A Playground as Cyber-Physical System

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(c) Kompan
Photo (c) www.kompan.com

A cyber-physical system is (using Wikipedia’s definition) a system of collaborating computational elements controlling physical entities. And also a bit of a buzzword. Some time ago, I discovered a new type of playground, on which two dozen distributed light-changing buzzers controlled two physical entities very dear to my heart – my kids.

Let me explain. On vacations in Sweden, we stumbled upon a playground with a rather futuristic-looking climber in it. The climber sported ca. two dozen of roundish contraptions attached to its various poles, which upon closer examination turned out to be buttons with radial light strips around each button – I was reminded of HAL 9000’s eye in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On of the buttons on the climber.
On of the buttons on the climber.

We were a bit puzzled. Also, there was something shaped like a steering wheel standing next to the climber — that one reminiscent of the Axiom’s board computer AUTO from WALL-E.

The "control wheel" of the play ground.
The “control wheel” of the play ground.

Still puzzlement. Luckily, there also was a shield with some helpful descriptions, albeit in Swedish:

Information about the four games that can be played.
Information about the four games that can be played.

Bit by bit, we figured things out. The first game we managed was a game of Capture: half the buttons light up in green, the other in red. Two players chose one of the colors each and now have to switch as many  button as possible over to their own color: each button press toggles the color. So, both kids ran and climbed as if their life depended upon it, hitting button after button, an exhilarating chase along the climber. When 60 seconds are over, the “steering wheel” displays the score.

Then there is Color Catch: up to seven players select a color. When the game starts, each of the colors flashes up on one of the buttons. Each player tries to find his color and press the button – if a player is too slow though, his color may jump to another button. Who is first to catch his color for 10 times wins.

With Capture and Color Catch, the parent has an unfair advantage: where the kids have to climb and dangle from one hand to reach the button with the other, I just raise my hand and leisurely press the button. But Memory is a game for the whole family. Press a button, and a color (or color combination) appears. Which of the other buttons has the same color combination? Press another button: if you were right, a satisfying melody sounds and the buttons stay lit, otherwise a nasty buzz tells you  to memorize the colors and try again. Just like the table top game, but with more climbing and running than the table top involves (hopefully).

My kids insisted on visiting the play ground three evenings in a row, accepting the required 15 minute stroll to the playground without comment  (which, I am afraid to say, is a bit unusual for my kids, unless there is ice cream to be had at the other end of the stroll). I am sure that the novelty wears off after some time, but we had three fun evenings of running, climbing, and jumping, and probably would have had some more if we had stayed longer. So congratulations to the Swedish inventors at Kompan for this nice combination of the physical and the digital!

Maybe, this is an idea for a fun Maker project: I am thinking of portable buttons that can be strapped to trees or spots at a “conventional” playground, the buttons controlled by some variant of wireless-enabled Arduino boards (or similar)  that keep popping up on Kickstarter. The buttons would either form a wireless mesh network or communicate directly with a central control unit. User input and communication of the results could be realized either via buttons and a display on the control unit or via a mobile app …  Any takers?

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