Research on “Play Accessories”

If you want yet another argument against inappropriate touch screens: they inhibit creativity. Specifically, screen-based interfaces constrain activity and thinking, reducing opportunities for free play. (E.g., see the article by Singer et al. [3] in the marvelously named American Journal of Play.)

As I have said many times, wearable computing is an opportunity to get rid of screens, to create “walk-in”, whole body interfaces (e.g., [1]).

In the June issue of IEEE Computer, Andrea Rosales and colleagues  discuss some interesting experiments with wearable computing for children’s play—what they term “play accessories” [2]. They describe simple and rugged accessories (e.g., a pair of socks that makes noise when both feet are off the ground, a belt pack that makes noise if you move more than incrementally), which are not connected to any specific game of narrative, but amenable to many kinds of play. (Notably, none of the functions is “useful” or, in the immortal words of the Microsoft ad, “actionable insights for healthier living”.)

These devices are individual (not digitally networked), and social in the sense that the do something noticeable depending on what the wearer does. They also cite a couple of other similar projects that are worth a look.

Some non-obvious findings:

They suggest that to encourage play, including social play, the devices should not be digitally networked. They observed that linked devices (e.g., two kids have to work together to make music from their wearables) lead to a limited range of competitive or similar games.

But when the devices were strictly individual, yet “readable” by others, the kids were able to make up many different games, and, when they wanted to, “network” though human interaction and according to their own rules, not through the rules and screens of an application.

This design guideline is particularly interesting to me, because I have been thinking (but have not experimented) about concepts for getting people to “come together”, many of which resemble the connected accessories Rosales’ group says do not generate the freest play. I need to take this recommendation on board, and think carefully about what kind of “playing together” I want to achieve in a given case.

In another finding, the authors note the importance of sound over visual outputs in these active play situations. It was hard for the kids to track the visual signals, but the sounds were easy to perceive, even while jumping, wiggling, and attending to the actions of others.

The authors also speculate on the positive value of these intimate devices, closely connected to the kids’ bodies, which gives them a new form of feedback and learning about their own movements. Whatever the supposed value of the “quantified self” for adults, this work suggests that such technology might be very powerful for developing children. Of course, it might be good for some and not for others, and there are surely positive and negative ways to do it.  Yet more food for thought.

Very interesting stuff. I shall now start to use the term “play accessories”.


  1. Mary Pietrowicz, Robert E. McGrath, Guy Garnett, and John Toenjes, Multimodal Gestural Interaction in Performance, in Whole Body Interfaces Workshop at CHI 2010. 2010: Atlanta. http://lister.cms.livjm.ac.uk/homepage/staff/cmsdengl/WBI2010/documents2010/Pietrowicz.pdf
  2. Andrea Rosales, Sergio Sayago, and Josep Blat, Beeping Socks and Chirping Arm Bands: Wearables That Foster Free Play. Computer, 48 (6):41-48, 2015. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?arnumber=7122175
  3. Dorothy G. Singer, Jerome L. Singer, Heidi D’Agostino, and Raeka DeLong, Children’s Pastimes and Play in Sixteen Nations: Is Free-Play Declining? American Journal of Play, 1 (3):283-312, 2009. http://www.journalofplay.org/issues/1/3/article/childrens-pastimes-and-play-sixteen-nations-free-play-declining

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