Tuesday, August 09, 2005


My girlfriend was telling me a trick that she once used on kids she was babysitting, called the “How Long Can you be Quiet?” game. I imagine you understand the gist of it. One has to beware the perils of using a game to advance nefarious aims, as the participants eventually grow wise and either co-opt the game (Hurry up to bed, little Timmy, or Santa won’t come) or come to resent it (Santa’s not real, little Timmy, and Jesus was born in April, too. Now go to bed and read your Proust).

If you’re very clever, though, you can make something a game AND keep an ulterior motive without causing too much strife and Santa bashing. Take, for example, Peekaboom. On one hand, it’s a fun collaborative online game in which two people take turns either revealing an image through clicking it or guessing what the image is from the area revealed by the clicks. For example, player one starts with a picture of a flamingo stooping to drink. The computer states that player two has to guess “wing,” so player one clicks on the flamingo’s wings. Player two sees a black screen gradually lightening to show wings and guesses as best as possible. Player one can give hints like noun, verb, or related noun, but otherwise can only work through revealing choice pieces of the image. After one image is guessed or both players agree to pass, the roles are reversed until three and a half minutes go by.

On the other hand, the hidden purpose of Peekaboom is that it’s an effort of Carnegie Mellon University and the National Science Foundation to help train computers that can recognize objects within images. This would allow for a search engine that could look at every picture on the web and return every one that contains “Keira Knightley’s earlobes.” What makes this so hard is that computers are not very good at doing what human eyes do, which is define objects within a field of many objects (just watching Photoshop’s Magic Wand brush try to grab things is pretty damn amusing) and separating foreground from background. Every session of Peekaboom is feeding data into computers regarding just what a human eye needs to see to recognize “wing” or “airplane” or “sky.” One of the pictures was “landscape.” Think about what you need to see to recognize “landscape” and you can see how computers might have a hard time with this and the joys of competition from trying to get another person to see what you see.

Just like any good game, scores are logged according to your own private screen name for everyone to see and are calculated by both how fast you guess images and how fast you get your partner to guess. At the moment, Butthilda is in the lead. If you’re looking for something fun to do to kill time and advance the eventual subjugation of man to robot armies, head over to Peekaboom and try a couple of rounds.


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