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January 10, 2015

Finch flops @ fair

As I was recovering from Dengue I was still weak and could not travel to Udavi. I had however received the Finch robot as a gift from Gaurav. It had been a lot of fun to use it and program it for a task (drop a paper ball into a basket) at the Isai Ambalam school. When Poorna school children visited Isai Ambalam they also had a lot of fun programming the Finch to do such a task.

Udavi school organizes a school fair a day before Christmas and some of the children from Isai Ambalam had gone for it the previous year. This year they were asked to put up a stall and the children decided that they would do a stall with Finch. Given that it was the coolest gadget, we already had it made and just needed to show up. Of course in the dry run of designing a challenge and making it happen with teams in the class it took us half an hour...I took the precaution of going to Udavi a couple of days and introducing working with the Finch. My class at Udavi was even upset that I was letting the Isai Ambalam children set up a stall with Finch, instead of them.

D-day the children put up a stall with the game of asking people to program the Finch to start in one location and park in another while avoiding hitting obstacles. People were happy watching the Finch demo, but not many were biting. Only the children from Udavi who had worked with me gave it a try. Some were curious and watched, but very few were in the frame of mind to give it a shot. Soon the obstacles were removed, the problem made simpler, yet the crowd stayed thin watched a demo and walked away. 

Arham had also come to the fair and I was walking around with him trying out various games - dropping a coin in water to a target, tossing a ball to pass through a hoop, kicking a football through a tire, tumbling a tower with balls, rolling a table tennis ball on two ropes and dropping it into the bucket, hitting a ball coming out of a pipe. I walked back to my team after an hour to realize that they looked exhausted and it was because of lack of interest and the effort it took to write in the program.

I realized that most of the games that didn't involve luck involved prediction...watching something happen and trying to correct to make something else happen. It reminded Daniel Wolpert's very interesting TED talk about how our brains evolved primarily to help us move dexterously through prediction (its a fun talk, well worth the 20 minutes). The ease of prediction and correction was missing in our game and hence not in sync with the rest of the fair. What was fun and exciting in a "serious" classroom setting had fallen flat in the light of "real fun". 

An hour and quarter had almost passed (in a two hour fair) we needed to change the game drastically. The new game was this, a random program was written to make the Finch move around a bit. As a user you needed to predict where to place the Finch in order for two wheels of the finch to come on the parking pad. You had two attempts. Once someone solved the problem the program was changed. 
Having to choose location and orientation alone seemed doable and a fair crowd built up at the stall. You could wait and watch someone did to have a better shot at solving the puzzle, but you took the risk of someone solving it before you.

While most games were running out of steam since children and people had already tried them the Finch stall was heating up. The stall running about 15 mins after the fair stipulated time and children played even though the center where tokens (we gave out on completing the challenge) were exchanged for gifts, had closed.

The fact that the game was salvaged in the end seemed to have stayed with the children as they seemed pretty happy with their stall and wrote about how successful it was once we changed the game. A few Udavi children who had stayed till the end asked me to book the game for them for the next years fair.