|E G R O P O N T E||Toys of Tomorrow|
Why would Professor Michael Hawley swallow a computer? Because he plays. He plays the piano. He plays hockey. He plays with ideas. In fact, he plays with notions like running the Boston Marathon with a radio transmitter pill inside his stomach, from which his core body temperature measurements would be broadcast to any and all media willing to listen (ttt.www.media.mit.edu/pia/marathonman/).
The wild, the absurd, the seemingly crazy: this kind of thinking is where new ideas come from. In corporate parlance it's called "thinking out of the box." At the MIT Media Lab, it's business as usual. The people capable of such playful thought carry forward their childish qualities and childhood dreams, applying them in areas where most of us get stuck, victims of our adult seriousness. Staying a child isn't easy. But a continuous stream of new toys helps.
"You get paid for this?"
Many people accuse the MIT Media Lab of being a giant playpen. Well, they're right. It is a digital wonderland overflowing with outrageous toys: all imaginable sorts of computers and interface paraphernalia. Play, however, is a pretty serious business in the hands of students and professors like Hawley - it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And some profound results, both scholarly and commercial, come out of this play. Of course, a few naysayers forget that the world has a lot more money than good ideas. Such behavior, the killjoys insist, is something companies cannot afford, in terms of either money or image. Thus the duty of academic institutions to be, among other things, more playful.
This sounds simple, but is so true: When people play, they have their best ideas, and they make their best connections with their best friends. In playing a game, the learning and exercise come for free. Playing produces some of the most special times and most valuable lessons in life. Still, many teachers and parents consider the classroom and the playground to be worlds apart. But are they?
When a young child plays with a toy, the interaction can be magic. Toys unlock that magic - part in the toy and part in the child's head. Toys are the medium and the catalyst of play. Recognizing the power of play, Hawley and company are fundamentally rethinking toys, exploring the convergence of digital technology and the toys of tomorrow - another case where bits and atoms meet. Computers have changed almost all forms of work. And, since play is the work of children, it is time to revisit the tools of their trade.
TNT: toy networking technologies
The Internet is largely composed of desktop computers, assembled like the world's biggest pile of Tinkertoys. These days, many people talk of extending the network beyond desks and into all sorts of appliances, large and small. There is no question that appliances like refrigerators or doorknobs should be networked. But what might happen if toys were networked, too? If each Mickey Mouse and Barbie had an IP address, their population would exceed that of a small, well-connected country.
Every year, 75 percent of all toys are new, meaning newly designed that year. The toy industry lives and dies on invention. Toys gush into homes every Christmas and Hanukkah, every birthday, and lots of other days besides. This tremendous churn rate means that toys are well matched to the pace of change in the digital world. You can and should put some form of computing in a refrigerator, but a new fridge enters the house only once every 20 years. With their far faster turnover, toys may be the fastest moving and fastest evolving vehicles on the infobahn.
Toys of tomorrow will be networked. Today, they rarely intercommunicate. There is no MIDI for toys, no Internet link. Once tomorrow's powerful networks, simulators, and synthesizers are commonly interconnected through toys, a next generation of exquisite musical toys - a wonderful idea to begin with - will emerge. A toy piano that sounds like a Steinway. A baby rattle that conducts a symphony. Blocks that build a melody. Shoes that carry a tune (think karaoke for your feet). Every toy a link in a worldwide toy box.
And every toy must be inexpensive. Today's typical toy costs about US$20, which means it wholesales for $14, and must be built for about $5. Forget the $1,000 computer or the $200 set-top box - invent a $5 computer that doesn't look or act like a computer. That's a grand challenge for the digital industries: melt a Cray down into a Crayola.
The real toy story
Today, a conservative computer industry still seems determined to push laptops into the hands of fat-fingered 50-year-olds, with "Net PCs" just an infrared click away from tomorrow's couch potatoes. Surely we can do more than that. But how?
Hawley and others at MIT have been making new friends around the world to help invent toys. Their new business partners these days include Lego, Disney, Mattel, Hasbro, Bandai, Toys "R" Us, and others. Their other playmates are computer, communications, and entertainment companies like Intel, Motorola, Deutsche Telekom, Nickelodeon, and, believe it or not, the International Olympic Committee. Never before have the world's leading toymakers, technology companies, and sports organizations collaborated in such a way - which is just terrific, because the new world of digital toys won't be invented by any one group.
Nobody is quite sure what will turn up on this new road to invention. The program just started. Stay tuned. But one thing is clear: Toys of tomorrow will carry some of the most awesome and inspiring technology humankind has yet created and place it in the hands of children. Where it belongs.
Think of it this way. Being "wired" does not mean becoming "computer literate" any more than driving an automobile requires becoming "combustion literate." The power of toys is that they reach back to and shape the earliest years in our lives. One day, our grandchildren will naturally assume that teddy bears tell great stories, baseballs know where they are, and toy cars drive themselves with inertial guidance. Lucky them.
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[Copyright 1998, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 6.03, March 1998.]