Technologies for Creative Expression

Originally written for the National Endowment of the Arts Special Taskforce on Arts and Human Development
NEA Art Works blog post | Webcast archive of my public presentation hosted by the NEA

When I was 7 years old there were a lot of art materials around the house. Blocks, clay, paint, paper—I loved to make things. My grandmother was an artist and my grandfather an inventor, and I had caught the bug. I would squeeze and sculpt Sculpey, a polymer clay my grandfather had created, draw new creations in my notebook, and learn math by creating geometric patterns with my Cuisinaire rods.

I grew up and kept playing with the materials and tools that I loved. At Yale college I studied sculpture and conceptual art, and through an artist internship helped create a new children’s toy called ZOOB, which is the first construction toy based on things that grow. Children could create with ZOOB and reflexively learn about patterns and processes from nature, like how proteins fold and how skeletons move. They could bring their creations to life in their imaginations as they discovered what a century of life scientists had documented in papers and books. But while kids loved ZOOB, I noticed something was changing. It was the late 1990’s and more and more of children’s learning and play was being directed by electronic toys and media which followed predictable scripts–the buzzing of a horn, the sound of an alphabet–and didn’t allow for children to tell their own stories.

So I went back to school to learn how to create interactive media that support people’s creative expression. At the MIT Media Lab I joined the tangible media group and invented a series of interactive media and tools. Topobo is a constructive assembly system with kinetic memory. A construction toy in the spirit of ZOOB, but one that children can literally bring to life with a twist of their wrist. A child can make a dog, move its body in their hands, and watch the dog dance or walk, mimicking the motion they have taught it to do. Topobo helps kids learn new things. The same way stacking blocks helps kids learn how buildings stand up, Topobo helps them learn how animals walk, and how form is connected to motion. Kids know about this when they are little – they remember learning to crawl and walk – but usually we don’t give them tools to think about it until they are in college. With new toys like Topobo, they can start playing with these ideas when they are 4 or 5, and discover new patterns as they grow older.

As I was getting Topobo out to schools and museums around the world, my wife and I became proud parents of a newborn daughter. With her came the sad discovery that one cost of being more “mobile” was living far from family and being disconnected from them. Frequent trips from Cambridge, MA to California were tough, so I started making playthings for my baby which helped her get to know her far-away grandparents. Stuffed animals held familiar people’s songs; a photo album of her grandparents had a phone number they could call to leave stories, songs and messages. My daughter just had to touch their photos to hear them replay. But I didn’t know how to bring a deeper sense of connection to lots of people.

I moved to Nokia Research in Palo Alto, CA to make “Family Communication” the focus of my work. In 2008 we joined with Sesame Workshop and created a series of tools for families with young children to have stronger relationships even when they are apart. Storyvisit was one such tool, a free web site that coupled children’s story books and video chat. Families could hear and see each other, and also had something fun and understandable to do together: read a book! Children, sitting with their parents, could read along with a far-away parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle and get to know each other while they enjoyed some good books. Reading books was something everyone knew how to do, and something that could spark conversations. Tips for grown-ups would help them use the book to launch into conversations with the children. This is great both for kids’ learning and for family togetherness. Our feeling was that there is no one better to learn from than the family who loves you the most, and we could use technology and media to bring families together and help them to tell their own stories to each other. It was a success: we documented hundreds of happy families whose conversations went from 2-3 minutes on an ordinary video call to 15-20 minutes with StoryVisit. Ten times more time with the three year old you loved meant that much more time to know and love each other. Since then video chat technologies have gotten better and a few startups like Kindoma are working to bring this idea to families everywhere. 

As I was wrapping up this work I got a call from Google[x], at the time an almost unknown department of Google that a friend described to me as “the closest thing to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in Silicon Valley.” Curious, of course, I went and met Astro Teller (“captain of moonshots”) and heard about the vision to create technologies with lasting cultural impact. I knew little about the details, but decided to take a chance and join the team. The small series of projects included the self driving car, and a project in wearable computing which has become Google Glass. The project challenged me, because it was so very intimate and personal in its nature, but also opened an opportunity for empathy through the wearer’s ability to share their point of view with people who are far away. The magic of a high quality camera that was ready-at-hand spoke to the artist in me, so I dedicated myself to making it a tool that people could use to tell their own stories.

For me, Glass is a platform for empathy and creative expression. Some of my favorite stories are from activists, parents, artists, and teachers who are using this new form of photography to share their experiences with people they care about. There are journalists using Glass to support democracy, such as when Tim Poole did live broadcasts of protesters in the streets of Instanbul. (Tim has been doing journalism for years – the difference with Glass is that when he talks to people they are talking to him and not to his camera.) There are artists like David Daytona using Glass to embed stories into their traditional artworks and give audiences a new point of view into his artistic intent. There are mothers using Glass to help far-away grandparents get a mom’s-eye-view of their newest granddaughter learning to lift her chin and smile at someone she loves.

Technology is changing so fast, and it’s hard to know exactly where it will lead. But I’ve always been inspired by Alan Kay’s quote that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I hope to continue to bring an artist’s perspective to its evolution, so that the technologies we create do in fact become platforms for empathy, creative expression, and human connections.

Here is a public presentation of these ideas, presented by the National Endowment of the Arts.