It was after I took off a virtual-reality headset and was watching my seven-year-old daughter play with a robot she had just programmed that it hit me – the future is awesome. At least as it looks from inside the fifth-annual digiPlaySpace Exhibition in Toronto.
Opening Saturday and running until April 24 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the exhibition has 25 installations from nine countries. Each of them was chosen to fit this year's theme of tech immersion and to follow a mandate to help develop media literacy in kids. Most of them are sure to blow your mind, whether you're a kid or not.
There's the whimsical Marshmallow Clouds that change colour as you move about them. There's the laugh-out-loud fun of being chased by dinosaurs. There's a sandbox like you've never seen before.
"Artists and creatives are completely inventing all-new forms of interaction and all-new worlds that were never possible before," says Nick Pagee, the exhibition's curator. Here are the highlights:
THE BIG WINNER
Thymio Robot Playground
The Maker Kids Studio that is part of the exhibition has all kinds of cool stuff to fire up future engineers and coders, including the Toothbrush machine (which is exactly like something that Data from The Goonies would have dreamed of), a choose-your-own-adventure story box and a tiny mechanical bird. But none of them triggered as much fascination and curiosity and playfulness as this collection of small robots on wheels that are easily programmed to drive away from you, toward you or follow trails of tape on the ground depending on their "moods." Within two minutes, Elliott turned to me and asked, wide-eyed, "Where do you get these?"
Kid conclusion: "You could change their mood. If you put your hand in front of them they would follow you. That was really cool."
THE CLOSE RUNNER-UP
Sago Mini Superhero and Sago Mini Babies
Sago Sago, a Toronto-based developer of apps and toys for children, has a huge advantage over other installations at this year's digiPlaySpace: kids love playing on tablets. Mine does, anyway. The Sago Mini Superhero app, which allows you to control a cartoon superhero with your finger, and the Babies app, a game where you dress a cartoon character in all kinds of funny outfits, both proved irresistible to Elliott. If I hadn't pleaded with her to go through the rest of the space, we'd never have seen anything else.
Kid conclusion: "I really liked acting out the superhero and decorating the baby. When do I get an iPad?"
THE GUARANTEED GEN-X HIT
I had to drag my daughter back to this mash-up video-gaming, pinball and drawing station at least three times. Even if you were never a pinball wizard in the days of arcades, this will be insanely addictive. Stand at a pinball console built to look like a 1980s version of the 22nd century and use different-coloured markers to make your own pinball video game – blue for walls, red for bumpers, green for speed etc. The best part is, you can draw new elements as you play. I wish I was still playing it.
Kid conclusion: "It was okay. You played it for too long."
BEST GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE
Haven't experienced virtual reality yet?
Neither had I until I strapped on a Samsung VR headset and found myself underneath the sea, watching sharks whip by. I looked up and there was a school of stingrays lazily swimming over my head. I'm sure I must have looked silly turning my head this way and that, even once reaching out to try and grab a fish. Even before I took the goggles off, I was sure this is how we'll all be watching movies and television and probably even taking travel tours soon enough.
"This is the future," the facilitator who was standing by the console told me. I couldn't object. Unfortunately, you have to be at least 13 to try the system out.
Kid conclusion: "You looked weird."
BEST DISAPPEARING ACT
Of the handful of big-screen installations, this one easily had the best sales pitch. "Want to see what you look like without legs?" a woman asked us. Uh, yeah!
With a high-tech green screen and low-tech green blanket, Elliott and I saw ourselves projected onto multiple images – cruising over Arctic ice, rampaging through London as giants – while using the blanket to make different parts of ourselves disappear. If you want to make your kid laugh, chase her headless as you tower over Big Ben. It also gets points for being quick and easy.
Kid conclusion: "It was super funny."
TIFF's digiPlaySpace 2016 runs until April 24 at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).