Disegno #21

Do Humans Dream of Cardboard Sheep?

London

25 April 2019

You haven’t experienced the delight that’s possible in folding a tab into its slot until you’ve used Nintendo Labo. This cardboard construction kit-cum-game, made by the company behind Mario and Donkey Kong, comes with a stack of cardboard sheets that are die-cut and pre-scored such that each tab lines up perfectly with its target and slides in with a papery click.

It’s on-screen, however, where the magic happens. Your real-world construction of these sheets, converting them into models and mechanisms such as fishing rods and steering wheels, is mirrored on a Nintendo Switch console, all rendered in photorealistic, animated 3D graphics that show you the next step in the making process. Rotate the view with a tilt of the console’s joystick and a spectacular effect emulates light-catching fibrous texture and smooth print. The virtual cardboard’s corrugated insides are exposed as the model turns; the board is visibly plump around the folds, where the internal tension of the cardboard has been disrupted by the bend. You hold a button to continue the animation: a flap folds across, reaching its allotted position with a cartoon clonk sound effect. You repeat the actions you saw on the screen, and then, holding the button again for the next step, the moment comes: the tabs insert into their slots and, with a click, a gust of cartoon air blows out from the joint. Doing it yourself, you feel a ghost of the same satisfaction.

Historically, Nintendo has been a master of interaction design and reinforcing action through displays of light and sound on your TV screen. But the company hasn’t applied these techniques to the physical world before. Not, at least, outside of the setup guides to its console hardware, and the playing cards and toys that were its business before its 1970s entry into video games. But Labo is a fully imagined break into a world of rough and ready cardboard. Filled with ideas about how to encourage creative and self-driven play, it’s an entry into a growing field of kits and projects that blend digital technology and cardboard in surprising ways.

Although this has its roots in the maker movement, Nintendo’s take is very much a corporate one, consisting of multiple SKUs and backed by an international marketing campaign. Labo is available as a series of kits, each tailored to build a set of different models, and consisting of flat sheets of brown, corrugated cardboard and a few strings, stickers and elastic bands. Nintendo calls the models Toy-Cons, a chirpily dorky play on Joy-Cons, the name of the controllers it supplies with its Switch console. The Variety Kit includes a working piano, a model house, a fishing rod and motorbike handlebars, while the Robot Kit constructs a backpack filled with intricate mechanisms that turn its wearer into a robot. The secret to how these rickety Toy-Cons are made into houses and robots is the Switch itself. When you insert a Joy-Con controller into the cardboard, its array of sensors – its accelerometer, gyroscope and IR depth camera – become conduits for a surprisingly imaginative set of functions. The piano is a particularly wondrous design. Its body and keys are entirely made from folded cardboard, and other than hollow thunks and papery rustles, it makes no sound. But when a Joy-Con is mounted at the back of the piano’s body, its IR camera points towards the reflective stickers you place on the backs of the keys such that it detects when they’re struck. The notes then play on the Switch’s speaker, visualised as little singing on-screen characters. It’s a delightful effect, a moment in which a basic and inanimate material seems to come to responsive life. But that’s not all the piano can do. There’s also a dial you can slot into the top of its body that turns the characters into cats and gives their voices a range of echo effects. (The IR camera can see reflective stickers of varying width placed around the bolt of the dial that tell it how it’s rotated.) A lever raises and lowers the octave, there are buttons that put the instrument into record and playback modes, and if you shake it while playing a note, the pitch will wobble. On an individual basis, the way these features work is graspable, because you made them. But in concert they’re magical, transcending expectations for what sheets of cardboard and a couple of hours of construction can achieve.

The Toy-Con Piano.

Then again, cardboard is good at surprising. With water, a vice, an oven, fine sandpaper and a lot of patience, you can fashion a functional kitchen knife from an Amazon box, for instance, as demonstrated in the YouTube video ‘sharpest Cardboard kitchen knife in the world’. It’s an everyday material that is capable of much more than forming the packaging that enters through your front door and leaves by the back as recycling the next day, and one of the great appeals of making things with cardboard is discovering how easily it bends to new purposes. “There’s something very pleasing about putting something together like that,” says Ross Atkin, a designer who is currently finalising production of Smartibot, a build-your-own cardboard robot that plays on many of the same principles as Labo. “Particularly in using a material with which you’re very familiar in an unfamiliar way; things you don’t think you can do with that material.” Like Labo, Smartibot comes as a flat sheet of die-cut and scored cardboard and like Labo it operates on the transience of the substance. “The fact that cardboard is ephemeral and everyday is, in a way, the most important thing, because the reason to use it is to send a signal to the people who are building the robots that they’re made of nothing special.”

“It’s kind of anti-technology,” says Rex Crowle, a designer and artist behind video games including LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway, which both use paper and cardboard as the virtual substance of their 3D worlds. “It’s the complete opposite of shiny consumer electronics. It’s just the packaging that goes around them, the thing they get sent to your house in. It’s a very cheap material and it’s not valued, so everyone feels very creatively open with it. When a new box turns up in the house you can immediately cut a hole in it and it becomes a house; you draw on the side and it becomes a spaceship.” This is the effect Atkin now hopes to engender with Smartibot – the cardboard is intended to signal to owners that if they can make a robot from such a mundane material, then they can also make one out of other things they have lying around. A former designer at Dyson, Atkin is interested in marrying digital technology with everyday design. His practice has worked on projects that make cities livable for disabled residents, such as Responsive Street Furniture, a series of prototypes that detect the smartphones of registered users and then adjust street-lamp brightness; illuminate signage; or provide fold-out seating. It’s an oeuvre that deals with making high technology better serve people. But Atkin is also interested in the reverse: helping people better understand and play with technology. “If you think something’s magic, you don’t understand it,” he says. “The people who designed it are a bit irresponsible. The objective of designing technology shouldn’t be to make people feel like it’s magic, it should be to make them understand it more than they did before.”

Projects such as Smartibot and Labo form part of a wider design movement that has grown up around the increasingly closed quality of technology and the vast scale and hyper-commodified nature of modern industry. On one side of this are formal organisations such as the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which released its first $25 computer in 2012. Raspberry Pi was prompted by a sharp fall in computer-science graduates in the UK around 2010, causing co-founder David Braben to worry that the inscrutable Steve Jobs-ian “it works like magic” nature of modern computers was stunting children’s understanding of how they functioned. He looked back to technology-education endeavours such as the BBC Microcomputer System of the early 1980s, which arose from the Computer Literacy Project in which the BBC partnered with Acorn Computer to market a home computer accompanied by a TV series to teach programming and IT. Raspberry Pi reinterprets this idea – a cheap but fully featured computer that requires its users to roll up their sleeves and learn about command lines in order to use it. “Raspberry Pi was designed to solve that education problem and also to make programming seen as a positive thing,” says Braben. He believes it worked. “I think applications to computer science in Cambridge were up by a factor of six. We were without new programmers for more than 10 years and we put an end to that.”

Ross Atkin’s Smartibot Teabot.

On the other side of this interest in opening up technology is the wider maker movement, which expresses a renewed interest in craft, making and repair of all kinds – from woodworking and knitting to electrical and mechanical engineering. This, too, focuses on learning through doing, self-driven exploration of complex processes and techniques, and has in part been enabled by the increasing availability of cheap electronics platforms such as Arduino and production technologies like 3D printing. It began to grow in the US in the early 2000s through gatherings of like-minded DIY creators. “Maker fairs did something that no one had done before,” says Daniel Charny, professor of design at Kingston University and founder of Fixperts, a design-education programme. “They took craft and science fairs and put them together.” This mix of DIY, science and craft was founded in the hacker culture that originated in Stewart Brand’s late-20th-century counterculture magazine, Whole Earth Catalog. It introduced American garage tinkerers to issues of sustainability and participating in social change, all while their leading advocates debated the relative importance of their movement’s twin tenets: should it be about hands-on experience or about leading with values? Is it about being a maker or making things?

In 2005, Make magazine was launched, from which branched Maker Faires – large-scale events held in San Mateo, California, Detroit and New York City that have provided the movement’s backbone in the US. “Make and Maker Faires became very commercial, about leisure and the middle class, but the concept travelled,” says Charny. In Africa, it evolved into a movement about personal empowerment and entrepreneurship, while in Europe it has largely remained a subculture (“In the UK there was more of a critical basis to it, as an alternative to the bigger systems,” says Charny), and in Japan and China the trend has been centrally run, with governments seeing it as a source of economic growth.

For Charny, cardboard kits such as Labo and Smartibot represent some of the tensions that have arisen in the way that the maker movement has changed over time, and particularly how its ethos of sustainability and self-improvement has been co-opted by commerce. “When you talk about cardboard, is it being used to replace something in a really sustainable and involving way, so you’re taking control of your environment, or are you being sold another thing that will end up in the bin? Cardboard is a really good way of looking at both sides of the maker culture and what’s happened in design and sustainability.”

Google’s Daydream View headset, which replaced the company’s earlier Google Cardboard project.

Before Smartibot, Atkin had made another kit called The Crafty Robot, which leans on ideas from the maker movement. Its papercraft robots (sharable, printable) are fitted with a vibrating motor of Atkin’s invention called a Fizzbit; when switched on, its trembling causes the gadget to move in a pattern influenced by its shape. Atkin’s idea is that the complex relationship between the design of the paper robot and the way it responds to the Fizzbit’s vibration invites users to play around and iterate new forms to create new behaviours. The Crafty Robot is thus made to be hacked, which hinges on it being dumb. Smartibot, however, is not. Powered by computer vision, it can be programmed to recognise categories of objects and beings, such as people, cars and dogs, and it encourages users to play with artificial intelligence. “When we started designing Smartibot, we were trying to make it much easier to build robots,” says Atkin, “to make that accessible to a whole load of people who are interested in tech but aren’t necessarily geeky enthusiasts.”

There are countless robotics kits on the market that typically consist of plastic parts and control systems, and usually cost hundreds of pounds. In contrast, Smartibot’s Basic Kit cost £35 when launched on Kickstarter, through which it was successfully funded at the end of July 2018. When it’s sent out to backers in December 2018, the kit will include a sensor-encrusted circuit board, two motors, a battery box and a Labo-like sheet of cardboard that will build three different pre-designed robots. The smart part is the app that users can install on their phones, which acts as the bot’s brain. “That’s why we were keen to do the project with the knitting group and the ceramicists when we were putting the Kickstarter together,” says Atkin, referring to a video he made during Smartibot’s Kickstarter campaign, in which patrons of the Wild and Woolly knitting shop and Turning Earth ceramicists gave Smartibots knitted hats and transformed them into pottery unicorns. “We want to move the whole aesthetic of this away from where it is at the moment and include a different set of people.”

In this respect, Smartibot demonstrates that AI tech can happily coexist with analogue self-expression. Atkin says it’s important that cardboard remains the default material. “The cardboard takes the sense of preciousness and completeness away from the thing you’ve made. It implies it’s in an intermediate state, not in the final state. I think that’s why it’s so powerful as a material.” He pauses. “There are other aesthetics within the maker movement for how you make things seem more accessible, like the whole 3D printing thing.” But though Smartibot is designed to accommodate it, 3D printing can’t beat cardboard for sheer inclusivity. Everyone knows how to cut a sheet of cardboard, while few have access to a 3D printer, much less the knowledge of how to use CAD software.

In this sense, cardboard has become the basis of a growing design vocabulary that’s about making complex things accessible, something which LittleBigPlanet was using back when it was released in 2008. A video game about creation in which each level and every object is made by players, LittleBigPlanet is set in a world of craft materials, all given physical properties. It was a solution to the challenge its developer, UK-based Media Molecule, had in helping players understand how the game works and how to build things within it. “It was a very easy thing to say that this is sponge, this is cardboard, this is glue; you understand the metaphors because you learned them when you were three,” says Crowle, who worked as an artist on the game. “We were trying to replicate that very early tactile feel of playing but in a digital space.”

The Smartibot Unicorn.

Software makers seem fascinated by cardboard’s inclusiveness. It’s even played a major role at Google, which used it to help drive public interest in VR. Google Cardboard was designed by David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute, a Paris-based initiative that makes cultural objects available on the internet. It consists of VR goggles made from cardboard and fitted with lenses that use a smartphone to provide 3D imagery. Its makers pitched it as a way to explore virtual museums, but executives saw more promise, announcing it in 2014 at I/O, Google’s annual developer conference, as the first easy and accessible way to experience VR.

It was an immediate success. Cardboard’s cheerily self-built nature seemed to laugh at the expense, trailing wires, sensor arrays and high-end PCs required to run competing VR hardware such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and Google says it sold 10m kits up to the end of March 2017. But the project gained even wider influence when Google released its specifications for anyone to make their own from scratch: its app has been downloaded 160m times. Cardboard was, however, just a stepping stone. In 2016, it was replaced by Daydream View, which has a pre-built fabric-covered plastic body, and is rather more comfortable and durable than its predecessor. Daydream View is a neat statement about cardboard’s makeshift nature, and its potential to lead to new advances; happily, the Cardboard kit is still available on Google’s store.

The rise of these products isn’t because of cardboard. Its price has not fallen markedly, according to Rose Bell of Zenith Print & Packaging. Nor, she says, have there been any particular advances in its engineering. Instead, these projects are enabled by the constant evolution of smartphones and handheld consoles. “The really exciting opportunity is that Smartibot gets better as phones get better, and all of that’s improving very fast,” says Atkin. He can add new functions over time, and fold into Smartibot emerging technologies such as augmented reality. “Both Google and Apple are making a really big play into AR at the moment and making a really big play into AR at the moment and they’re giving really incredibly powerful capabilities away in their software-developer kit for free.” When Atkin and partner Akram Hussein looked at Apple’s ARKit, which any iOS developer can use to create AR apps, they realised it gave them tools they’d worked for five years to create at Dyson. “As a consequence of this, phones are really good at understanding where they are and what is around them, and that’s an amazing opportunity for a robot.”

At their root, all of these projects are designed to educate. Google Cardboard taught familiarity with VR; LittleBigPlanet co-opted cardboard to teach players to use practical experience to understand the game’s world; Smartibot is about building comprehension of artificial intelligence. “It’s important to understand AI because as a society we’re having to make a load of decisions about how we’re going to use it,” says Atkin. “At the moment, the discourse around those decisions is really poor and there’s a lack of understanding about what it can and can’t do and how it works.” The product’s circuit board is designed for flexibility, able to control up to 14 motors to power complex machines, and operated via an app on a connected smartphone that acts on data fed to it from the board’s two laser-distance sensors and gesture sensor. As the Kickstarter campaign claims, it can be set to follow your dog around or to get out of your way, or you can code your own behaviours using Microsoft’s MakeCode scripting platform, which will come ready built into the app.

The Toy-Con RC Car.

As for Labo, Nintendo is less clear about its aims. “We didn’t intentionally aim to make an educational product,” explained Kouichi Kawamoto, one of Labo’s lead developers, in a promotional interview featured on the product’s website. “However, we did set out to make [Labo] as easy to use as possible, so that even young children can set up a project and experience the joy of seeing it work.” Perhaps Kawamoto is simply anxious that Labo isn’t infected with the whiff of worthiness that comes with teaching, but the US education body the Institute of Play has already started a programme to put Labo kits into selected elementary schools. Labo is, after all, keen to teach how its Toy-Cons work; its Discover mode lays out their hidden features, explaining their mechanisms in breezily written chat bubbles inflected with sound effects and videos. “We wanted to make an experience that helped people see that discovering how things work is fun in-and-of itself, and that making things is rewarding,” said Kawamoto.

There’s certainly more depth to Labo’s Toy-Cons than is immediately obvious. This can be explored with additional modes such as the piano’s Studio, which surfaces an entire suite of music sampling and sequencing tools. And then there’s the Garage, which offers a powerful visual-scripting editor for the Joy-Con and Toy-Con functions. This mode, taking inputs such as orientations of the controllers, piano notes and button presses, applies IF and NOT statements, timers and counters, before outputting sound effects, vibrations and many other functions. Garage is where Labo players can apply their own imagination to the system’s toolset and players have already used it to build things that extend far beyond what comes in the box. For example, Pocket Floor Piano, made by kimoben, is a large cloth mat printed with piano keys that players can dance on to play notes – a scaled-down version of what Tom Hanks plays in the 1988 film Big.

On the basis of watching my children play with Labo, this is an extraordinary case. While my kids adored making the models, they quickly exhausted themselves. They were reluctant to read through Discover mode, and the leap from the colour and music of the core game to Garage’s spare technical interface sent them straight back again. Their bulky Toy-Cons have been taking up a remarkable amount of cupboard space ever since. Nintendo has nailed the art of ingenious cardboard design and construction, but, curiously, all its experience in play doesn’t seem to have translated into encouraging Labo’s users to explore its deeper and more self-driven aspects. Perhaps its instructions are too perfect and the finished Toy-Con too ingenious to deviate from. For Charny, maker-inflected kits for children have to be inherently open-ended, inviting their users to set their own challenges. “You know it’s a consumer product when you don’t have options for what it could be,” he says. As Nintendo doesn’t allow you to make mistakes as you build, you miss learning something important. “Iterative failure means you’re progressing,” says Charny.

Google Cardboard, one of the mass-market progenitors of cardboar

In addition, there’s the question of whether the next generation really needs all these well-meaning endeavours to enrich its creative and technological development. After all, young gamers happily took Minecraft and made it their own long before the educators rolled in. And does the vocabulary of cardboard have the same meaning for children as it does for the generation designing all this stuff? “I often think, what is the Oliver Postgate of the digital age?” says Crowle, whose work references a childhood spent with the animator and puppeteer’s creations such as Bagpuss and Ivor the Engine. “There’s a lot more digital texture in the childhood experiences of the next generation and is that becoming the new language?”

What’s certain, however, is that while cardboard has long been used for prototyping and maker projects, we’ve entered a moment in which it’s being wedded to technology as a result of the computers in our pockets becoming so powerful. “This little world of people I know have been camped out in this space for ages, and suddenly Google and Nintendo have turned up,” says Atkin. “It’s absolutely great for us, because it’s cool now, right? Before it was like, what are these weirdos doing with this cardboard?”