Playful Systems
How to design systems that become experiences by transcending mere utility and usability.

In a world mediated through computing, our everyday lives are increasingly affected by complex and invisible systems. Some of these are algorithmic trades on the stock market, others are search results for information, movies, or a date. These systems often aspire to transparency, usability, and efficiency. Playful systems take a different approach, bringing the systems to the foreground as games, stories, narratives, and visualizations. Playful systems embrace complexity rather than conceal it, and seek to delight, not disappear.

Research Projects

  • 20 Day Stranger

    Kevin Slavin, Julie Legault, Taylor Levy, Che-Wei Wang, Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values and Tinsley Galyean

    20 Day Stranger is a mobile app that creates an intimate and anonymous connection between you and another person. For 20 days, you get continuous updates about where they are, what they are doing, and eventually even how they are feeling, and them likewise about you. But you will never know who this person is. Does this change the way you think about other people you see through out your day, anyone of which could be your stranger?

  • 32,768 Times Per Second

    Kevin Slavin and Taylor Levy

    The crystal oscillator inside a quartz wristwatch vibrates at 32,768 times per second. This is too fast for a human to perceive, and even more difficult to imagine its interaction with the mechanical circulation of a clock. 32,768 Times Per Second is a diagrammatic, procedural, and fully functional sculpture of the electro-mechanical landscape inside a common wristwatch. Through a series of electronic transformations, the signal from a crystal is broken down over and over, and then built back up to the human sense of time.

  • Case and Molly

    Gregory Borenstein

    Case and Molly is a prototype for a game inspired by (and in homage to) William Gibson's novel Neuromancer. It's about the coordination between virtual and physical, "cyberspace" and "meat." We navigate the tension between our physical surroundings and our digital networks in a state of continuous partial attention; Case and Molly uses the mechanics and aesthetics of Neuromancer to explore this quintessential contemporary dynamic. The game is played by two people mediated by smartphones and an Oculus Rift VR headset. Together, and under time pressure, they must navigate Molly through physical space using information that is only available to Case. In the game, Case sees Molly's point of view in immersive 3D, but he can only communicate a single bit of information to her. Meanwhile, Molly traverses physical obstacles hoping Case can solve abstract puzzles in order to gain access to the information she needs.

  • Cordon Sanitaire

    Kevin Slavin

    Named for, and inspired by, the medieval practice of erecting barriers to prevent the spread of disease, Cordon Sanitaire is a collaborative, location-based mobile game in which players seek to isolate an infectious "patient zero" from the larger population. Every day, the game starts abruptly–synchronizing all players at once–and lasts for two minutes. In 60 seconds, players must choose either to help form the front line of a quarantine, or remain passive. Under pressure, the “uninfected” attempt to collaborate without communication, seeking to find the best solution for the group. When those 60 seconds end, a certain number of players are trapped inside with patient zero, and the score reflects the group’s ability to cooperate under duress.

  • Designing Immersive Multi-Sensory Eating Experiences

    Kevin Slavin and Janice Wang

    Food offers a rich multi-modal experience that can deeply affect emotion and memory. We're interested in exploring the artistic and expressive potential of food beyond mere nourishment, as a means of creating memorable experiences that involve multiple senses. For instance, music can change our eating experience by altering our emotions during the meal, or by evoking a specific time and place. Similarly, sight, smell, and temperature can all be manipulated to combine with food for expressive effect. In addition, by drawing upon people's physiology and upbringing, we seek to create individual, meaningful sensory experiences. Specifically, we are exploring the connection between music and flavor perception.

  • EyeWire

    Sebastian Seung, Kevin Slavin, Gregory Borenstein, Taylor Levy, David Robert, Che-Wei Wang and Seung Lab (MIT BCS)

    The Seung Lab at MIT's Brain + Cognitive Sciences Department has developed EyeWire, a game to map the brain. To date, it has attracted an online community of over 50,000 "citizen neuroscientists" who are mapping the 3D structure of neurons and discovering neural connections. Playful Systems is collaborating with the Seung Lab to reconsider EyeWire as a large scale mass-appeal mobile game to attract 1MM players or more. We are currently developing mobile, collaborative game mechanics, and shifting the focus to short-burst gameplay.

  • radiO_o

    Kevin Slavin, Mark Feldmeier, Taylor Levy, Daniel Novy and Che-Wei Wang

    radiO_o is a battery-powered speaker worn by hundreds of party guests, turning each person into a local mobile sound system. The radiO_o broadcast system allows the DJ to transmit sounds over several pirate radio channels to mix sounds between hundreds of speakers roaming around the space and the venue’s existing sound system.

  • Rapping Robot

    Kevin Slavin, David Robert, Alex Olwal and Peter Schmitt (MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology)

    A friendly companion that engages children in a rap battle language game for fun. First, the robot drops a beat and introduces the game's structure by rhyming on time and inviting the child to respond. A call and response dynamic is established using vocabulary seed words of varying difficulty. The work is grounded in developmental psychology literature on the importance of early rhyming skills for children.

  • There Is Another

    Kevin Slavin, Gregory Borenstein, Tinsley Galyean, Julie Legault, Taylor Levy, David Robert and Che-Wei Wang

    Developed in collaboration with Tinsley Galyean and MIT's Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, There Is Another is a mobile experience that connects the user to a stranger on Earth for a bounded period of time. Provided with one another's orientation, but not distance, and contact without direct communication, each user imagines someone else on Earth through the echoes and shadows of their movements and activity. For a day or two, each of them understand themselves connected to a stranger, rather than alone in the flummox of social networks and everyday life.