By Kara Larson, Make it Minnesota
Turing Tumble is a new type of game where players build mechanical computers powered by marbles to solve logic puzzles. It’s fun, addicting, easy-to-learn, and while you’re playing, you discover how computers “think”. Paul Boswell is the mind behind Turning Tumble and he loves teaching kids to code. When he was a professor at the University of Minnesota, Paul saw how valuable it is for all students to be coders. As the father of three young kids, he has tried all sorts of games to build their interest in coding. But for Paul, the problem is that they all treat computers like abstract, black boxes, overlooking the fundamental, most amazing concept: how simple switches, connected together in clever ways, can do incredibly smart things.
Talk about the beginnings of Turing Tumble. What inspired you to begin this endeavor?
I’m a *big* fan of games that teach kids to code. It’s like giving them the biggest, best power tool you can imagine. Once they have a good grasp of it, they can make things that are way bigger than them, and they can reach people all over the world.
A few years ago, tabletop games started coming out that teach coding concepts. I loved the idea, but the games all had the same problem: as soon as you started making programs that were even a little bit complicated, it became a tedious process to run the programs because you had to do it by hand, and it was easy to make errors. I knew that in order to create a good tabletop programming game, the programs had to run automatically.
That’s when I started researching mechanical computers and stumbled across an old toy from the 1960’s called the DigiComp II. It was a brilliant little mechanical calculator powered by marbles. I built on many of the concepts from it and started designing my own reprogrammable mechanical computer powered by marbles. I got a 3D printer and began prototyping it. It took a *lot* of iterations to get it to work reliably and there were many, many times when I considered giving up. But eventually I got it working well and I built a game around it that’s sort of similar to one of my favorite computer games of all time: Manufactoria. Each puzzle gives you an objective like, “Make the pattern red, blue, red, blue…” and you’re like, what? How on Earth could it do that? But then you think about it for a little while, you get an idea, you build it, and you feel super smart.
Have you always been creative? What choices or steps have led up to your current creative projects?
I’ve always loved projects. I started making little computer games at a young age and I also built all sorts of things out of motors, lights, cardboard, and lots and lots of hot glue. I learned assembly language and wrote games for my graphing calculator, I learned electronics and built a Geiger counter, an automatic plant waterer, a spin coater, a fancy digital oven timer for an old stove, a clock made entirely out of paper, and more recently, a hovercraft for my kids from a lawn mower engine.
In terms of living and making in Minnesota, do you feel connected to this place?
Absolutely! I grew up in Fridley, MN, went to college at Bethel University, and got my PhD at the University of Minnesota. I think Minnesota has a uniquely strong culture of encouraging hobbies, gaming, tinkering, and doing things yourself. Our two older boys go to Turtle Lake Elementary School, and I’m the Chess Club coach there. We’ve got about 150 kids. That’s about a quarter of the school! And it’s certainly not because of me – Minnesota just has a wonderful culture of encouraging that sort of thing. In fact, in our Kickstarter video you’ll actually see some of our Chess Club kids.
What has the process behind the game creation been like? What have you learned along the way?
It was pretty intense. I’ve been working on it regularly for about 2 years. There were many times when I was just stuck and didn’t know if the project could possibly succeed. For example, in the game there are these little parts that guide marbles one direction or the other. I call them ramps. I thought they’d be the easiest part of the game to design – that they’d just be tilted platforms. They ended up being one of most difficult. With tilted platforms, balls picked up too much speed, and if you had two or more in a row, the balls would get going so fast that they’d bounce off the board when they hit the next part. I struggled a long time before I had the idea of replacing them with a rotating part with a counterweight to slow the balls down. It ended up being a really good thing in the end, because they look way cooler now, and they make the computer more fun to watch run.
As I created Turing Tumble, I learned a lot about 3D modeling, 3D printers, and especially injection molding, which is far more complicated and interesting than I ever imagined. I have a great deal of respect for the people who design Happy Meal toys.
The puzzle book was also pretty fun to design. I thought it would make the puzzles more interesting to give them some context, so I wrote a story to go with them. Jiaoyang Li was working in my research group at the time. One day she showed me a little bit of artwork she had been working on for fun and I was shocked at how good it was! But she’d never published any of her work before. She went on to create a beautiful comic that’s weaved into the puzzles. If the Kickstarter is successful, it will be Jiaoyang’s first published art!
What obstacles have you faced in the production of Turing Tumble?
One of the biggest challenges has been figuring out injection molding. Designing a model for injection molding is surprisingly complicated. There’s also a really high up-front cost to injection molding. The molds themselves are made of expensive materials and it takes a lot of manual labor to make a finished mold. It makes our funding goal on Kickstarter higher than for typical board games.
I think a lot of people, kids and adults alike, yearn to make things and dream of becoming more self-sufficient. How do you think your game hits on these two aspects?
To most people, computers are sort of magical. They run commands you give them, but…how? Relatively few people know, in part because there are other layers of understanding you need to have first like electronics. It makes computers seem like they’re too complicated to understand, which is incredibly unfortunate because they’re everywhere! I hope that Turing Tumble helps both kids and adults understand how computers work, and by extension, that it gives them confidence that they can learn how other things around them work, too.
What do you to see for the future of Turing Tumble?
We’d really like to see more people, especially kids, understand how computers work and build coding skill.
I hope Turing Tumble can bring that understanding to a broad audience, both in homes and in schools.
Do you feel like making and creating through your business allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself?
Most definitely. It would be extremely gratifying to bring a deeper understanding of computers to more kids and adults.
Have you participated in MSP Mini Maker Faire before? What will you be sharing there on June 3rd?
Our family has thoroughly enjoyed attending the MSP Mini Maker Faire. There is so much to see and do, and you walk away inspired and refreshed. We even have an old satellite dish in our garage that we plan to make into a satellite cooker based on what we saw at the Faire. We are all very excited to have our own table at the Faire this year and to meet other makers! We’ll have a couple Turing Tumble prototypes set up at our booth for people to try out and hopefully spread the word.
Originally posted on Make it Minnesota (http://makeitmn.com/paul-boswell/) and reposted with permission.