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Bill Gaver
Computer Related Design
Royal College of Art
‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’
– popular saying
The advent of graphical interfaces, more than fifteen years ago, revolutionised the way we think
about computers. The desktop metaphor had such a complete inner logic that it seemed to dismiss
offhand the tedious call-and-response interfaces that had prevailed. The computer as concept
expanded from a tool to a virtual environment, from a clumsy machine to a place for exploration and
experimentation. Research on interaction also expanded, as people sought new perspectives from
which to understand this newly-discovered territory – from cognition, to perceptual, to ethnographic
and anthropological. As our appreciation of computing’s potential grew, so did our appreciation of
the aspects of humanity it mirrors.
Now we are on the brink of another revolution, as computers invade our everyday lives. The point is
not that computers are becoming ubiquitous or ambient or disappearing altogether. Nor am I saying
that interaction will be tangible, or that the virtual will merge with the physical. These things may
happen, but they’re symptoms — attempts to shortcut technologically the challenges we face. The
real revolution is that computing is leaving the confines of task-oriented, rational, ‘left-brain’ work,
and is set to join us in our homes, on the street, at parties, on lonely mountaintops – everywhere, in
short, where ‘work’ is the stuff we want to get done so we can do what we really want to do.
The effects of this new revolution will, I believe, be as radical as the move to graphical interfaces,
causing us to rethink computers, research, and even ourselves. However, we have been slow to
appreciate the implications of technology’s incursion into our everyday lives. As computing has
emerged from the office and laboratory, it seems to have brought along values of the workplace:
concerns for clarity, efficiency and productivity; a preoccupation with finding solutions to problems.
If, as ethnographers suggest, it takes a lot of work to achieve an ordinary life, then new
technologies will help us take care of it. In this vision, internet-enabled refrigerators will automatical-
ly update our shopping lists. We will use our microwave ovens to do our banking as well as to heat
ready-made meals. Mobile devices will allow us to coordinate our schedules, download information,
update records on the move. We will be surrounded by technology devoted to taking care of our
everyday chores, giving us the leisure to pursue whatever activities we really value.
But what if technologies helped us pursue those activities now, directly, rather than merely helping
us get the chores done? What if computing helped us pursue our lives, not just our work?
o o o
‘We are here on Earth to fart around.’
– Kurt Vonnegut
The idea of Homo Ludens – humans defined as playful creatures (Huizinga, J., 1950) – is an antidote
to assumptions that technology should provide clear, efficient solutions to practical problems. From
this perspective, we are characterised not just by our thinking or achievements, but by our playful-
ness: our curiosity, our love of diversion, our explorations, inventions and wonder. An aimless walk in
the city centre, a moment of awe, a short-lived obsession, a joke – all are defining and valuable
facets of our humanity, as worthy of respect as planning, logic or study. Play is not just mindless
entertainment, but an essential way of engaging with and learning about our world and ourselves —
for adults as well as children. As we toy with things and ideas, as we chat and daydream, we find
new perspectives and new ways to create, new ambitions, relationships, and ideals. Play goes well
beyond entertainment: it’s a serious business.
What sorts of computational device might appeal to Homo Ludens?
An essay for I3 Magazine
to appear 2002
The Pillow, by Tony Dunne (Dunne, 1999; Gaver &
Dunne, 1996; see Figure 1) might be an example. This is
a clear inflatable pillow, enclosing a translucent plastic
block with holes cut in it, exposing patterns of colour as
they play over an LCD screen. As the light suffuses the
object, it creates a much softer, more imprecise display
than we usually associate with computers. But the Pillow
isn’t just an aesthetic object; it is a strange form of
radio in which lighting reflects bits of electromagnetic
information from radio stations, passing taxis or nearby
baby alarms. And more than a radio, it is a poser of soci-
ocultural questions, pointing out the degree to which our
homes and even our bodies are permeated by wireless
communications. It casts its viewers as meditative
voyeurs, providing them with a gentle electronic experi-
ence while subtly eliciting unease about the communica-
tions that feed it. It is an object which invites a relation-
ship, not as a pet, but perhaps as a sort of computation-
al alien sharing one’s home (Dunne, 1999).
Some of the designs developed in the I3 Presence
Project, too, might speak to Homo Ludens (see Gaver &
Hooker, 2001). At the RCA, Tony Dunne, Ben Hooker,
Shona Kitchen, Brendan Walker and I explored ways that
technology might increase the presence of older people
in three communities: a hilltop village in Tuscany, an
affluent district of Oslo, and a huge housing estate in the
Netherlands. Our designs took a wide and playful view of
‘presence’. In Italy, we proposed a ‘radioscape’ that
would transmit sounds from the countryside to the vil-
lage, encouraging the older people to enjoy their pastoral
landscape in new ways (Figure 2). In Oslo, we suggested
that the older people might use a ‘digital boudouir’ to
craft questions for their fellow citizens, to be displayed
on trams or in cafés, or relayed to public phones (Figure
3). In the Netherlands, we proposed and built the
Projected Realities system, which disseminated people’s
attitudes from their private flats, through local neigh-
bourhoods, to the roads and railways surrounding this
notorious area. With visible elements including ‘slogan-
benches’ (Figure 4a) and an ‘imagebank’ (Figure 4b), the
Projected Realities system allowed passers-by to
encounter the words and images of their older neigh-
bours in a way that was not didactic or demanding, but
quietly suggestive.
Ludic appeal might also be found in the proposals that
Heather Martin and I developed for the Alternatives proj-
ect (Gaver & Martin, 1999). Funded by Hewlett Packard,
the Alternatives project was part of the Appliance
Design Studio, a collaborative investigation of informa-
tion appliances. In investigating the field, Heather and I
found ourselves uninspired by current examples, and
developed a series of sketch proposals to expand the
group’s thinking. For instance, the Dawn Chorus (Figure
5a) was a birdfeeder that would use operant conditioning
principles to teach local songbirds new tunes. The
(De)tour Guide would be an audio-only device using GPS
and an electronic compass to lead people through the
city – and to support them in getting lost for a predeter-
Figure 1: The Pillow suggests a kind of ambient voyeurism.
Figure 2: Peccioli’s Radioscape would bring the countryside into a
Tuscan village.
Figure 3: The Digital Boudouir suggested that older people could
lead a political conversation distributed through Oslo.
mined interval. The Intimate View camera (Figure 5b),
later developed as a prototype, linked separated lovers
by allowing them to capture and transmit small, highly
magnified pictures to encourage moments of intensely
shared focus. The Dream Communicator allowed distant
lovers to use sounds or speech to influence one anoth-
er’s dreams. Finally, the Telegotchi was an electronic pet
with no buttons that relied on psionic communication for
happiness (Figure 5c), and the Prayer Device (Figure 5d)
would be found on streets, like a new sort of telephone
booth, waiting to transmit one’s voice to the sky. The
appeal of many of these proposals, in particular, was
that they didn’t demand belief so much as a suspension
of disbelief. They encouraged an attitude of speculation
that in itself might be enjoyable.
The examples described here may be pleasurable to
experience, but it should be clear that they go beyond
mere entertainment. Each raises issues and asks ques-
tions, ranging from the effects of pervasive electromag-
netic communication, to possibilities for inter-genera-
tional communication, to the ethics of taming nature, the
value of getting lost, or the status of psychic or spiritual
experiences. They raise these issues, but don’t provide
answers. Instead, they offer ways for people to experi-
ence life from new perspectives, thereby testing
hypotheses about who we might be or what we might
care about. They hint at possibilities for technologies
that we could use in our everyday life, not to accomplish
well-defined tasks, but to expand in undefined directions.
Open-ended and personal, they encourage us to play –
seriously – with experiences, ideas and other people.
o o o
‘…work is play for mortal stakes…’
- Robert Frost
What does designing for Homo Ludens imply for our
methodologies? How can we invent and develop systems
that legitimise wonder, even encourage it? How do we
encourage people to meander, rather than to accomplish
tasks with speed?
First, scientific approaches to design need to be comple-
mented by more subjective, idiosyncratic ones. It is diffi-
cult to conceive of a task analysis for goofing around, or
to think of exploration as a problem to be solved, or to
determine usability requirements for systems meant to
spark new perceptions. Instead, designers need to use
their personal experiences as sounding boards for the
systems they create. Balancing this, they need to
engage in, and often lead, a conversation with the peo-
ple for whom they are developing, lest their designs
become purely self-indulgent. Traditional requirements
capture or ethnographic methods may be useful in this,
but more ambiguous, open-ended forms of engagement
can also produce inspiring results. For instance, the
Cultural Probes developed for Presence (Gaver et al.,
1999; see Figure 6) used provocative questions and
Figure 4. Slaganbenches and an Imagebank expressed older peo-
ple’s attitudes in a notorious Dutch housing estate.
Figure 5. Concept proposals from the Alternatives project.
tasks to elicit informative materials from volunteers. The
returns were never definitive, but they were evocative,
allowing us to create semi-factual narratives about the com-
munities for whom we were designing, and to develop design
ideas that furthered these stories.
Second, designing for Homo Ludens means allowing room for
people to appropriate technologies. Playing involves pursuing
one’s inner narratives in safe situations, through perceptual
projection or, ideally, action. If computational devices chan-
nel people’s activities and perceptions too closely, then peo-
ple have to live out somebody else’s story, not their own
(c.f. Wejchert, 2001). This might be an interesting possibili-
ty – as Dunne (1999) suggests, people might approach
computational devices the way they do cinema, borrowing
the identities and values they suggest for a short period of
time – but in general we should give people the ability to
own technology, to bring it into their own complex life sto-
ries. I know two primary tactics for doing this. The first is
to create ‘suggestive media’ – suggestive in that they are
designed to encourage or impel ludic activity, and media in that they are tools through which people
experience, create, or communicate freely. The second is to employ ambiguity at all phases of
design. Contrary to traditional thinking about interaction, ambiguity is an invaluable tool because it
allows people to find their own meaning in uncertain situations. Used in design processes, concepts
and products, ambiguity gives space for people to intermesh their own stories with those hinted at
by technologies.
Third, and most important, pleasure comes before performance, and engagement before clarity.
Designing for Homo Ludens requires a new focus that seeks intrigue and delight at all levels of
design, from the aesthetics of form and interaction, to functionality, to conceptual implications at
psychological, social and cultural levels. Not only should technologies reinforce pleasures that people
know, but they should suggest new ones. The designer’s role in this is not like that of a doctor, pre-
scribing cures for people’s ills; nor is the designer a kind of servant, developing technologies that
people know they want. Instead, designers should be provocateurs, seeking out new possibilities for
play and crafting technologies that entice people to explore them. In the end, designers themselves
need to be Homo Ludens. They need to recognise that they are playful creatures, and that their
work depends on their play.
I am grateful to Jake Beaver, Anne Schlottmann, and Jakub Wejchert for their comments and suggestions.
Dunne, A. (1999). Hertzian tales: Electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design. London: RCA:CRD
Research Publications.
Dunne, A. & Gaver, W. W. (1997). The Pillow: Artist-designers in the digital age. Conference Companion for CHI’97.
Gaver, W.W., Dunne, A., and Pacenti, E.. (1999) Cultural Probes. interactions magazine. vi(1), pp. 21 - 29.
Gaver, W., and Hooker, B. (2001). The Presence Project. London: RCA:CRD Research Publications.
Gaver, W., and Martin, H. (2000). Alternatives: Exploring information appliances through conceptual design propos-
als. Proceedings of CHI'00 (Den Haag). New York, ACM Press.
Huizinga, J. (1950). Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: The Beacon Press.
Wejchert, J. (2001). The Dreaming. Informatik/Informatique 5/2001.
Figure 6: Cultural probes are provocative materials eliciting inspir-
ing responses.
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Hertzian tales: Electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design
  • A Dunne
Dunne, A. (1999). Hertzian tales: Electronic products, aesthetic experience and critical design. London: RCA:CRD Research Publications.
The Presence Project
  • W Gaver
  • B Hooker
Gaver, W., and Hooker, B. (2001). The Presence Project. London: RCA:CRD Research Publications.
The Dreaming. Informatik/Informatique 5/2001. Figure 6: Cultural probes are provocative materials eliciting inspiring responses
  • J Wejchert
Wejchert, J. (2001). The Dreaming. Informatik/Informatique 5/2001. Figure 6: Cultural probes are provocative materials eliciting inspiring responses.