Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

Filtering by Category: Projects

Dr. Surly’s School for Mad Scientists—A New Online Course

Earlier this week my friend and fellow mad scientist Mark VanderVoord and I launched our new online class Dr. Surly’s School for Mad Scientists: Unit Testing & Other Embedded Software Catalysts [enroll here!].

Mark and I met a bunch of years ago working on embedded software projects at his former employer. I was contracted to help out as an extra developer and as a coach to help his department incorporate Test-Driven Development practices in their firmware projects. We worked on testing tools together. We watched this every Friday. We became friends. Eventually Mark evolved into our testing tools master and is now the primary maintainer of the freely available Unity, CMock, and CException. I went on and did more training and speaking on the practices as applied to embedded and systems software.

We worked on this online course for months and months, and we are quite pleased with the final product. We've gotten positive response and a steady stream of enrollments. And we're only getting started.

Now to take over the world. Mwuhahaha!

15 Minutes of Fame: My work in the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has published a wonderful article on my Fidget Widgets work. And they went all out with videos, animation, and illustrations. So fancypants. A friend told me that I’m famous because my name in print is now “Mr. Karlesky.”

The author of the article, Sue Shellenbarger, did a tremendous job and was so enjoyable to talk with. Thank you, Sue.

Get Creative at Your Desk With a Little Playtime:

The research holds clues to how people who feel restless or confined by computer work might find the physical stimulation and stress release they need in behavior that they would have been scolded for in elementary school—fidgeting.
Researchers at NYU are studying how 40 workers use various gadgets, from infant chew toys to Slinkys, gobs of adhesive putty and ballpoint pens, to help focus, ease anxiety and jump-start creative thinking, says Michael Karlesky, a doctoral student at NYU’s engineering school. He is conducting the study with his adviser, Katherine Isbister, research director of NYU’s Game Innovation Lab and author of two books on computer game design and research.
Many of the gadgets in the study inspire vigorous activity, Mr. Karlesky says, and participants describe them using words like “squishy or poky or springy, with lots of “eeeeee’s at the end,” he says.

“Playing Around, Taken Seriously”: A talk at d:Tech and now a blog series

I recently gave a talk at Cornell’s d:Tech series entitled Playing Around, Taken Seriously. It was an hour on what Play is*, why it matters, and just what Playful Technologies can be. Over at Note the Smile, I’m beginning a whole series of posts on all of this, entitled, well, Playing Around, Taken Seriously. The very first post is up.


*Incidentally, this is an incredibly difficult question to answer. It’s also entirely fascinating.

Project Brain Pong: Spectating for fun and profit.

Paddles grow and shrink because of the spectator’s involvement in the game. The bars at far right are readings of spectator involvement.

Paddles grow and shrink because of the spectator’s involvement in the game. The bars at far right are readings of spectator involvement.

Researching the social aspects of human computer interaction is a primary objective of the work we do in my lab (video games make for an excellent medium in which to conduct HCI research). So when a team from another university came in to get my input on their ongoing work to commercialize a new type of brain computer interface (BCI), I started thinking about ways their device could support social experiences. As a general rule, BCIs are not high precision human interface devices. So while they are definitely very cool, BCIs don’t tend to be particularly good for Excel spreadsheets or playing Halo.

What if… because you’re cheering them on, your player can run faster or jump higher?

Ever cheered for a team and become so involved in the game that you were willing your team to win? Know anybody with a crazy superstitious routine to guarantee victory? (It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.) Spectators are intimately connected to the experience of a game — sporting event or digital. While spectators don’t play the game they’re watching, they certainly influence it. And myself, I actually prefer to spectate video games over playing them. So my thought was, how about if a spectator’s involvement in a game could actually affect gameplay? I even sketched up a nerdy diagram relating players and spectators and their social interactions and direct/indirect game effects. It’s not science without diagrams, right?

NeuroSky’s  MindWave Mobile  headset

NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile headset

Over the last few months we prototyped this idea and showed it at a conference. To do this we created a variation of the classic game Pong incorporating spectators’ focus and meditation levels as measured through NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile headsets. The team included myself, game designer and MFA student Toni Pizza, computer engineering student Cindy Fan, and, of course, my advisor. We never came up with a name better than simply Brain Pong.

Modeling our proof-of-concept game after Pong greatly simplified the programming and eliminated the need to design a new game from scratch. Further, because nearly everyone is already familiar with the basics of Pong, the players, spectators, and researchers could all focus on the new dynamic we had put in place.

Check out that spectator sending out his vibes

We created several versions of our Pong variant where spectator involvement variously affected paddle size, ball size, and introduced a second ball. We’ve observed social effects ranging from players trying to soothe spectators to spectators actively antagonizing players.

My advisor recently delivered a keynote address at the Project Horseshoe conference on the topic of designing for social effects in games. She debuted our early work during her keynote and was able to let the attendees play our Brain Pong demonstration game for themselves (they really liked it). From here, our next steps are to create a much larger game that better exploits spectator effects and to conduct — and hopefully publish — research on the resulting social effects of the gameplay.

Smartypants Addendum:
A Framework for Interrelation of Game Effects & Social Effects

Early work in systematizing social effects and game effects among players and spectators in video games

Early work in systematizing social effects and game effects among players and spectators in video games


The vertical axis captures the role within a game setting an individual can take on, ranging from a full player to a full spectator to somewhere in between. By game setting I am referring to the game environment itself plus the social environment around it.

The horizontal axis captures what kind of effect an individual has on the game itself. Direct input refers to an isomorphic mapping between an individual's input and a change in the game. Indirect input refers to causing a change in the game but via some influencer conduit.

The numbered quadrants are the conceptual spaces that describe various game designs in the interrelation of game effects and social effects.

In Quadrant 1 a player's intent directly maps to game input and resulting effects. Any social effects are incidental rather than intentional on the part of the designers.

In Quadrant 2 a player influences the game by their interaction with other players whether via a multi-player game mechanic or a communication side channel (e.g. audio headsets or text-based chat). These effects are designed social features.

In Quadrant 3 the game could be single player or multi-player but is designed to engage the attention and influence of spectators in the larger social space. Party / dancing games are an example here.

In Quadrant 4 the game is directly influenced by the players and spectators. Here we find situated our idea of using BCIs worn by spectators to alter the game environment or alter the abilities of the player. Of course, even various patterns in pressing a single button by a spectator could also achieve a direct effect through spectating.

Note that the progression from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 4 loosely maps to history. The earliest games were in Quadrant 1 while Quadrant 3 is far more recent (and could still certainly be developed much further). Quadrant 4 represents the future and bleeding edge of only what's been envisioned at this point.


Fidget Widgets: Twiddling your thumbs for fun and profit


[Cross posted at Note the Smile]

A Marginally Good Idea

Things to play with in our lab. For thinking.

Things to play with in our lab. For thinking.

Ever have an idea come to you all in a flash? I had one of those thoughts two years ago, and it’s slowly grown from a handful of interesting observations and questions into an ongoing research project. A really cool research project: Fidget Widgets.

Let’s back up. Watching a student in one of my classes bounce the arrow keys on her laptop keyboard led me to think about “software with margins.” And this led to investigating doodling, fiddling, and fidgeting behaviors. Fast forward and Fidget Widgets were born.

So What’s a Fidget Widget?

A Fidget Widget is [see video below]:

  • Tangential. One “mindlessly” engages a Fidget Widget while mulling an idea or paused in work.
  • Playful. The goal is the experience of the interaction not achieving a goal with the interaction itself.
  • Digital. To allow for more supple experiences than possible in physical objects (e.g. infinite resources, large virtual worlds in small spaces, etc.) Fidget Widgets are programmable. Interactions are reactive, though not necessarily predictably so.
  • Tangible. Engaging the bodily movement of fidgeting and doodling inherent in our physical inspirations, Fidget Widgets embody physicality beyond only screen-based abstractions.

Ultimately, our goal is to allow our users to select an interaction to play with in order to temporarily but measurably improve creativity, focus, or calm while working. We have much more work ahead of us to get there.

What We’ve Published + Latest News

My advisor and I published a Work in Progress Fidget Widgets: Secondary Playful Interactions in Support of Primary Serious Tasks at CHI 2013 in Paris. If you’re interested in a brief introduction to all the fascinating background work, this paper has you covered.

We just recently learned that our full paper Designing for the Physical Margins of Digital Workspaces: Fidget Widgets in Support of Productivity and Creativity was accepted for publication at TEI 2014 in Munich. This is my first full paper publication as a graduate student (I could get used to this globetrotting).

In other news, I now have the good fortune to be working  on Fidget Widgets with Kacie Kinzer of tweenbots fame. We have good things in the works (more below).


Early prototypes of the Fidget Widget concept. These aren’t games; these are playful interactions. See one of our papers to learn more.


What We’ve Learned So Far

We’ve learned so much. Doodling, fiddling, and fidgeting behaviors are widespread and not much research has been done of them. There’s a strong link between brain mechanisms and the hand. Mind, affective state, and bodily motions are all interrelated. People have strong opinions about the items on their desk they reach for while working. In fact, despite being fun and engaging, the prototype interactions in the video below have generated considerable feedback about the form factor and materials. Nearly universal in what we’ve heard is a desire for highly tactile, satisfying, and pliable objects. Rigid boxes of electronics are not the way to move ahead.


What’s Next


The two most immediate challenges are both design related: research study design and product design.

Conducting experiments with users are easiest when they have a direct experience with a manipulable intervention. Here our Fidget Widgets complicate much of traditional research design because they are intentionally tangential, mindless, and goal-less. At present we're looking into some of the innovative research done in developing the concept of Flow that shared some of these same research challenges.

What we’ve heard from users is that they want highly tactile experiences. The feeling in the hand requires much stimulation and variation. This will require lots of work with materials and sensors and unconventional electronics design. First, however, we’re stepping back and launching into design research to look at what sorts of objects our user population is already interacting with at their desks.

My advisor recently connected me to Kacie Kinzer. She and I are cooking up something online that we hope will attract some good attention and collect a rich picture of the items and materials and behaviors people employ when they fiddle with things at their desks. When we launch that, I’ll write more about it all.