Mainstream computer interfaces are tough to get right, because they have to be everything to everyone—which is impossible. Even something as "no duh" as a touch screen is going to make someone, somewhere, gripe that it’s not quite right for them. Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum of the MIT Media Lab have come up with a solution to this problem that’s so weird it just might be perfect: MaKey MaKey, a kit that lets you turn any object—food, toys, clothes, whatever—into an ultra-personalized UI.
MaKey MaKey works with "any material that can conduct at least a tiny bit of electricity." For some reason, many of the suggested uses of MaKey MaKey on its website involve food: Use an apple as a computer mouse! Turn alphabet soup into a keyboard! Play the piano with bananas! It sounds totally loco, but it’s a vivid way for MaKey MaKey to make its case. Yes, anything can become an interface. Even stuff that makes no #*@&ing sense.
But that’s the point of this kit: A banana piano or apple-mouse may make no sense to everyone else on Earth, but it might be perfect for me. So why shouldn’t I be able to have it? MaKey MaKey isn’t just about toy-like tinkering for the hell of it. "The personalized interfaces thing is cute and fun, but it has the most power when people can’t access traditional keyboard and mouse interfaces, and can’t afford custom built interfaces," Jay Silver tells Co.Design. "The first [of our invention contest winners] is a dad with a son who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy. The dad will build a custom game-controller glove for his son with MaKey MaKey."
Is MaKey MaKey a rapid-prototyping tool for UX/UI professionals, a consumer product for hyper-personalizing interfaces, or an educational platform for teaching hardware hacking to the masses? Yes to all, says Silver. Tellingly, he and Rosenbaum began their work on MaKey MaKey in MIT Media Lab’s "Lifelong Kindergarten" group, which "develops new technologies that, in the spirit of the blocks and finger paint of kindergarten, expands the range of what people can design, create, and learn." MaKey MaKey isn’t just a tool and a toy—it’s a new set of working assumptions about what it means to own and interact with technology.
"Our number one goal is to open up possibility space in people’s minds and guts," Silver says. "If you feel 'I could make anything,' then you think in a different way. MaKey MaKey is named after making the world into a keyboard: Make + Key. The repetition is because it’s that easy to make something and then throw it away and make a new version. MaKey MaKey is designed for iteration, and low cost (low-time, low-energy, low-money, low-emotional-cost) prototyping. Will that produce some wicked crazy fruit synthesizers? Yes. Will it change the way people think about themselves as creators and the malleability of the world around them. Also yes."