Remember Tamagotchi’s? Their cool factor may have reached its expiration date some time ago in the 90s, but the digital ‘pet’ device has been given a makeover by researchers at Victoria University, who have planted a living microorganism inside the toys. The novel twist hasn’t gone unrecognized either, with the device, called a Tardigotchi, winning first prize in the Digital Language category at the 2010 Electronic Language International Festival (FILE) in Brazil.
The design also received a special mention at the international ‘art and artificial life’ competition VIDA 12.0 late last year. It has three main components: a portable sphere that can be carried around by an owner, a docking station and software.
The development of the Tardigotchi is the result of a partnership between Doug Easterly, senior lecturer in Media Design from Victoria University, Matt Kenyon from Penn State University, and recent graduate from Victoria’s Industrial Design programme, Tiago Rorke,
“The look and feel is kind of Tamagotchi meets Harry Potter,” says Easterly, who was inspired by a palm-sized clock set in a magnified glass sphere that he picked up in Hong Kong.
Easterly says Tardigotchi explores the relationships humans have with others. “I got to thinking about what aliens would think of creatures that put other creatures in artificial environments and care for them.”
So how exactly do you go about looking after a real life pint-sized organism? A Tardigotchi owner looks after the microorganism (called a tardigrade) and virtual creature at the same time. The virtual component is a caricature of the tardigrade, exhibiting some independent behaviour, but also reacting directly to the tardigrade’s activities.
By pushing a button on the sphere, you can feed the virtual pet. This in turn literally feeds the tardigrade microorganism with a syringe. Once the tardigrade is fed, the virtual creature shows off its full belly in an animated sequence.
Sending an email to the virtual character triggers a real heat lamp on the sphere for the tardigrade, while the virtual character reclines and soaks up animated sunrays.
“There are a few established artists working with living things in the art world, but not many are working with microorganisms. When art and science intertwine, new territories and concepts can be explored,” says Easterly.
“Tardigotchi raises interesting questions, such as whether interaction with an electronic device can lead to emotional attachment,” he says.
“It also serves as a reminder for the special place humans have in communing with other animals, perhaps equally for artificial ones.”
If you’re still slightly confused with how the wee device works, check out this video created by Victoria University Design students.