Application for Transmediale
Hayes Raffle • Amanda Parkes

Project Aims and Objectives

What 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.

Building 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 primitives 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.

More 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 objects.

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.

Entry form (pdf)

Project Concept & Objectives (pdf)

Topobo Movie (2 min)
small .mov (13MB)
medium .mov (14MB)
large .mov (24MB)
Project Brochure (pdf)

Project Images

Artist CVs
Hayes Raffle
Amanda Parkes

Artist bios (pdf)

Contact Details:,
Tangible Media Group MIT Media Lab 20 Ames St. E15-350
Cambridge, MA 02139