Delta Play — PART ONE: ∂v/∂t

Copyright Lucasfilm, etc. etc. You know the drill.

A long time ago in a country far, far away, on a long summer weekend, I sat in a sold out movie theatre to watch a film unlike any other I’d ever seen. A film that would change my life — and a film that would change the direction our culture.

To be fourteen years old and nerdy and watching Star Wars is quite possibly the adolescent trifecta. I know that I’ve never quite recovered from the experience. It left a permanent imprint.

In the book Cyberspace: First Steps, interactive pioneer Sandy Stone wrote that Star Wars catalyzed an entire generation with its vision of ‘technology infinitely extended’. George Lucas gave a look into a future of dirt and music and adventure — oh, and robots.

Lucas didn’t call them robots. He called them ‘droids’. But we all knew what they were. And from the moment R2D2 rolled onto the screen I wanted a droid of my own. Everyone else did too. (C3PO — obviously — is too high maintenance.)

I wanted a droid of my own, but I also knew that the droids I saw onscreen — possessed of their own rich, internal lives — were nothing that I would ever see in my own lifetime. Which made them even more desireable.

One of the most curious qualities of science fiction is its capacity to bring what it evokes into actual being. The relationship between Gibson’s Neuromancer and virtual reality is well understood. The same holds true for Star Wars. Elements evoked by the film have a stronger tendency to become real precisely because the film reached out to individuals with the capacities to make them real.

In that sense, Star Wars bent our culture — as any good myth will.

Thirty eight and a half years go by. The fourteen year old becomes a fifty-two year old, who still doesn’t have droids.

One night early in September I had a bit of insomnia, so I got up to play with the computer, to find out there’s this worldwide live unboxing of the toys Disney is releasing in conjunction with the release of The Force Awakens. I’d known about it, but really didn’t care.

Which is a bit odd, really, because I do love toys. In 1999 I wrote The Playful World, which took an idea I’d lifted (with permission) from Sherry Turkle — that toys really do shape the way kids think — and spun it out into an exploration of the world of the mid-21st century. I opened that book with stories about the Furby, which was the hottest toy in the world back in 1998, and which taught Turkle a lot about how kids build their play experiences into a broader understanding of how the world works.

Furby, simple as it was, pointed to much richer objects, with interiority. Something that would increasingly be seen as less mechanical and more lifelike. Children raised with Furby would come to expect such objects as a matter of course.

Someday.

All I can say is that it must have been fate, because when I sat down and watched the livestream for something that I wasn’t really all that interested in I caught a live cross to Good Morning America (ABC is owned by Disney) where they unboxed possibly the most alluring toy I’d ever seen.

A droid.

We all knew a new droid would join the Star Wars family in The Force Awakens, a beach-ball sized bundle of hardware known as BB-8 that seems to keep its head floating over its rolling innards through some sort of magnetic levitation. BB-8 has been designed with an eye toward emotional expressiveness: cocking its head, or peeking around a corner. It has that uncanny quality of interiority. You know it’s thinking.

That’s Jeff Waugh, being rather excited.

When some very lucky kid on Good Morning America unboxed a miniaturised but fully operational BB-8 droid, I lost my mind. If you wind back my Tweet stream to the 3rd of September, you’ll see me losing my marbles in real time. And you’ll see a lot of other grown men also losing their marbles at exactly the same moment.

Every one of us had secretly dreamed of a day we could own our own droid. And that day had actually — and completely unexpectedly — arrived.

So when the shopping centre opened at ten o’clock the next morning, my friend and I were there, and we bought the very first two they sold that day.

The key to BB-8’s functionality that it’s a slave to the sophisticated computing of a companion smartphone, which sends BB-8 control messages via Bluetooth LE, instructing BB-8 what to do. Through the app, you can drive BB-8 around, record or watch cheesy ‘holographic’ messages, or put it into ‘patrol mode’ — as I’ve done here — and it will go off and autonomously map the space, sending a stream of sensor data back to the smartphone.

The whole thing is incredibly well done — a complement to the engineering and user experience teams both at Sphero and Lucasfilm. But when I got it home and had a play, I realised it lacked the one key element I needed to bring my thirty-eight year-old dream to life: programmability.

Oh, clearly BB-8 was programmable. The app proved that beyond any doubt. But BB-8s APIs were entirely undocumented. So while it could be programmed, I couldn’t program it.

And for about three weeks I pondered the wreckage of my dreams. Then a friend tweeted something about an iOS app known as Tickle. Tickle is one of the many variants of the Scratch programming language — developed originally for Lego’s Mindstorms, one of the toys featured in The Playful World — with a particular emphasis on talking to connected objects, such as lights, Sphero, and — in the latest software update, BB-8.

Now, suddenly, I could write cute little programs that made BB-8 follow my commands. Now, finally, I had a droid that I could truly call my own.

More than that, pretty much any kid who’d mastered Scratch can program BB-8 — and that’s a lot of kids, these days, since we can teach them Scratch programming anywhere from around age seven on up.

Every kid, everywhere, can program their own personal droid — just like Anakin did. (Although perhaps we shouldn’t mention that, because it didn’t work out so well.)

Something that was an impossible dream back in 1977 is not just achievable in 2015, but cheap enough that within a few years it will simply be another toy that will help kids articulate the possibilities present within their world.

It needs only one more thing.

You see, despite the existence of a droid, and despite the capacity of practically anyone to be able to program that droid, none of this provides the level of interiority we have come to associate with droids since C3PO uttered his first lines of dialog, and betrayed his own self-consciousness.

A droid without interiority is just a piece of machinery. A droid with interiority comes alive. It becomes a character. An element in a story.

The next place all of this is going to go — because it has to go there — is a full linkage of BB-8 droids with a Siri or Cortana-like intelligence that is capable of listening, responding, and — soon — learning from the people playing with them.

It seems very obvious: Siri and Cortana have APIs — though they’re still mostly undocumented. They’ll be married up with the APIs on BB-8, and, with the smartphone acting as traffic cop, BB-8 will encompass an intelligence and awareness that’s much greater than anything we’ve ever seen in a toy.

We already want to do that because the story that surrounds BB-8 makes it easy for us to believe there is more to BB-8 than just a small program. We want to see BB-8 to express its character. We want to have a relationship with it.

You can argue about whether it’s appropriate to have a relationship with an inanimate object — certainly Sherry Turkle has been very eloquent and persuasive on this topic — yet it should be noted that people have been having relationships with fictional characters since Don Quixote. I can’t see this as entirely different.

A simple formula changing absolutely everything.

As AI becomes a central feature of this century — much like mains electricity in the last — the idea that some device should be infused with artificial intelligence, and the character that comes with it, will increasingly be seen as completely natural.

The stories we spin around these intelligences, and the way that we weave those stories into the fabric of our world are a big part of the future of storytelling. We’ve got forty years of stories saved up to share.

“Delta Play” concludes with Part Two — Getting Real

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