Michael Karlesky

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

“Coloring Inside the Lanes”

Over the summer I seem to have much less academic reading to do than during the school year proper. Since I generally use my subway time for reading, this means some free time on the subway now. And, apparently, I like to write short stories while riding the subway if I don’t have pressing reading to do. Given that I’m all over New York City these days conducting customer interviews for Somaware, I have quite a bit of writing time on my hands. And, so, below is another addition to my Origins side project.

Others in the series:

Everything in Lionel’s life was big. He was big. His house was big. His hair was big. His personality was big. His dog was big. He liked to wear big belt buckles. Everything was big.

Lionel drove his big car to work each day at a big company. His company made paint—all kinds of paint. They made paint for the very biggest artists and for the very biggest buildings.

Lionel was the head of diagrams. His company was so big that it had a department just for diagramming, and Lionel was their best diagrammer. He loved making complex ideas clear with smart lines and neat markings, and he loved even more becoming continually better at it. Others diagrammed for paint can labels or signs in the factory or perhaps the occasional presentation. Lionel diagrammed for the most important and highest levels in the company. He saw all the very biggest ideas at his company and diagrammed them expertly.

Seeing all that he did come across his desk, Lionel was never satisfied that his company thought big enough. This bothered him in a big way. In fact, no matter what he worked on, he was never satisfied any of it was really truly big.

Eventually Lionel took up painting. He worked at a paint company, after all. He hoped it would take his mind off his big disappointment at work. Lionel quickly worked through the fundamentals of color and brush strokes and perspective. You will not be surprised to learn that he soon moved on to working with big brushes and big canvases.

Of course, it was not enough for Lionel. Bowls of fruit and portraits just did not do much for him even when they were painted giant sized. A very big banana is only a banana made very big.

Still Lionel kept painting bigger and bigger hoping it would be big enough. Eventually his big paintings outgrew his studio space. So he found some big open warehouse space at his company where he could keep painting. His company was so pleased with his diagramming that not only did they allow him to use the space they even gave him all the paint he could use.

One day Lionel was carrying some big buckets of paint to his new studio space. It so happened that one of the buckets had a small leak in it. Lionel had no idea. He dribbled paint all along the side of the short road that led from one warehouse to the other.

Lionel liked very much to keep things neat and orderly. Spilled paint would not do. Though he was not especially happy in his work, he certainly appreciated the space and paint his company provided him and wanted to do something about this long dribble of paint. However, by the time he found the spill it was long dried. Cleaning it off the road was not an option. So Lionel, thinking big like he did, decided to at least improve the dribble into a proper line. His mind sprang to action and devised a simple contraption to hold paint and roll it all along the side of the road.

Having completed that line on one side of the road, the other side looked rather bare. So Lionel went ahead and painted another line on the opposite side of the road to match it. When that was done Lionel knew that something was missing. Trucks drove both ways down this little road. The new lines suddenly seemed rather commanding but also not quite complete. Lionel realized that now the two directions of traffic needed something to separate them, and so he painted another line right down the middle.

You must understand that at this time cars and trucks were still fairly new inventions. And paved roads were even newer still. Not long before our story takes place, roads were mostly hard packed dirt. Drivers found their way by looking at paper maps and following the occasional signs posted here and there along the roads. When pavement came along, it was laid down and then cars drove on it. It was simple as that. Of course, as roads became busier and more roads crossed other roads and more people were driving to more places, getting around became much trickier and much more complicated.

Having finished painting this little road, Lionel noticed that it intersected several other roads leading to the other warehouses. The intersections caused confusion among the truck drivers. Lionel’s mind immediately began to picture these intersections as diagrams. So he carried his contraption over and began to lay down in paint all the arrows and lines he saw so clearly in his head. He became so engrossed in his work that several trucks very nearly hit him. The blows of their horns barely caught his attention.

Standing in the middle of freshly painted lines and big arrows and big letters, Lionel’s eyes grew big. Every road and intersection everywhere was one big diagram just waiting for him to color in.

Today roads get all their markings applied by big machines very nearly at the same moment the pavement is laid down. But there was a time when a big man who longed to accomplish something big saw all the roads everywhere as one big canvas in need of a great big paint job. And that’s how Lionel gave roads everywhere their first stripes and arrows and lanes. In the end, his big idea was simply to do his job as best as he knew how—to diagram his heart out and ever line well.

“If You Can’t Stand the Beat, Get Out of the Kitchen”

Another draft installment in my short stories side project Origins. This is fun.

Others in the series:

Frankly, dishwashers, refrigerators, toasters, blenders, and all the other kitchen appliances lead fairly boring lives. How much bread does a toaster really toast in a week? Dishwashers work pretty hard, but they only run for part of an hour about once a day. Okay, sure, a dishwasher will work some pretty grueling overtime around holiday meals, but that’s only a few times a year. Refrigerators certainly do their jobs day in and day out, but this is a mindless, repetitive sort of work. There are those turning-on-a-light-when-the-door-opens and freezer defrosting things too, but a fridge mainly just chills out. On the whole, appliances do not have a whole lot to do in the kitchen all day.

So like many generations of workers before them, kitchen appliances have always liked making music to get through their work days.

Way back, when appliances first became popular in kitchens, they would sing all the time. Now it wasn’t Mozart. It was a little like jazz or even perhaps a bit like the music of some tribe in a far away place. All the whirrs and whines and thumps and squeals and clicks were the melodies and harmonies and percussion in workday jam sessions. It was an unusual music to our ears. But one thing is for certain—it was a decidedly electric sound.

Eventually newfangled electronic gadgets made their way into homes. First radios came along, and they were musical on an entirely different level. Kitchen appliances are a proud lot. They did not take kindly to the impressive talents of these new devices. They would not have admitted it at the time, but they were, in fact, quite jealous.

They were so envious, in fact, that they would strain themselves trying to one up these newcomers, drawing attention to their musical stylings. More whirring and squealing and clicking. The radios didn’t even so much as notice—not because radios are oblivious to such things. They really had no idea there was a competition. The radios were simply busy being radios. Of course all this exertion took its toll on kitchen appliances. The earliest generations frequently broke down from the strain, and many service technicians came to make many repairs.

Now clocks have been in homes for far longer than kitchen appliances. And in watching so very much time go right by their very faces, they had come to be quite wise. They told time, of course. On occasion, they also had much more to say.

So it was that one particular day in one particular kitchen after having heard appliances strain themselves for attention yet again that a wise old clock decided to speak.

“Pardon me”, he began without really meaning to ask for the kitchen’s attention as much as give warning that he intended to speak. “I have a great deal of time on my hands up here and have been observing all of you for ages now. I should like to ask a question. Why are all you appliances so determined to make so much noise? Now I am not saying anything about your music. I mean why do you strain so hard to be something you are not? Each of you are quite talented at blending and toasting and cleaning and crisping. Why are you so discontent that you make such a racket if ever someone else so much as speaks in here—often with a proper speaker no less?”

And with that the wise old clock went back to biding his time.

The appliances were stunned and briefly silent. They were certainly surprised to learn the clock could use his face for more than holding up numbers. But more than that he had shined a light into the dim recesses of their crumb catchers and filters and motor casings (since appliances do not have hearts, of course).

They were all embarrassed to sing that day. And as the days wore on they realized the clock was right. Squealing and clanking and clattering was replaced with murmurs and whispering among themselves as all the appliances came to understand the bigger meaning of that grandfatherly clock’s words. They had forgotten who they were and were so determined to be something else they had not succeeded in being anything.

Not long after, the toaster was up for sale at a neighborhood garage sale. And he told the tale to a coffee maker and a toaster oven he met there. If you understand the depth of rivalry between toasters and toaster ovens then you understand just how significant this entire experience really was in order for the toaster to speak of such things with a toaster oven. Slowly the wisdom spread through repair shops and yard sales. Eventually lunch rooms at appliance factories were helping all of the new appliances to understand just what they were and to take pride in their work and their appliance-ness.

Eventually into homes everywhere there came televisions, CD players, computers, and most recently phones that can play almost anything at any time. Sometimes these gadgets would even headline performances in the kitchen and attract thoroughly engrossed audiences.

But each new generation of appliances was quieter and quieter. Instead of drawing attention to themselves they began dedicating themselves to contentment and to being just as reliable and efficient as they knew how.

To be sure, kitchen appliances never lost their love of music or their love of singing together as they work. That’s why, even today, when you enter a kitchen you can still hear them hum.

“This Little Piggy”

Another draft installment in my side project I’ve been calling simply Origins.

(Previous pieces here and here.)

Phillip was a hog. He lived on a farm with a tractor and a big barn and many other animals.

Each day Phillip lounged around and ate as much as he wanted. When it was especially hot outside he would roll around in his mud waller to cool off.

Other animals on the farm worked. Some went out with the farmer each day to pull carts. The cows were always busy with their milking. The hens laid eggs and the dogs guarded the henhouse. But not Phillip.

Phillip had barely a care in the world. He ate and rolled in his mud and kept on getting bigger. Life was altogether easy for Phillip the hog.

One day Phillip was having a roll in the mud when he overheard some of the working animals talking. Phillip heard all the right words to know they were talking about food. He loved food. So he waddled over to the other animals to hear more of what they were saying.

When Phillip finally got near the other animals he was slightly out of breath but managed to butt into their conversation. The other animals became awkwardly quiet. Finally a wise old horse looked at Phillip with a certain pity and said, “I suppose you don’t know why they call you a hog. Hogs are fed to get fat. So they can be slaughtered and eaten by people.”

Phillip’s eyes grew wide, and he started breathing even harder than he already was.

He tried to calm down by taking a roll in his mud. His mind was racing, and Phillip wished he could just disappear. Then an idea came to him. Maybe he could disappear!

The next morning Phillip woke up early, covered himself with splotches of mud from his waller, and tried hard to walk like a very short dairy cow out in one of the fields. Phillip was quite pleased with himself until one of the farm dogs passed by, nodded, and said “Good morning, Phillip. What are you doing way out here?”

Phillip panicked. He ran. Of course he did not run far. Phillip had been fattened up for slaughter and had not so much as even imagined running before then. Wheezing and exhausted, Phillip was inspired by his short sprint. He realized that if he had been fattened up to be slaughtered then he could not be eaten if he was no longer fattened up!

And so Phillip stopped eating as much as he wanted and began exercising. Now certainly hog push-ups and hog sit-ups and hog jogging look entirely silly. But when Phillip finally started pig paddling laps in the pond that was when the other animals called the whole thing hogwash. Phillip paid them no attention. He was becoming thinner and felt stronger.

Had he been following his plan for a good long while it just might have worked. But then Phillip learned that slaughtering time would come only months away in the spring. A strange quiet came over him and there was a peculiar look in his eye. In that difficult moment Phillip changed.

Now pigs are natural diggers. They root in search of food or dig out a shallow cool place in which to lie down. But what Phillip did next was far beyond that of an average pig. Phillip dug and dug and just kept on digging. He dug right down until the hole was big enough to hold all of him. And Phillip was nowhere near done with his digging.

In the coming weeks, he hollowed out an entire underground burrow and tunnels to hide in. And the more Phillip dug, the more he shrank from all the hard work. His pinkish skin and hair became stained with the brown of the dirt. He even began sleeping underground instead of always in his pen.

Phillip grew to like living below ground. It was no longer a hiding place. It was becoming his new home. In fact, he spent nearly the entire winter sleeping peacefully underground. He still made visits to his feeding trough so as to not raise suspicion. He made sure to be seen just often enough. As the weeks wore on, he ate less of his slop, mostly dumping it in the farm’s compost heap to hide his new diet.

With the coming end of winter, the snowbanks began to waste away much like Phillip himself. In one of his strategic appearances above ground, Phillip happened across the wise old horse of the farm. The old horse stopped him. He looked Phillip over and again with a certain pity said to him, “Tell me, Phillip. How much better than being taken to slaughter is hiding forever?” The question left Phillip stunned. Though he had never left the farm, he began to dream of living far outside its fences. One way or another, spring would be the end of Phillip’s life on the farm.

A nighttime escape was out of the question. Because wolves and foxes would prey on the farm animals after the sun went down, guard dogs would keep watch over the farm. The scent of a pig moving toward a fence in the dark of night would surely foil any of Phillip’s plans. His only chance was early on an overcast day.

By the time the snows stopped, spending so much time underground had caused Phillip’s eyes to become quite sensitive to light. Each morning he took to popping his head out of his burrow, squinting, and looking for his moment to run for it. But each morning he saw only his shadow. The sunlight was simply too bright for him, and it would surely expose him as he tried to escape. When he saw his shadow, Phillip would duck back underground and wait for another chance.

Finally the morning came when the snow had all melted and because clouds filled the sky Phillip saw his opportunity. He emerged from his burrow utterly transformed. He was so much trimmer and smaller and stronger than before. He took a deep breath and dashed as fast as he could. He scurried through the field and past the pond and by his old waller. The big barn shrank on the horizon behind him.

Finally Phillip came upon the outer fence surrounding the farm. Being so much smaller than he once was, he ran underneath it! Just like that, Phillip left the farm and the slaughter behind him to live in the wild, to live under ground.

Phillip could no longer be called a hog exactly. There was no more farm or slaughter and Phillip had taken to living in a burrow. And that's how Phillip came to be known as a groundhog.

Phillip’s legend spread. His story was told and retold, and it changed some along the way. He even became known by different names in different parts of the world. He might just be most famous in Pennsylvania. He has quite the reputation in town of Punxsutawney where the townsfolk have become rather chummy with his story. There they simply call him Phil.

Each year the calendar remembers Phillip and his Groundhog's Day. Most think it is simply a celebration of spring. But in reality Groundhog’s Day is not so much about the new life that comes with a change in seasons but the courage to find new life.

“She made a scene”

Months and month ago I fell into writing a fairy tale of sorts. That happy accident has evolved into a little side project I’ve simply been calling “Origins.” I have a handful of stories in various states of completion. The following is a draft of one of those stories.

Everyone knows it’s little people inside computers that make them work. They are incredibly tiny and oh so busy and always working at super speeds to do their jobs. Meeting the little people inside any given computer is really quite difficult.

Despite the incredibly fast-paced life inside a computer, the little people within it are really quite chatty. They talk mostly as part of doing their jobs, but they also love to tell stories when they’re not working. If you listen really closely, sometimes you can hear their tales.

The first computers were big machines that filled entire rooms. Though quite slow compared to present day computers, they still they ran important programs. The computers of today look far different than these machines. And the reason computers now look so different is in large part because of a signal named Pix.

Inside a computer there are components and there are signals. Components are the pieces and parts and doodads and whatsits that have fancy names like “transistor” and “processor” and “RAM.” Signals have names too, but they can’t be seen. They’re especially tiny and especially fast and made of invisible stuff like electrons.

Components get all the attention. Talking about computers is often all about how much memory there is and how fast the processor goes. Nobody much cares about the signals racing in and around the components. So signals generally like to be near the action doing important things. They want to refresh the memory or to race from a keyboard to tell the other components when a user has pressed a key.

Circuit boards inside a computer are the cities and neighborhoods of signals and components. Just like houses and apartments, components stay put and have addresses. And traces on circuit boards are the roads that connect everything together. But unlike the roads cars drive on, traces always form big loops to allow signals to return to their source. Those loops are called circuits. A super fast central clock helps everyone work together. It simply cycles endlessly and works more like a giant traffic signal than something to tell time.

Signals have been doing their jobs for millions and millions and millions of cycles without ever being seen. They take pride in doing their jobs without drawing much attention to themselves. You see, there simply is little place for signals who are show-offs.

Now Pix was a little different than the other signals. She was never quite content to only zap between components back and forth along the same traces all day. She wanted to… well, do something else, something new. Signals tended to be very practical. Pix, however, had a bit of flare and almost no way to express it. 

Signals followed traces on circuit boards all day long. Always forward. Always straight lines. They knew nothing else. But Pix had developed a talent of a sort. After lots and lots of effort she had learned how to twirl. Twirling didn’t really do much, of course. It mainly just tickled components and irritated stodgy signals a bit.

Every so often, Pix would do her little twirl and put a zig in her zap. She always got where she was going right on time, and it never caused any trouble for the running program. Of course, the other signals were all quite satisfied to follow tradition and did not approve of Pix’s sprightly little moves at all. Pix tried as best as she could to ignore the disapproving static.

An incredible number of components and signals live in a computer. The number is so big that not all of them are busy working all the time. Sometimes they just have nothing to do. What feels like a long time inside a computer is hardly a split second in the outside world. When idle time comes most signals are content to simply run back and forth to make sure everything is just as they last left it.

Pix was not most signals. She liked to use her idle cycles to go exploring. She would bounce from component to component, often making small talk as she zipped through. But what Pix especially loved was when she found connections that left the computer. Connections are like tunnels from inside the computer to the outside world.

Connections often lead to other circuit boards full of more components. These are called peripherals. Adventurous Pix was never happier than when she found new connections and peripherals to explore.

In Pix’s time, computers weren’t all that different than other cabinets full of circuit boards. Back then computers were way too big to fit in pockets and nobody had them in their house. Usually computers lived in special rooms in special buildings. While really new ideas were being figured out, sometimes the computers were barely even assembled. Pieces and parts would be sprawled out on desks and on lab benches with lots of wires and complicated tools attached.

And so it was one day that Pix found a new connection and raced to go exploring during some idle cycles. Only the most peculiar thing happened. Somehow she spilled right out of a wire and slid across the sheet of glass that topped a big gray metal desk. Most other signals would have met their end right there. But not Pix. She knew how to zig. Before she could even think she did a lightning quick twirl to zip back inside her computer — before she came apart across the glass and disappeared forever.

Pix was pulsing frantically once safely inside the connection again. She had been so anxious to get back to her computer as fast as possible that she hardly noticed the wondrous sight behind her. When she had twirled, instead of upsetting other signals or tickling components, a tiny momentary burst of light flickered against that piece of glass.

Given the fright she had experienced, Pix was not exactly eager to race down that ill-fated connection again any time soon. But the possibilities of that little flash of light just captured her imagination. Soon enough Pix was spending idle cycles spilling out of the same connection that nearly terminated her and skating around that piece of glass. Each trip was an experiment of more and more twirls. In time Pix could even trace out designs and draw out almost any set of instructions she could imagine — all in tiny points of light.

As Pix was so rarely visiting component friends in her idle cycles, rumors spread. It didn’t take long for her secret to be uncovered. What she could do was so astounding that even the stuffiest of signals were impressed. For the first time, the otherwise invisible insides of a computer could create visible images.

Later, signals and components worked together to produce color images and adopt the grid of picture elements standard on today’s display screens. Computer books will tell you that “pixel” comes from the phrase “picture element.” To a degree this is accurate. But the truer story is that the momentary points of light created with a computer were named in honor of the signal that first danced on glass to create them. Though everyone knew her simply as Pix, her full name was Pixelle.

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.