Space & Innovation

‘Turing Tumble’ Game Encourages Kids to Create Their Own Mechanical Computer

Using lever, gears, marbles, and gravity, inventor Paul Boswell hopes to get kids hip to the fundamentals of computer design.

Designed from the ground up by moonlighting scientist and inveterate tinkerer Paul Boswell, Turning Tumble is an entirely new kind of children's game in which kids can build their own mechanical computer. Using a slanted game board and a set of plastic doohickeys, kids leverage the force of gravity itself to learn the fundamentals of computer programming.

And by fundamentals, Boswell means the absolute core basics of how machines compute. Turing Tumble is designed to teach kids about logic flow — the sequence of binary on/off mechanisms that underpin all of machine computing. Each piece on the game board represents a kind of logic gate, which is tripped – or not – by a marble descending from the top of the board.

By arranging the pieces in a particular sequence, the player generates a single line of binary code — 00100100, say. When the marble hits a flipper at the bottom, it releases the next marble from the top, creating a computer cycle.

Modern electronic processors, like the one in your laptop or smart phone, run millions of these cycles every second. By providing a hands-on, tactile demonstration of how these cycles actually function, Boswell hopes to give children a head start on engineering, coding, and software design. Unlike other coding games for kids, Turing Tumble eschews electronic shortcuts and instead drills deep into the mathematical roots of computer processing.

Emailing from his home office and design lab in Minneapolis, Boswell said too many people lack knowledge about how computers actually work — including scientists who design computer programs to facilitate their research.

“To most people, computers are sort of magical,” Boswell. “They run commands you give them, but how? Relatively few people know. It makes computers seem like they’re too complicated to understand, which is incredibly unfortunate because they’re everywhere.”

Previously a professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Minnesota, Boswell now works for a small medical technology company in Minnesota. But he's been pouring evening and weekend hours into Turing Tumble for more than two years.

Boswell began by researching old mechanical computer kits from the 1960s. After working up a prototype system using computer-assisted design software, Boswell bought himself a 3D printer and began fabricating the game pieces himself.

The project just kept getting bigger. The final Turing Tumble prototype includes dozens of tiny pieces, gears, ramps, and levers — each of which had to be carefully tweaked to work with the falling-marble actuation system.

“It was pretty intense,” Boswell said. “For example, in the game there are these little parts that guide marbles one direction or the other. I thought they’d be the easiest part of the game to design, but they ended up being one of most difficult.

“With tilted platforms, balls picked up too much speed, and if you had two or more in a row, the balls would get going so fast that they’d bounce off the board when they hit the next part,” he continued. “I struggled a long time before I had the idea of replacing them with a rotating part with a counterweight to slow the balls down. Every part had challenges like this.”

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Check out Boswell's recently launched Kickstarter page and you'll see just how intricate the game actually is. But from the player's point of view, it's actually quite simple — and fun. Turing Tumble comes with an illustrated puzzle book, in the guise of an adventure comic, which takes kids through the process of assembling their first bits of code. The puzzles in the book — 51 in all — get progressively more difficult, and Boswell said the final puzzle will be a challenge even for software design professionals.

The Turing Tumble crowd-funding campaign is already getting significant traction. As of this writing, the Kickstarter page has generated more than $192,000 in pledges, against the initial goal of $48,000.

“The existing prototype works really well,” Boswell said. “There are a few little tweaks I want to make before manufacturing it, but it is pretty much good to go.”

If everything proceeds as planned, Boswell hopes to sell the game online and also establish partnerships with educational groups. 

"Coding games for kids is a growing field right now,” Boswell said. “While I'm a big fan of all those games, they all have the same problem, they all treat computers like black boxes that magically run commands. They completely overlook the concept of how computers work.”

“And it's so unfortunate,” he added, “because it's the most amazing concept of all: How a bunch of simple switches, connected together in clever ways, can do incredibly smart things.”

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