The Future is Now: Innovation Square Comes to NYU-Poly

“Once you give them something fun, people embrace it,” Larry O’Gorman, the Bell Labs project manager of Brooklyn Blooms, a research collaboration with NYU-Poly Game Innovation Lab, explained to a group of onlookers gathered around a colorful screen on which digital trees and flowers were “blooming” right before their eyes. Brooklyn Blooms recontextualizes the security camera concept, transforming the typical paranoia surrounding surveillance cameras into playful, interactive and artistic fun: moving around in front of the cameras causes a virtual garden to grow on the media wall. 

O’Gorman was talking about Brooklyn Blooms, but his words captured the spirit of the warm, sunny June day when the World Science Festival transformed MetroTech Center into Innovation Square

Launched in 2008 with events and programs all around New York City, this year, the World Science Festival’s Brooklyn headquarters highlighted the work of several NYU-Poly professors, students and graduates, among other innovators. Among the attractions featuring their work were an augmented-reality rocket launch, apps that allow users to control robots and an iPad app that offers chemistry students a playful take on Lewis Dots molecular diagrams, developed by  Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Sciences Jin Kim Montclare

Enthusiastic crowds of parents and kids, scientists, academics and laypeople milled about the square, waiting in long lines to catch a glimpse of quantum levitation and explore the voice- and movement- activated apps for controlling mobile ground robots, a project from NYU-Poly Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Vikram Kapila and students. LEGO-based robots developed by NYU-Poly’s GK-12 Fellows project were also on hand in the popular Robot Zoo.

In a shady grove nearby, attendees could try out the video-folk game Johann Sebastian Joust, in which selections from Bach’s lush Brandenburg Concertos control the pace at which a player may move their controller while they protect a florescent magical wand.

The collective vision presented at Innovation Square was one of playfulness with a purpose, something Mike Karlesky—a PhD Candidate supervised by Professor Isbister, and self-described “Misfit of Computer Science,” who worked on developing Scoop!—sees as the wave of the future. 

Karlesky said he has “always been interested in playful tech,” explaining that “playful is different than gaming. Games tend to be competitive and play is cooperative. You are exploring. It’s less strategic.” He’s interested in incorporating these ideas into work and school environments.

Appropriately, many visitors began their day exploring these new wonders of science and technology by playing—in the game zone. An Innovation Arcade, hosted by NYU-Poly’s Game Innovation Lab, showcased movement-based, interactive games such as YaMove!—the next iteration of the competitive dance game—and Scoop!. NYU-Poly’s Social Game Lab team—led by Associate Professor Katherine Isbister, who is also Research Director of the Game Innovation Lab—developed both, with additional help from consulting expert Syed Salahuddin.

A Gamer’s Paradise

Karlesky’s notion of playful technology spanned the games on display, from Scoop! to Void Blade—where iPhones become virtual sabres, and YaMove!, where participants score points for synchronized and original dancing style during 30-second rounds. Research behind the game “shows how being physically ‘in sync’ brings people together emotionally and builds trust,” according to the game’s creators, Katherine Isbister and her team at NYU-Poly’s Game Innovation Lab. Participants who were rallying for the 5pm YaMove! dance-off had plenty of time to practice while the game occupied a big cordoned-off section of the Innovation Arcade. 

The games on display reflected recent studies on how posture and stance affect one’s sense of self during play. “How you position your body affects how you feel. There are high-power and low-power poses,” Karlesky explained. Typically, a player sits in a low-power pose, hunched over a controller. High-power poses—wide-open arms, for example—lower stress hormones, increasing confidence. Scoop! seeks to replicate this effect in a game context, though Karlesky pointed out that the precise activity matters less than what is being done with the body. This was evident as child after child jumped in to play Scoop!, laughing and not at all appearing anxious about the fractions.

“Gesture-based games are new and there’s a ‘so what?’ question,” he added. “What does it give you besides a new way to play? We’re working on that.” 

Kifted, in which a player takes on the role of a creature named Kif who is trying to escape a laboratory, also attracted a crowd. Michael T. Astolfi developed the game for his master’s thesis, also under the supervision of Isbister, basing it on the idea of evolutionary psychology. 

Astolfi explained. “It’s based on a hunter/gatherer modeled society, but you’re also trying to impress someone with what you do in the game.” He continued, “You help the scientist and he’ll release you from the laboratory. Basic behaviors are a lot of fun because of the evolutionary link.”  

The movement in technology to become more organic, and even ergonomic continued through the exhibits. Swype On!, an iPad-based research project that re-conceptualizes the idea of the password, was no exception. The program was created by Ph.D. student Napa Sae-Bae, who is advised by Professor Nasir Memon and co-advised by Isbister. Instead of a text-based password—numbers or letters or some combination thereof—the password is created by pattern, meaning a user can create one through a movement of the fingers over the screen. The computer remembers that user’s hand and gesture, as individual as a fingerprint. Ramneet Sang, one of the researchers on Swype On! said they hope to put it on the market next year.

Where the Robots Roam, Swim and Play 

Back outside in Innovation Square, visitors watched robots play soccer (courtesy of RoMeLa/Virginia Tech, via a screen in the Robot Zone), swim in a tank as biomimetic fish and camouflage themselves as jellyfish. The Robotic Fish Challenge, presented by Associate Professor Maurizio Porfiri, demonstrates how robots can swim amongst real marine life and perform environmental damage control such as leading schools of fish away from disasters. Professor Porfiri worked on this project with Stefano Marras, a former NYU-Poly postdoctoral fellow currently at Italy’s Institute for the Marine and Coastal Environment-National Research Council.

A spooky demonstration of Quantum Levitation—also known as “Quantum Locking”—drew in a crowd. Developed in the superconductivity group at Tel-Aviv University, the technique is used to “levitate and trap objects in midair,” according to the exhibit description, with mystifying results. 

At 1pm and again at 3, middle- and high-school students inspired by what they saw attended NYU-Poly information sessions, which gave them a sense of the program offerings and admissions process, while Innovation Stage brought a performative element to the festival, with music embracing technological and scientific components. 

Tristan Perich, whose work is inspired by “the aesthetic simplicity of math, physics and code,” made the first album ever released as a microchip, and later in the day Peter Edwards, a.k.a. Casper Electronics, played eerily beautiful music on an experimental instrument that looked as if it was pulled from inside of one of the robots: a motherboard, knobs and colorful wires, his back to the crowd, who were raptly watching him anyway. 

At 5pm it was time for the YaMove! DanceOff on Innovation Stage. Teams competed to be the most in-sync, creative dancing duo before the day ended with a blast-off from Mark Swarek and John Craig Freeman-engineered augmented reality rocket launch, sending a “spaceman” and flag to the moon, and leaving the crown to marvel at a day filled with an innovative future so close we can see, touch, interact and dance with it on Earth.

At the Swype On! table, a little girl watched her parents try to replicate the motion-based “password” her brother had set on one of Sang’s iPad’s. They failed to gain access every time. “No one can replicate it,” Sang explained. “It’s as individual as a fingerprint.” 

“I want to make mine!” the little girl said, jumping up and down, demonstrating the joy to be found at the intersection of tech and play.