Move38 Gives Blinks the Gift of Life

A conversation with Move38 co-founder Jonathan Bobrow

by Rutger Ansley Rosenborg

When British mathematician John Conway developed the Game of Life in 1970, he created one of the first examples of a cellular automaton. For all mathematical intents and purposes, it was alive.

A “lightweight spaceship” will translate itself off of Life’s grid.

The first rule was simple: There should be no explosive growth. With some experimentation, Conway eventually fulfilled that rule in the Game of Life, but it proved to be more challenging in his own life, as his simplistic model of emergent behavior would go on to influence everything from our understanding of biological growth and evolution to compositional techniques with MIDI sequencing in music to … gameplay.

Nearly five decades after Conway’s breakthrough, MIT Media Lab alum and Move38 co-founder Jonathan Bobrow has brought Life off of the paper, out of the computer screen, and into our hands with Blinks, Move38’s flagship project.

Blinks are like Conway’s Life come to life.

Bobrow started Move38 as a “human response” to “thinking about our future and what it means to play with systems” after graduating from MIT Media Lab with a degree in Playful Systems.

“Yeah, that’s a real degree,” Bobrow explains in a Kickstarter video about the origins of Blinks.

Move38 CEO Jonathan Bobrow dives into the origins of Blinks for Kickstarter.

But it’s not all fun and games. According to Bobrow, his background is in mathematics and design, and for years, he worked on interactive museum installations, “bringing physical artifacts to life” through projection mapping and touch-responsiveness.

“I always thought it would be neat to make curious devices — not just curious for the person meeting the device, but that the device itself is curious about the world around it,” Bobrow said over a video-chat on Monday.

After some trial and error and more than a few glitches, Blinks turned out to be that curious device and Move38’s defining product (so far).

Move38 has far exceeded its initial Kickstarter fundraising goals for Blinks.

“Blinks started as a very singular vision as one thing I wanted to experience, which was a hands-on way of engaging with emergent behavior. The kind of emergent behavior that I was thinking of was these cellular automata, something like Conway’s Game of Life,” Bobrow said.

“A month into being at MIT Media Lab, I prototyped something like this.… It wasn’t until later that I realized they made a really great platform for playing these types of games that you never could play before. It took me working with other game designers to really realize, ‘Oh, interesting, there’s just not something like this for tabletop games.’ There’s not a way to make games that respond to you in this way without losing the thing that we like so much about tabletop games, which is typically the fact that you’re hands-on and face-to-face,” he added.

The goal of Fracture, which was developed by Celia Pearce, is to maximize diversity.
“The things that other people will make for them are just far more interesting—at least from a game standpoint—than the ones that I design.” — Jonathan Bobrow

While the social, tactile, interactive, and accessible characteristics of Blinks make it a tabletop game of the future, like the Game of Life, Move38’s flagship product is widely applicable beyond diversionary entertainment. From art installations to epidemiology and education, neuroscience to cryptocurrency and behavioral therapy, what lies beyond the game is perhaps the most exciting part for Bobrow.

“Games make Blinks incredibly accessible … but as an open platform, I’m constantly contacted by people who want to do large scale installations: ‘Can we install this in a museum? Can we use this to explain epidemics and the way that diseases spread?’ This is actually a really good way to show that,” he said.

“One of the simplest and most fascinating examples of emergent behavior created by John Conway in his Game of Life ruleset for cellular automata. This ruleset was the impetus for creating Blinks, a tangible cellular automata for exploring emergent behavior through gameplay.”

“One of my fellow lab-mates at MIT was like, ‘You realize you’ve built a neuron?’ And we could then use these to simulate the brain. You could do some really fascinating work with this distributed system,” he added.

“Most recently, somebody was asking, ‘I’ve been really looking for a way to explain blockchain.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess you could make a really great game on Blinks that is teaching you about blockchain,’” Bobrow said.

Most importantly, however, Bobrow is keeping Blinks accessible and inclusive so that the technology takes on a life of its own once it’s out of his hands—just like Conway’s Life did way back when.

“By being open and open-source … my hope is that it’s also an invitation to go beyond …” — Jonathan Bobrow

In the meantime, Bobrow is still fundraising for Blinks on Kickstarter (the campaign ends on Friday, by the way!), while looking toward a sustainable future for Move38.

“After finishing up my Master’s thesis at the Media Lab, I moved down to New York and joined an incubator called NEW INC. One of the advisors at NEW INC, Lisa Niedermeyer … saw what I was working on and thought, ‘This is a perfect fit for what Adam [Huttler] is working on at Exponential Creativity Ventures,’” Bobrow said, explaining just how exactly Move38 became an ECV portfolio company.

“I’m really picky about a lot of things, but one of which is finding partners in business and taking investment. Things aligned really quite well when I met with Adam. It was the first investor meeting that I had that was like two women in the room and two men. There were just all sorts of signs that lined up that were like, ‘This is somebody I get a really good feeling from,’” Bobrow said.

“It wasn’t just about how quickly it could grow. Adam really understood that I wanted to take my time in growing organically, and so he was on board for us to do a small investment and something for us to get to the next stage to prove ourselves,” he added.

With over $120,000 raised (that’s over $45,000 more than their original $75,000 goal!), Move38’s crowdfunding success is proof enough of the company’s potential for organic, sustainable growth and a testament to Bobrow’s (conscious or otherwise) adherence to Conway’s first rule: There should be no explosive growth.

“The Silicon Valley ethos is obviously to pursue maximum growth at maximum velocity. That’s often in the best interests of the VCs but not always what’s right for the companies themselves. As part of our blended portfolio, Exponential Creativity Ventures’ model makes room for profitable companies at sustainable growth trajectories,” ECV founder and CEO Adam Huttler said over email on Thursday.

Part of what characterizes that sustainable growth trajectory for Move38 is itself a sort of emergent behavior.

“By building the community starting on Kickstarter, each of my customers is kind of also this evangelist for the product,” Bobrow said.

Count us among them.

“My ten-year old son, who wants to be a game developer when he grows up, could easily code his own board games for Blinks and even distribute them to his friends. I think that’s really cool. It’s also a great example of how Move38 fits into Exponential Creativity Ventures’ investment thesis.” — Adam Huttler

As of now, Blinks will be widely available in March 2019, but if we’re lucky, we might just get them before the holiday season.