Playground of the Future

Event series, Interactive museum exhibit prototype

Designer (Project framework proposals, scavenger hunt events, water maze playtesting), researcher, analyst

Drawing of The Park of the Future from child's survey

Playground of the Future was a joint effort between Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, sponsored by the Grable Foundation. Our team of four spent fifteen weeks analyzing innovations in playground design—researching their historical development, surveying over six hundred children's play preferences, interviewing playground experts around the world, identifying trends, and predicting future developments—culminating with a public lecture on our findings for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. As hands-on research we also investigated twenty-six local playgrounds, traveled to City Museum in St. Louis and the Child in the City Conference in Rotterdam, prototyped and playtested a cooperative water-droplet maze at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, and produced an event series of three scavenger hunts targeting different age groups for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Our project team was presented with a very open-ended task in envisioning "the playground of the future." I played a large role in talking with clients and sponsors to understand their needs, identifying overarching goals, proposing deliverables, and working with our team's producer and advisers to finalize a framework of clear, achievable objectives.

Analysis of playground innovations

Ian Proud of Playworld Systems leads the team on a factory tour

Our analysis of playground innovations involved online and on-site research, interviews, and surveys. As part of our on-site research, I mapped over seventy local playground and playground-related sites, planned site visit itineraries, and wrote our travel proposal to visit City Museum in St. Louis. I also wrote our surveys for gathering play preference data from children and adults, researched notable playground designers, and traced the historical development of public play spaces from children's games played in the streets of the ancient Mediterranean to the latest playground technologies being envisioned at companies such as Playworld Systems. I presented this information in our public lecture at the conclusion of the project.

Cooperative water-droplet maze

A school group helps playtest the cooperative water droplet maze at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh

As another part of our research, we identified a technology not yet widely used in playgrounds—a super water-repellent material called HIREC—and incorporated it into a indoor playground toy. The toy consisted of a large physical maze coated in HIREC, with sensor-based "goals" that light up colored LEDs when brought into contact with water. Children could pump water into the maze and then cooperatively tilt it to steer water droplets into the goals, lighting them up and causing the water to drain back out. I assisted in three water maze playtests at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, presenting the maze to families and schoolgroups, recording observations, and ensuring that prototypes were not damaged in playtesters' enthusiasm!

Scavenger hunt event series

Photos from the family-oriented scavenger hunt event

The final component of our project was an event series of three scavenger hunts. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy had come to us with several goals in mind. They wanted to use technology to get both children and adults engaged in active play in nature, blurring the boundaries between "playground" and "park" and better enabling the parks to compete with other modern leisure activities. An ideal solution would motivate people to come out to the parks, support an experience of nature in the parks, and possibly offer ways for people to continue the experience even after leaving a park.

In response to this challenge, we proposed updating the traditional scavenger hunt for the 21st century by incorporating the use of internet- and camera-enabled cell phones. Park visitors would access a mobile-friendly website to download any of a variety of location based scavenger hunts to their phones. Players would then move around the park taking pictures and recording videos on their phones' cameras to achieve clues. While still at the park, players could upload these photos and videos to complete hunts and share their results with an online community of scavenger hunt players. People could also create their own original scavenger hunts for others to enjoy.

At the time of our project, the US mobile phone penetration was 85%, with 70% for teens and 65% among low income teens in particular. With all of these markets growing, we predicted that a large majority of park visitors would have camera- and internet-enabled phones within 10 years. In the meantime, to test our idea, we obtained cheap digital cameras to supply in place of the cell phone cameras we expected park visitors to have ready access to in the future. We prototyped and playtested our concept by running three scavenger hunts of differing formats aimed at different audiences: one focusing on artistic photography for seniors age sixty and over, one with open-ended clues and playful activities for elementary-school-aged children and their families, and a more challenging, competitive one for teams of adults and young adults. Through creating, hosting, and analyzing these events we validated the mobile-phone enabled scavenger hunt concept and gathered detailed information necessary to refine it.

I led design on all three scavenger hunt events. I began by scouting scavenger hunt locations to familiarize myself with the relative rarity of animals, features, and objects that could be found in them. With this knowledge, I tailored each scavenger hunt to explore a different format and appeal to a different age group, creating unique game materials for each and flyering neighborhoods and coordinating with local organizations to create publicity for the events. Despite Pittsburgh's late autumn chill, our event series brought over one hundred and twenty people out to play in the parks. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with one-hundred percent of families and seniors indicating in post-event surveys that they enjoyed the event and a large majority of participants wanting to participate in similar events in the future.