Playful Systems
Designing systems that become experiences to transcend 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

  • Tools for Super-Human Time Perception

    Kevin Slavin and Che-Wei Wang

    Time perception is a fundamental component in our ability to build mental models of our world. Without accurate and precise time perception, we might have trouble understanding speech, fumble social interactions, have poor motor control, hallucinate, or remember events incorrectly. Slight distortions in time perception are commonplace and may lead to slight dyslexia, memory shifts, poor eye-hand coordination and other relatively benign symptoms, but could a diminishing sense of time signal the onset of a serious brain disorder? Could time perception training help prevent or reverse brain disorders? This project is a series of experimental tools built to assist and increase human time perception. By approaching time-perception training from various perspectives, we hope to find a tool or collection of tools to increase time perception, and in turn discover what an increase in time perception might afford us.

  • 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.

  • beneath the chip

    Kevin Slavin and Taylor Levy

    Sculptural artifacts that model and reveal the embedded history of human thought and scientific principles hidden inside banal digital technologies. These artifacts provide alternative ways to engage and understand the deepest interior of our everyday devices, below the circuit, below the chip. They build a sense of the machines within the machine, the material, the grit of computation.

  • 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.

  • DeepView: Computational Tools for Chess Spectatorship

    Gregory Borenstein, Kevin Slavin, and Maurice Ashley

    Competitive chess is an exciting spectator sport. It is fast-paced, dynamic, and deeply psychological. Unfortunately, most of the game's drama is only visible to spectators who are themselves expert chess players. DeepView seeks to use computational tools to make the drama of high-level chess accessible to novice viewers. There is a long tradition of software trying to beat human players at chess; DeepView takes advantage of algorithmic tools created in the development of advanced chess engines such as Deep Blue, but instead uses them to understand and explain the styles of individual players and the dynamics of a given match. It puts into the hands of chess commentators powerful data science tools that can calculate player position preferences and likely game outcomes, helping commentators to better explain the exciting human story inside every match.

  • 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.

  • Dice++

    Kevin Slavin and Jonathan Bobrow

    Today, algorithms drive our cars, our economy, what we read, and how we play. Modern-day computer games utilize weighted probabilities to make games more competitive, fun, and addicting. In casinos, slot machines—once a product of simple probability—employ similar algorithms to keep players playing. Dice++ takes the seemingly straight probability of rolling a die and determines an outcome with algorithms of its own.

  • 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.

  • Homeostasis

    Kevin Slavin, Kamal Farah, Julie Legault and Denis Bozic

    A large-scale art installation that investigates the biological systems that represent and embody human life, and their relationship to the built environment. This synthetic organism–built from interconnected microbiological systems–will be sustained in part through its own feedback and feedforward loops, but also through interactions with the architectural systems (like HVAC). As the different systems react and exchange material inputs and outputs, they move towards homeostasis. In the process, Homeostasis creates a new landscape of the human body, in which we can experience the wonder and vulnerability of its interconnected systems.

  • MicroPsi: An Architecture for Motivated Cognition

    Joscha Bach

    The MicroPsi project explores broad models of cognition, built on a motivational system that gives rise to autonomous social and cognitive behaviors. MicroPsi agents are grounded AI agents, with neuro-symbolic representations, affect, top-down/bottom-up perception, and autonomous decision making. We are interested in finding out how motivation informs social interaction (cooperation and competition, communication and deception), learning. and playing; shapes personality; and influences perception and creative problem solving.

  • 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.

  • Soft Exchange: Interaction Design with Biological Interfaces

    Kevin Slavin and Kamal Farah

    The boundaries and fabric of human experience are continuously redefined by microorganisms, interacting at an imperceptible scale. Though hidden, these systems condition our bodies, environment, and even sensibilities and desires. The proposed works introduce a model of interaction in which the microbiome is an extension of the human sensory system, accessed through a series of biological interfaces that enable exchange. Biological Interfaces transfer discrete behaviors of microbes into information across scales, where it may be manipulated, even if unseen. In the same way the field of HCI has articulated our exchanges with electronic signals, Soft Exchange opens up the question of how to design for this other invisible, though present, and vital material.

  • Storyboards

    Sepandar Kamvar, Kevin Slavin, Jonathan Bobrow and Shantell Martin

    Giving opaque technology a glass house. Storyboards present the tinkerers or owners of electronic devices with stories of how their devices work. Just as the circuit board is a story of star-crossed lovers—Anode and Cathode—with its cast of characters (resistor, capacitor, transistor), Storyboards have their own characters driving a parallel visual narrative.

  • Valise: Microbial Object of Desire

    Kevin Slavin and Julie Legault

    Reimagined biology is exploring the limits of the known world with scientists and researchers taking biotechnology and genetic engineering further, discovering unimagined possibilities. Through this synthetic biology is a promise of advancements in all fields, and the offer of new materials for designers, technologists, and artists to explore. Due to our complex social and medical history with microorganisms, acceptance for live-culture consumer products requires a shift in public opinion. Valise, an object that allows direct interaction with microorganisms to experiment with biology as material, will be produced to explore engineering acceptance of biological systems as produced through reimagined biology. In Valise, various inputs can be manipulated and created to yield tangible effects on a live culture, resulting in experiential sensorial and visualised data in scenic and graphical format for the user. As these slow interactions take place, the object can exist as an evolving, living ornament.