half the sum agreed for the performance and that he should claim the rest from the gods. A little later Simonides received a message that two young men were waiting outside to see him. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and his guests and so mangling the corpses that their relatives could not identify them for burial. The two young men were the gods Castor and Pollux, and they had thus rewarded Simonides by saving his life, and Scopas apparently got his comeuppance for meanness. But – and this is the crucial bit of the story – by remembering the sequence of the places at which they had been sitting at the table, Simonides was able to identify the bodies at the banquet for the relatives.

This experience, as Cicero tells the story, suggested to Simonides the principles of the art of memory of which he was said to be the inventor, for he noted that it was through remembering the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies. The key to a good memory is thus the orderly arrangement of the objects to be remembered.”

From The Making of Memory.

He goes on to describe how this culminated in the Renaissance with the popularisation of “memory theatres” – literally theatres in which you would imagine yourself on stage with the elements you were trying to remember in the audience.

“By the time of the Renaissance, the memory theatre was turned from a symbolic device, a piece of mental furniture, into an actual construct. In the sixteenth century, and to the disapproval of more rationalist philosophers such as Erasmus, the Venetian Giulio Camillo actually built a wooden theatre crowded with statues which he offered to kings and potentates as a marvellous, almost magical, device for memorizing. “

It’s well worth reading the the entire chapter, which I managed to find excerpted here. As often, Wikipedia also has some useful insights.

The breaking of memory

So why mention all this?

If there is one thing these techniques all rely on it is giving a context to the thing being remembered.

And that is exactly what is lacking from one of the big leaps of the web: tagging. The danger of tagging as a way of remembering is that it breaks all our thoughts into tiny snippets which are devoid of context. Normally, we make sense of the world by constantly updating our inner mental map of the people, places and things around us. We also surround ourselves with our crutches, of which the humble notebook is a perfect example. It stores information on a chronology, which we are good at quickly running through. On top of that, it somehow captures a surprising amount that can later jog our memory: the pen we were using, the messyness of the writing (were we at a desk or out and about?) or simply the random doodles in the margin. The main aspect of these crutches: they have a structure we can envision and navigate.

The problem comes when we throw information into something with an unstable, emergent structure like I use and love but am keenly aware that I sometimes prefer to dump links into a note, draft blog post or e-mail it to myself because I know that whilst aggregates it won’t necessarily help me to get it in order.

A challenge to designers

As we move our lives on to the web, our tools will need to help us efortlessly capture the context of each file, photo, message and thought that we upload. The aim: to make our online tools as flexible and fast as possible while still giving them the ability to help us organise our thoughts.

To do this we will have to use every trick in the book, but here are four main themes (with the way we store photos as an example):

  1. Using technology to capture the context (some digital cameras now have built in GPS, even for consumers)
  2. Using the wisdom of the crowds to help us annotate (in the same way that Photosynth matches pictures by their contents to find where they were taken)
  3. Giving the user intuitive, fast tools to mold and organise what he enters ( is not perfect, but has some elements of this fluidity)

The winners will balance the structure we impose with the structure that emerges from the context of the elements we upload.

I can’t wait to use it!

Recommended reading:

  • The Making of Memory (Steven Rose)
  • Metaphors of Memor (Douwe Draaisma) – first chapter here

ps – It’s not all black and white, of course.