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Digital ‘pet’ gains international acclaim

Digital ‘pet’ gains international acclaim

A digital ‘pet’ developed by Victoria University researchers, has won first prize at an international electronic language festival.

The shiny brass device known as ‘Tardigotchi’ references the plastic handheld Tamagotchi, the digital pet from Japan that was popular in the mid-1990s, but with a twist—inside the Tardigotchi is a living microorganism.

A partnership of 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, created the work, which scooped 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 in late 2009. It has three main components: a portable sphere that can be carried around by an owner, a docking station and software. “The look and feel is kind of Tamagotchi meets Harry Potter,” says Mr Easterly, who was inspired by a palm-sized clock set in a magnified glass sphere that he picked up in Hong Kong.

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 sun rays.

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,” says Mr Easterly.

“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.”

“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.”

To explain the philosophy and mechanism behind Tardigotchi, Mr Easterly engaged some Victoria University Design students to create a video, which was showcased at the FILE festival in Brazil along with the work and is now on the Tardigotchi website—


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