Aims and Objectives
is it like to sculpt with motion? Topobo is a 3D constructive assembly
system embedded with kinetic memory, the ability to record and
playback physical motion. By snapping together a combination of
Passive (static) and Active (motorized) components, people can
quickly assemble dynamic biomorphic forms like plants, animals
and skeletons with Topobo, animate those forms by pushing, pulling,
and twisting them, and observe the system repeatedly play back
those motions. For example, a moose can be constructed and then
taught to gesture and walk by twisting its body and legs. The moose
will then repeat those movements and walk repeatedly. Topobo works
like an extension of the body givng one’s gestural fluency
computation and memory.
toys and educational manipulatives have been used for years by
children to learn about the world though
model making. Many adults
continue to use these media to sculpt and explore their ideas. While
some modern construction kits like LEGO Mindstorms couple construction
activities with computational activities, none offers an integrated
or intuitive approach to the two activities. Topobo embeds computation
within a dynamic building system so that gestural manipulation of
the material becomes a programming language. Topobo is an artistic
exploration unto itself, and is designed to act as a broader platform
for gestural expression that allows people to quickly and easily
bring kinetic conceptual ideas to life. With Topobo, dynamic expression
begins with the press of a button and a flick of the wrist.
Issues that are addressed
Topobo – for “topology” and “robotics” – is
designed to retain the best qualities of existing manipulative
materials while giving the material a new identity — an identity
that can both reveal new patterns and processes to people, and
that allows people to creatively express patterns and processes
that can not be expressed with existing materials. We created Topobo
at the intersection of contemporary arts and investigations in
computational media design. While the core concept is relevant
to creators of any age, we have designed the system to look and
feel like familiar children’s toys to encourage educators
to reconsider how computers are used in education. One of our goals
has been to reintroduce physical activity to classroom play with
computational and mathematical ideas, encouraging exploration,
experimentation and collaboration.
The system is comprised of 10 different primitives that can
be snapped together in a variety of ways. Nine of these
are called “Passive” because they form static connections.
One “Active” primitive is built with state-of-the-art
modular robotics technology and is programmed by demonstration.
These motorized components are the only ones that move, so the
system is able to faithfully record and replay every dynamic
manipulation to a structure.
broadly, this project addresses how “tangible interfaces” can
make learning about physical systems more intuitive for people.
Compared to the typical graphical interface (keyboard, screen
and mouse), a tangible interface makes computer information directly
manipulable by people’s hands and takes advantage of
skills people have developed through working with physical
Why these are significant and timely
Computers are increasingly being used in school classrooms
to introduce “advanced” ideas
to young kids. However, the design of the personal computer makes
many kinds of activities difficult for young children, and it does
not encourage collaboration. Topobo embeds computation in familiar
children’s toys to facilitate collaborative learning
activities that are relevant, accessible and fun for
children ages 7 and older.