Class 10 Intro to Phys Comp – Final Proposal “Meaning Maker: By the Mouthful” OR TBD NEW NAME

I’ll be turning my midterm into my final, which means I’ll have more time to build my project out further. This is a game that lets people create new words to fit meanings that don’t have words in the English language… yet.

See below for my plans!

Project Summary 

To start playing this game, people can decide where they’d like to start. They can either:

  • Share a meaning, feeling, or observation in their life that could use a word in the English language.
  • Create a new word, record and spell it.
    • They can match this new word with a meaning from someone else.
    • Or if they wish, they can go right ahead and define the new word they just created.
  • Vote on the top words
  • View/listen to the best ranked words.
  • Also, because I’m curious whether people will use these new words… it would be great to let people share whether they used a word recently, too. Something like “Let us all know if you heard a word used! What was the sentence?”


I’m interested in creating a moment for people to:

  • Have fun finding out what other people are thinking about, but not talking about.
  • Build culture by creating new words a community can use together.
  • Pause for a moment to think about how the mouth forms sounds.
  • Consider whether language allows for a full expression of how they’re feeling on the inside, and give people some agency to think of language (and therefore their world-view?) as not fixed.
  • If people are especially theoretical or grounded in linguistics… they might think about how the actual sounds of words may intentionally describe objects and experiences (see more about this Kiki and Bouba effect below)


Context and Audience

I’d like this game to be installed in a shared place for a week or longer, in which people spend time together whether consistently or as they come and go.

Obviously, the ITP Floor is a great place to start. Placing it in a library, a coffee shop, museum, or the subway platform would all lead to different interactions, too.

I do wonder how “sticky” the interaction will be. Will people want to come back and see what others have created? Or will it be a one-time interaction?

I also wonder how people who speak multiple languages will interact with the game. Will they be inclined to add meanings that are in their language, but not English? That might mean they try to create actual words in another language with the mouth components.

Another consideration is how clumsy or expressive do I want the action of creating words to be? Right now its very playful but fairly clumsy. Linguistic and phonetic experts would find it to not be expressive as something like this Pink Trombone vocalizer. How important is that at this point?


As for my interest in words, I’ve always liked the game Fictionary, which lets you create fake definitions for obscure words in the dictionary. When I play the game Bananas, I enjoy turning the last round into a competition of made-up words that you must defend with fake definitions at the end.  And who doesn’t enjoy learning about words in other languages that don’t exit in English? Sometimes other languages have better words for describing feelings. Other times a word can describe a feeling I’ve never felt before.

Source Material

I met with Allison Parrish, a faculty member here at ITP.  She offered a lot of sources and examples to consider as I decide what is most important to emphasize in my project. They include:

  • Sniglets – A 1980’s American TV game about “sniglets” which can be “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.” The monthly TV episode as part of the show “Not Necessarily The News” became a series of books.
  • Fictionary and Balderdash – A parlor game and then board game that involves voting on best-guessed or faked-definitions of words for obscure words in the dictionary.
  • The Bouba Kiki Effect –  As an interesting example of synesthesia, people across different cultures and languages are very likely to associate the shapes below as “kiki” on the left, “bouba” on the right.  This phenomena suggests there may be a non-arbitrary mapping between speech sounds and the visual shape of objects.  Even further, some believe that the evolution of language might have to do with the neurological feedback of the shapes that the mouth creates while speaking, in that humans might use sound symbolism to non-arbitrarily map sounds to objects in the world.  It’s possible that this extends even to ideasthesia, in which people may or may not sense concepts or sense ideas as perception-like experiences. ***In short, I may need to experiment with my game design to lead users towards expressive combinations of consonants and vowels that better match the emotional “shape” of other people’s submitted meanings.***


  • Pink Trombone – Have fun playing creating sounds with different parts of the mouth! This is a game changer for music teachers of voice and wind and brass instrumentalists… you can show your student how to shape the inside of one’s mouth! Key to shaping tone and articulating notes.
  • ITP graduate thesis project – I’m still looking for a link to a previous student’s thesis which used physical actuators to create a voice synthesis for vowels.
  • Greg Borenstein – is another ITP graduate who has a Twitter Bot account @fantasticvocab that generates new words with new meanings “out of the atoms of English”.
  • Suzette Haden Elgin – Elgin is a writer of science fiction, including a book series called Native Tongue. The series uses a new language she created, called Láadan.

Project Planning

I do need to get lots of advice to actually make this thing! These are the questions I have:

  • User interface of Mouth components
    • How to better construct my mouth parts out of fabric, especially when they become larger and might have wireless chips inside. I might be able to ask someone in the Tisch costume department.
    • How to make the mouth parts wireless, possibly using XBee wireless chips.
  • User interface of Screens
    • How to best strategize using screens, whether just one or multiple, and what combination of keyboards, mouses, and touch gesture is best.
    • How to design the environment surrounding the screen(s), and what materials are best to use.
  • Database
    • How to create a database that stores people’s words, meanings and votes, that can be accessed over time.
    • How to create a voting mechanism as well.

Bill of Materials

  • User interface: Mouth parts
    • Fabric
    • Fiber fill
    • Thread
    • Misc. other materials as needed
  • User interface: Screens
    • Can I borrow screens from the ER?
    • Do I need to buy my own?
    • Keyboards? Mice?
    • My own buttons to reduce need for keyboards?
  • Database
    • What do I need to build a database accessible online? Do I need to pay for this or can I do this for free?


User Testing of Interface/Environment

I have three options for how to display my project.

Most Simple

I can have just a simple set up with one or two monitors, the mouth components, and perhaps a separate enclosure for special buttons.


More Work Required

Ideally, I would be able to divide up the different entry points of the game into “stations”. I’m a little concerned that the activity of coming up with meanings/definitions is too introspective to stand up to the absurd sounds of the vowels and consonants playing back while other users might be creating words.


Lots of Work Required

Even more of an ideal, it would be cool to have a column with three faces for each entry point into the game.



That’s it for now! Looking forward to doing a user test in class tomorrow.