As the smell of success wafts fragrantly through the Mint offices, we have been discussing the pros and cons of the novelty gadget - small, cheap products that usually have one or two humorous functions to keep you amused for hours.
Novelty products appeal because they’re fun - they have a simple, accessible interaction that instantly captures your imagination or makes you laugh. Of course, the flip side of this is that they can get old quickly - there’s only so many times you can use that whoopee cushion in the office before you A) tire of it or B) get the sack. And products that follow this super-fast pattern of consumption are wasteful - of materials, time, and money.
However, I don’t see them disappearing any time soon, and their capacity to make people smile and play around should not be sniffed at. In fact, at the moment, small cheap gadgets are providing wonderful starting points for people to experiment with electronics and digital interactions. Just a quick browse through object-hacking sites like Instructables will confirm this. A major consideration of ours recently has been how we can make these novelty gadgets less wasteful and more productive, and more in line with the experimental spirit that they can inspire in people.
The “novelty spime” is emerging as an intriguing way of doing it. I won’t go too much here on what a spime is here, for lack of space (try Bruce Sterling’s “Shaping Things” or, more immediately, the wikipedia page). The most memorable quote regarding spimes, for me, is this - that they are “material instantiations of an immaterial system.” Spimes exist in the real world only when they need to, and once the novelty of existence wears off, they can just as easily be taken apart and returned to a more immaterial state.
The possibility of building an object-platform that allows people to build the thing themselves, modify it, and use it in as many ways as their imagination allows, is a really exciting one. When the novelty does wear off, its just as easy to break it down to its constituent parts and either redistribute it or make something else. It gives space for play and experimentation, but also imagines a multitude of long-term future use scenarios - crucially, few of which are wasteful.
Designing the novelty spime is mostly new territory for us, and brings with it an abundance of new considerations - how you design something to be downloadable from the internet, taken apart, re-coded, re-used and re-distributed takes in a lot of unique and complex interactions. But I, for one, am very excited about going through the process of working it all out. Watch this space!