Them’s good eatin’

My invisible friends

With all the talk of “intelligent agents”, mail “daemons”, software setup “wizards” and the like, the high-tech age is riddled with the language of magic. It’s no wonder that so many computer programmers spring from the same communities obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons or The Lord of the Rings, because software is, in essence, precisely like magic: Words that “do” things. Nor is this merely part of coder-geek life. Today’s average computer user spends an inordinate amount of time memorizing and reciting passwords — their own little magical “Open Sesame” phrases that unlock the eldritch realms of email, newspaper sites, and Ebay accounts. And when you accidentally forget a password, you can wind up feeling rather like Gandalf before the locked Doors of Durin, unable to remember which incantation opens them. In a world of software, we live surrounded by weird and invisible forces.

Now some Japanese artists have produced “Kobitos” — a hilarious little project that touches on precisely this dynamic. They wired up a kitchen table so that a tea caddy can be dragged around by an unseen magnet beneath the wood. Then they wrote software in which little gnomes — Kobitos — “push” the caddy around. The only way to see the gnomes is to look through a nearby LCD screen that shows a video of the table with the Kobitos digitally superimposed.

There’s a video here showing people playing with the system. It’s quite trippy: When you look at the table, you see the tea caddy scooting mysteriously across the surface; then when you look in the screen you can see that the Kobitos are pushing it. The system’s haptics work both ways, too: When the user pushes back on the caddy, it bonks the Kobitos out of the way like little tenpins. As the artists write:

Kobitos can be good playmates, because they are invisible sometimes and visible at other times. When they are invisible, and they move something in the real world, they generate a sense of wonder. Interaction with such a creature could be a new type of entertainment.

(Thanks to Cook Design for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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