Turing Tumble LLC was founded in June of 2017
Located near Minneapolis, MN
5465 Saint Albans St. N
Shoreview, MN 55126
Paul Boswell (at the time a professor at the University of Minnesota) and Alyssa Boswell (a former high school teacher) started creating Turing Tumble on nights and weekends back in 2015. Two years later, in June of 2017, they launched what they thought was a long-shot Kickstarter campaign to raise $48k. They were absolutely floored when they raised $404k. Paul and Alyssa now both work on Turing Tumble full time.
Turing Tumble is a completely new type of game (ages 8 to adult) where players build mechanical computers, powered by marbles, to solve a series of fun logic puzzles in order to rescue Alia the space engineer from a forgotten planet. Unlike other coding games, Turing Tumble teaches not only coding, but also how computers work. Players use a set of 6 different types of parts to build computers that can generate patterns, add, subtract, multiply, divide, compare numbers, and much, much more. It’s a Turing-complete computer, which means that if it were big enough, it could do anything a regular computer can do.
Who are the founders and what are their backgrounds?
I learned to program when I was a kid in order to create computer games. I made a whole bunch of them. I especially liked making games for graphing calculators and then passing them around to other kids at school. Here’s one of my favorites:
I went on to get a PhD in Analytical Chemistry before becoming a professor at the University of Minnesota. I had a National Institutes of Health grant and led a research group for a number of years. Our work was heavy on the programming/computational side, which made it hard to find students for my research group. Programming is a rare skill among chemists and biologists – heck, among just about anyone other than computer scientists – but it shouldn’t be. I spent a lot of time teaching my students how to program. There were countless times when I saw other faculty and students pass up good research ideas because they couldn’t make software to do what they needed.
When I was a kid, I was a maker. I created doll furniture out of wooden spools and deconstructed clothes pins. I crocheted blankets and illustrated books with layers of fabric. This has continued through adulthood. Not a day goes by that I don't build or create something.
As an educator and a parent, I've seen how important it is for kids to explore and create. They learn so much from hands-on experiences, and it builds their confidence. I love providing our boys with building toys, raw materials, and technology and cutting them loose. That allows them to surprise us with what they can do. My goal is to equip kids with tools and environments that let them follow their own curiosity by tinkering, designing, creating, and building.
How did it all begin?
A few years ago, tabletop games started coming out that teach coding concepts to kids. We loved the idea, but we found that they all have the same fundamental problem: as soon as you start to make programs that are even a little bit complicated, it becomes tedious to run them by hand and it's easy to make mistakes. In order to create a fun tabletop coding game, programs need to run automatically.
That’s when I (Paul) started researching mechanical computers and stumbled across an old toy from the 1960’s called the DigiComp II. It was a brilliant little calculator powered by marbles. I built on many of the concepts from it and started designing my own reprogrammable mechanical computer powered by marbles. I bought a 3D printer and began prototyping it. It took a lot of iterations to get it to work reliably and there were many, many times when I considered giving up. But eventually I got it working well and I built a game around it that has the feel of one of my favorite computer games of all time: Manufactoria. Each puzzle gives you an objective like, “Make the pattern red, blue, red, blue…” and you’re like, what? How on Earth could you do that? But then you think about it for a while, you take a shower and an idea pops into your head, you build it, it works, and you feel super smart!
The process of building the game was pretty intense. One of the hardest parts was to make the balls reliably go where I wanted them to. For example, in the game there are parts called "ramps" that guide marbles one direction or the other. I thought they’d be the easiest part of the game to design - that they’d just be tilted platforms. They ended up being one of most difficult. The picture below shows the progression of ramp prototypes, from left to right. With tilted platforms (a, b), 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. I struggled a long time before I had the idea of replacing them with a rotating part (c-f) with a counterweight to slow the balls down. It ended up being a really good thing in the end, because they look way cooler now, and they make the computer more fun to watch run.
The puzzle book was also fun to design. I thought it would make the puzzles more fun and interesting to give them some context, so I wrote a story to go with them. An undergraduate student named Jiaoyang Li was working in my research group at the time. One day she showed me a little bit of artwork she had been working on and I was shocked at how good it was! But she’d never published any of her work before. She went on to create a beautiful comic that we weaved into the game’s puzzles. Turing Tumble now contains Jiaoyang’s first published artwork.
What makes Turing Tumble unique?
Turing Tumble is truly unlike anything else out there. Here are the big ways it stands out:
- There are many games out now (electronic and board) that attempt to teach kids how to code with varying degrees of success, but they all treat computers like abstract, black boxes. They teach how computers behave, but not how they work. And it’s so unfortunate 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. Turing Tumble is the only game I’m aware of that teaches this fundamental concept.
- Turing Tumble engages the senses in learning how computers work. It lets players actually see and feel how computers work. There’s nothing like that on the market now.
- It takes a completely new approach to teach coding. When kids are learning how to code, they get bogged down right away with language syntax: proper spellings, semicolons in the right places, etc. It takes a while fighting with syntax before they can finally begin learning how to write algorithms to accomplish useful tasks. In Turing Tumble, programs are coded without any language at all. Instead, programs are coded by where you different parts are placed on the board. It builds raw programming skill without an initially steep learning curve.
- Kids can build this raw coding skill and learn the fundamentals of how computers work with no screen time and no electronics.
- It’s fun to watch and play with. Even if you don’t learn a thing from it, everybody likes marble runs and it makes an attractive display. It’s fun to set up the board with different parts on it and just watch what happens when balls run through it.
- It’s the only mechanical computer on the market. I don’t care who you are, mechanical computers are just plain cool. And it’s a Turing-complete mechanical computer to boot, which means that if the board were big enough, it could do anything a regular computer can do.
Where do you want Turing Tumble to go from here?
To most people, computers are sort of magical. They run commands you give them, but…how? Relatively few people know, in part because there are so many other layers of understanding you need first like electronics and advanced math. It makes computers seem like they’re just too complicated to understand, which is incredibly unfortunate because they’re everywhere! We hope that Turing Tumble helps both kids and adults understand how computers work, and by extension, that it gives them confidence that they can learn how other things around them work, too.
We want Turing Tumble to be used as a way to let kids and adults get as close as they can to opening up their computers and playing with their insides to see how they work.
Kickstarter Video (YouTube)
This is a Mechanical Computer Powered by Marbles (YouTube)
PBS Almanac Interview with David Gillette
Valley News Live (YouTube)