The Lure of Mystery Games

I’m a big mystery buff. I like TV shows about mystery, e.g., Twin Peaks, and more recently, Enola Holmes. I like mystery movies (Knives Out), mystery books, (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Maisie Dobbs), mystery podcasts (especially true crime ones like Serial – In the Dark). Basically, I like mystery stories in any format!

I’ve had the very good fortune of being able to apply my mystery “habit” to games, and over the years have worked on some high profile ones at Legacy. These include Law & Order, CSI, Criminal Minds, Ghost Whisperer, Psych, Paranormal State, Sherlock Holmes, Twilight Zone, and my personal favorite, Murder, She Wrote.

I believe that games are the perfect way to enjoy a good mystery. In one of Legacy’s early Sherlock Holmes games, there was an impossible-to-solve crime, followed by a slew of clues that made no sense to the baffled police. Then Sherlock appeared on the scene, noticing objects and neglected clues to pull it all together and arrive at a brilliant solution. (That basically describes the formula of most detective stories from Edgar Allen Poe on.) And how were the clues revealed? They could be found in lavishly illustrated hidden object scenes and as a result of solving challenging environmental puzzles. The game player became another sleuth, searching for clues alongside Sherlock.

Legacy’s four Law & Order games, published 2002-2005, provide another example of how compelling a good mystery story can be, wrapped in a game format. These adventure games required the game player to do even more than find clues in a hidden object scene in order to solve the crime. Typical of a good adventure game, the player interviewed suspects and had to ask the right questions in order to learn about the next possible perp or clue. They had to solve logic and visual puzzles that were built into the scenes, often using objects they had picked up along the way and stored in their inventory. And like most good adventure games, gameplay involved a great deal of exploration and discovery, where the player decided which leads to pursue and in what order.

In almost every mystery story, there are usually facts about the characters or events unknown to you, the “mystery box,” that keeps you in the dark and prevents you from predicting the solution. The advantage that games have over other media is that the unraveling of a mystery is achieved through direct actions of the player. It isn’t revealed simply because you watched a 43 minute episode, in which the solution arrives around minute 42. You actively solve the mystery box while playing a game, and discover information crucial to the solution by choosing enough of the right options and alternatives. Your choices as a game player make all the difference. In addition, the tantalizing possibility exists in many games that the mystery may not be solved in your first attempt.

That’s precisely why mystery-themed hidden object games are Legacy’s consistent top-sellers. (As of the end of August 2021, Murder Mystery Vol. 2 was our #1 seller, with True Crime taking the #3 spot!) These game collections give players agency to reveal the mystery for themselves, with each hidden object scene and environmental puzzle acting a miniature mystery that must be worked through on the path to unraveling the larger narrative questions.

One series in particular that does this well: Adam Wolfe, a newly released game pack on Legacy Games. There are three interconnected layers of mystery; overarching questions about a sister who vanished year ago; the stand-alone cases in each episode; and finally, the puzzles presented to the player throughout each game. They consistently provide enough information for players to understand the next step, but don’t give away too much, as that would jeopardize the brilliant “Ahah!” of a mystery (and puzzle!) well-solved.

On a personal note, I couldn’t conclude without revealing part of the reason why I wanted to riff on mystery games. Forgive a proud mother, but my son, Jonah Lehrer, wrote a new book about our fascination with mystery. I think anyone with an interest in games and game design will find his discussion of infinite games and slot machines particularly interesting. I also loved the stories about Agatha Christie (who knew she staged her own death?), Good Night Moon, Emily Dickinson, and more. It’s a fascinating read, and I think you’ll enjoy it: Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, A Solution.

Mystery on Apple Books

Games at Retail are Definitely NOT Dying

I’ve said to partners for the last five years, “Retail is fine. But who knows how long it will last?” Meanwhile, Legacy has sold PC games into retail continuously since our founding in 1998, and now has the largest number of SKUs on the shelves of Walmart of any casual game company, 15 currently.

And no one is more surprised by this fact than I am. Legacy’s retail revenue peaked in 2014 and sales have been decreasing slowly since then. Why, then, is Legacy doubling down on PC retail this Christmas?

There’s a simple answer. Legacy continues to pick up shelf space from our competitors who have lost focus on the PC retail customer and are chasing the elusive mobile market. There is a vacuum and Legacy has the products and people to fill it. We know and understand what the customer wants. This summer we’ve already shipped five hidden object jewel cases to Walmart ($10 SRP). Covering the usual topics – paranormal, time travel, love, crime – these games join our other signature “Amazing Games” compilations on the shelf. In addition, we only select products for retail that are already proven best sellers on our website,, a step which contributes to our success ratio at retail.

We also distribute $20 and $30 PC games in amaray cases. The first one, which will be in stores in August, is a value-packed collection of slots games from IGT/Masque. Our retail partners are always looking for licensed games or well-known brands, and we have high hopes of shipping even more such higher priced games before the end of the year.

I’d like to take credit for Legacy’s success at retail, but as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, it takes a village. A very talented one. First, let me give a shout out to Ezra at our distributor. He is the first person I ask when we have a hair-brained product idea. I need and appreciate his sage advice. Thanks to Magne and Karl for their endless creativity and printing oversight. I think, modestly, that we have some great packaging, thanks to them. Constantine does endless scouting for the best games, both casual and indie, to include in our game packs. Amanda and Patrick carefully choose which games go together in a signature Legacy game pack and write the marketing copy. Terence and Keith keep our inventory and orders in synch. But the folks who deserve the most credit for our success are our customers. They look for our new SKUs as soon as they hit the retail shelves and reward our focus on quality and value with their business.

Speaking of our customers, I talked about them in a recent article in Forbes about digital inclusion. Why are they still buying physical goods rather than downloading games?

“With the move to mobile and streaming, most people don’t realize that CD-ROM products are an ongoing business. Our customers still prefer playing puzzle games on discs for a variety of reasons. Some still do not own a smartphone and in many parts of the U.S., there continues to be a lack of good internet access. We focus on these customers who are left behind in the digital transition.”

So, in addition to all of the other reasons to be in retail, we feel good about the fact that at least some of our customers who are on the wrong side of the digital divide can still enjoy our games, have fun and smile.

Now it’s your turn. I hope you enjoy what remains of the summer and have some fun!

Time to Pivot…Again

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I started out 2021 with a plan, and now, not even half way through the year, it’s out the window. What’s the problem? When I came back to Legacy Games full time last October, I was focused on building up our digital business. We sought out developers to obtain digital distribution rights and rapidly built up our catalog of casual games like hidden object and match 3 for both retail and our website.

Sadly, I thought that the casual PC downloadable business was in better shape than it was. Sure, I knew that sales were declining, but I thought that Legacy could ride the long tail online, just as we have at retail, where we are the “last man/woman standing.”

But unfortunately, PC digital sales aren’t just declining…they are falling off a cliff. I don’t have to look any further than Legacy’s royalty reports from our competitors, like Big Fish Games and Wild Tangent. Games that ten years ago generated $10K a month in royalties are now generating less than 10% of that. Every developer and portal that relies on PC downloadable sales of casual games is suffering. The customers have either migrated to mobile, console, or Facebook Instant Games. Or, as a competitor told me, “They’re old and dying.” (I certainly hope that’s not true!)

In addition, some popular sites like GameTop allow customers to play PC casual games entirely for free. It’s legit, because as the CEO recently told me, they offer desperate developers a flat fee and then monetize their investment through advertising. If you are a PC game portal selling casual games like Legacy…it’s very very hard to compete with free.

That’s all by way of introduction. Being the experienced business person I am, (especially experienced with pivoting), I searched around for what to do next. I could either change my customer base (primarily Walmart customers), change the kind of products we sell (casual), change the platform (PC), change the business model (premium), change the distribution method (downloadable) or some combination of the above.

I then did something that I don’t do often enough, but find it MORE HELPFUL THAN ALMOST ANYTHING ELSE. I took advantage of my long tenure in the industry and called on colleagues who are smarter than I am, to ask their opinion about the state of the business. I spoke to a buyer at retail, game publishers, an executive at a streaming company, a PC hardware manufacturer, a game agent, and many developers. We talked about Legacy’s strengths – retail distribution, large catalog of games, known brand – and where there might be new opportunities.

Long story short, Legacy announced a new distribution initiative for Indie developers. You can read the details here,  and in these two excellent articles, and

It became obvious after my various conversations that indie developers need more distribution outlets. They get lost on Steam where there is zero curation and more casually-leaning customers can’t find them. The discoverability issue is excruciatingly difficult for independent developers who have thrown their life savings into the games they create with loving attention to detail and innovative gameplay, but have no money left over for marketing.

So pivot #437 at Legacy is underway, and you can see our fledgling efforts here: We want to find and elevate the “best of the best” indie games available, and introduce them to new customers and distribution channels. We think that our Walmart customers are ready for a bit more challenge, plus we are soon to launch a promotion with a major hardware company that will result in a flood (we hope) of new online customers. Our goal is to begin distributing 100+ indie games by the end of the year.

Bottom line. If you have a great PC indie game, we’d love to meet you and offer up our unique distribution channels, both retail and online. We think there is an opportunity to help the indie game community and shine a spotlight on its achievements. Wish us luck!

A New TV Game from Legacy, Finally!

The last time Legacy published a TV licensed game was 2017. That concluded a 15-year winning streak of about twenty games based on TV shows. By the time we stopped making them, Legacy had created more TV licensed games than any other software developer. Here’s a partial list of some of my favorites: Law & Order, Murder, She Wrote, ER, Criminal Minds, House M.D., Ghost Whisperer, Paranormal State, Psyche, Twilight Zone, and more.

Fast forward to today. I am extremely pleased to announce Project Blue Book, a new game based on the History Channel’s show about declassified UFO sightings. Legacy collaborated with Three Gates Studio, a great company based in Sweden, to port the mobile game to PC.

Here is an excerpt from the press release.

It’s 1952, and the U.S. Air Force is operating a top-secret investigation: Project Blue Book. As a newly recruited agent, it’s your job to uncover the truth behind these real declassified UFO sightings. Test your investigation skills in this out-of-this-world hidden object adventure!

In Project Blue Book: Hidden Mysteries, players start as newly recruited agents in Project Blue Book under Dr. Hynek and Captain Quinn. Throughout each case, players complete timed hidden object scenes with several different game modes to uncover clues. These clues, in turn, give players further insight into the mystery on hand, alongside dialogue between the main characters and various witnesses to each case.

Players can earn hints to aid them in hidden object scenes playing mini-games, including swap, match-3, redaction, and puzzles. They can revisit past clues and conversations. They can also move up the ranks of the U.S. Air Force by earning stars, awarded for thorough investigation and speed in hidden object scenes.

This is Legacy’s first exclusive game in many moons, but certainly not the last. Check out the game, Project Blue Book: Hidden Mysteries, available now for purchase at Steam and at Legacy Games for $6.99.

Back to the Future. What’s Next for Legacy Games?

I’m two months into my new/old job as CEO of Legacy Games. How’s the company doing?

I feel a bit like an archeologist, carefully searching through past history to come up with a theory of who Legacy is and where it needs to go. Warning – This won’t be a quick read. It’s a four part blog, paralleling the different phases of Legacy Games. I’ll try to parse out what worked, and didn’t work, and how those learnings are driving my current decision making about next steps with Legacy.

Emergency Room – Lessons Learned

Twenty three years is an eternity in video games. That is how long ago I founded Legacy Games. Everything was sold on physical discs and at retail. The company began by selling a PC CDROM game called Emergency Room, one of the first medical simulations in the market. Players could use up to 50 different tools to diagnose or treat any of 400 different diagnoses. My best friend from college was an ER doctor in San Diego, and helped us create cases that could be enjoyed and played by the average retail consumer.

I was surprised by the product’s success. The timing, which was completely accidental, couldn’t have been better. We originally launched our game, under a different company name, in the same month and year as the hit TV show ER, (September, 1995). Warner Bros. was not happy with us, but luckily I had trademarked the name, which we still own, before the game launched.

Video game development is like Vegas. A first-time gambler will hopefully lose at least a little because if they don’t, they will chase the winning lottery ticket the rest of their lives. My initial experience with Emergency Room may explain why later, I struggled to shut down failing games and walk away from so-so opportunities. I always thought that with a little bit more money and/or work, we could hit the jackpot, like we did with our first game.

On the other hand, because of Emergency Room’s success, I learned to trust my own judgment in terms of the kinds of games that a retail customer would buy. And who was the customer anyway? To everyone’s surprise, many of the units were actually sold to women – a fascinating factoid, given that most people at the time didn’t believe that women played games. The industry catered almost exclusively to the male core gamer, with games like Half Life and Baldur’s Gate. But this knowledge encouraged me to want to create more products that would appeal to game player’s like myself. (Given the arc of my career, one could say I over-learned that lesson!)

I learned about the power of brands. Even though Emergency Room was not based on the TV show ER, the two catapulted to success at the same time. In those days, a popular network show could garner 24+ million viewers each week. The buzz associated with ER was huge, and our little simulation was a beneficiary of that popularity. It certainly sparked retail buyers’ interest and opened up distribution channels that we wouldn’t have otherwise expected to penetrate.

I also learned about the importance of sequels in the games business. We fed the appetite for more medical cases by coming out with new retail boxes every six months – Emergency Room 2 and 3, Emergency Room: Code Blue, Emergency Room: Disaster Strikes, Emergency Room: Real Life Rescues, Emergency Room: Heroic Measures. After that, we created among the first animal doctor games such as Pet Pals and Zoo Vet. You get the idea. It was a little insane, but we kept “the little engine that could” going, for about five years.

The biggest mistake made with Emergency Room is that we picked the wrong platform to develop on. I naively thought it was enough to have a great game concept. Emergency Room was built using an authoring tool similar to Flash. The code was buggy. Sometimes the video or audio wouldn’t play. It was slow. Maybe this doesn’t sound too scary anymore, with soft launches and endless beta trials. But back then, you pressed 100,000 discs, put them in boxes, and crossed your fingers that it would work on most of the many different operating systems and configurations. I shudder to remember those all-nighters, testing build after build. What customers put up with back then…

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Each Emergency Room sequel sold about 10% less than the preceding one; it became clear that we needed to come up with a new game concept. Then a crazy thing happened. I was attending a benefit dinner for a local charity, and ended up sitting next to one of the most prolific Hollywood producers at the time. In a long career that is characterized by good fortune, that was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. But that’s a story for next time…

It’s Goodby Again

Any James Taylor fans out there?

Today is my last day at HitPoint Studios, where I’ve served as president for three years.

What’s it been like working at HitPoint? Exciting, humbling, rewarding. I worked on many deeply satisfying projects during my tenure at HitPoint.

But it’s more than the specific projects and revenue, of which I am justifiably proud. (HitPoint made the Inc 5000 list of fastest growing companies this year: It’s about the people I’ve come to know and admire. I originally thought that HitPoint’s strength was its engineering talent, especially in AR and backend server technology, but now I know that the UI/UX, product management, art and interactive design staff are also topnotch. And CEO Paul Hake is the heart and soul of HitPoint. I thought I knew about managing a small business, but I learned so much watching Paul create a fun, transparent, disciplined, respectful and productive company culture. I’ve said this to numerous clients and it’s true…HitPoint is the best managed game studio I have ever worked with.

Let me highlight just a few of my favorite projects over the past three years:

1. In 2019, HitPoint participated in a contest sponsored by Niantic to build a product on their platform, “to show what’s possible.” Given that I grew up within a stone’s throw of the Gettysburg Battlefield, I was thrilled that our pitch to create an educational, fun app for families visiting Gettysburg was funded. We learned so much about location based, AR, multiplayer experiences, what works and what doesn’t. I’m hoping HitPoint has the opportunity to build on that experience in the near future.
2. MindLabs Energy and Circuits is a NSF and NIH funded magical STEM learning tool for children ages 8 and older. It combines a digital app, physical cards and AR in a fun and exciting approach to learning core science concepts. And it was designed from the get-go for remote, collaborative learning – ideal for virtual education. MindLabs goes on sale October 1!
3. Venture Valley, about to soft-launch in Canada with Super League, is an esports game that exposes players to the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and financial literacy. It’s a gutsy attempt to support high school and collegiate esports leagues with a relevant game that is fun-first but also aligned to their educational mission. Kudos to the Singleton Foundation’s vision for funding such an innovative, amazing product.

So what’s next for me? A friend told me recently, “You’ll have lots of jobs; just make sure the last one is the best.” While I was working for HitPoint, Legacy Games, a company I founded 22 years ago, continued on its merry way selling casual CDROM games to retail. I am returning to Legacy, to help guide it into the future and hopefully build on its core strengths in publishing and distribution. (Of course I also want to spend more time with my growing, and delightful, brood of grandchildren.)

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes. 

– Stanley Kunitz, Poet Laureate

I hope you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy.

The Future of Augmented Reality is Multiplayer

As someone who has been thinking about augmented reality and experimenting with different use cases for the past five years, I have come to a conclusion. AR applications in which we can’t share our experience with someone else are not very compelling.

This doesn’t mean that an AR app has to be fully real-time multiplayer to be enjoyable. But it does need to provide a way for us to visualize the virtual experiences of other users. Silos suck, as perhaps we are all coming to realize with social distancing. I am not interested in evolving a technology, namely AR, that cocoons us even further into our own version of reality.

HitPoint has developed three AR experiences in the past year that are multiplayer or team-based by design. Two of them use physical cards, and one utilizes location/spatial AR. I’ve described the Caesar’s beer pong game and Niantic Gettysburg experience previously. Our deepest multiplayer AR implementation, however, is with an educational circuit-building app, in partnership with Explore Interactive and Purdue University.

In the single player portion of the Explore app, students progress through a series of lessons that teach them about energy providers (batteries) and energy users (light bulbs) as well as related concepts such as closed circuits, voltage, switches, etc. Students choose a physical card, each representing a different electrical component, and lay it on a virtual grid on a table. The position of all the component cards is defined relative to the placement of the main character target cards (Atom and Anne), which also serve as a focal point for the AR logic. Students draw wires on their phone connecting the different components, then look through the camera to see the result, e.g., the light bulb lights up in AR when the circuit is complete.

In addition to the directed lessons, there is “create” mode in which students can build whatever type of circuit they want with the available target cards. (Not surprisingly, the first thing most kids do is start a virtual fire by overloading the circuit.) The create mode can be played as a group activity, with up to four kids participating at one time via a network connection. They can take turns with a single device or each have their own tablet. They see what the other children are doing – laying down a card, drawing a wire on their phone, completing a circuit, etc. – as it is happening. This is true whether or not the children are sitting around a table facing each other or playing remotely.

The definition of 3D space in every AR experience is complex but must be solved if players are to see the same thing at the same time. When the AR target card (and local AR space belonging to it) updates position and orientation, the physics of the observed space are expected to follow. This presents particular problems if projectile objects are in motion, such as in our beer pong game where the ball is being flicked from one player to another.  A simple solution is to pre-calculate the trajectory of projectiles so it can be rendered at a known point x for time t. This ensures that both players will see the projectile in the same position without expensive network synchronization, but it lacks the real-time responsiveness that a physics engine can provide. Our solution for beer pong was to define all physics as relative to the AR target card, so even when the target card moved the physics were the same. 

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The Explore circuit game does not include projectiles, but it has other challenges. Particles (sparks/fires from batteries) are difficult to synchronize because that would slow down the gameplay given network realities. We fake it, however, so that all the players see the same effect at the same time, but not identical graphics. It’s more important that the players get a shared impression of the sparks system rather than an exact replica. Tricks of the trade.

We’ve learned a lot about designing a multiplayer AR game through trial and error. Initially, we used Vuforia to handle image tracking and some plane detection, but we found that if the kids jostled the character target cards or otherwise obstructed the camera’s view of the cards, the entire grid would disappear or flip orientation.  Integrating ARKit and ARCore to track the position of the camera using SLAM added immeasurably to the app’s stability and made multiplayer much less frustrating. By using these advanced AR technologies to create a sense of space beyond the visible target cards we provided a smoother, more enjoyable experience.

Another problem in AR that still confounds us relates to a common multiplayer issue – conflict resolution. What do you do when four kids are manipulating the target cards and drawing virtual wires at the same time? Whose reality do you reflect and how do you communicate that to the players? This is particularly true for connecting and deleting virtual wires between components. When things don’t happen as expected, children assume they have done something wrong or the app is broken when instead, another child grabbed the wire first. We’ve started to implement a communication system using emojis (because who would trust 5th graders with a chat feature?). We’re also experimenting with user interface changes, like blinking wires before they disappear and various sound effects. Especially when a sense of physical reality is attributed to a virtual object, providing noticeable reactions to every action is important.

No one has ever said that multiplayer AR is easy. The technical and user interface challenges are tough and compounded when hardware is old and/or network speeds are poor, a situation commonplace in schools. Nonetheless, students in our testing have been very enthusiastic about the group circuit building experience, further cementing my view that multiplayer AR is the future of augmented reality.

Learning From the Past with Location Based AR

Imagine 6000 acres of meadowlands occasionally crisscrossed with stout wooden fences and narrow roads. Apart from some monuments and statues, there is little here to indicate the crucial role these softly rolling hills in Central Pennsylvania played during the Civil War. Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Seminary Ridge…on these solemn landmarks the Confederate Army battled the Union Army at Gettysburg for three days, resulting in 50,000 casualties.

All of us at HitPoint Studios wanted to tell the story of what happened at this battle, generally considered the turning point in the Civil War. We had previous experience creating location-specific games, (including a game for Dreamworks and their Train Your Dragon franchise), and felt the time was ripe to combine geolocation, AR, and gamification to create a rich interactive experience at the most-visited battlefield in America.

Then Niantic announced the Beyond Reality Developer contest, and we pounced. It was the opportunity we were looking for. Niantic’s goal was to encourage developers to use and give feedback on their platform while exploring new use cases and gameplay mechanics. As one of ten finalists, HitPoint’s goal was to create an experience at Gettysburg that would engage the almost 1,000,000 annual visitors in new ways. (You’ll have to read to the end to find out if we won!)

Turning those empty fields into compelling interactive moments, while still maintaining its solemnity…it was beyond hard. We started by determining which Points of Interest (POIs) like monuments to include on our virtual map. We used geolocation to track player positions in real time. As the player walked towards one of the POIs, then selected it on the map, they were able to play mini-games and receive badges and points. Players could play solo or collaborate with others on a team to earn a high score on the leaderboard.

Visiting some of the monuments prompted a “citizen archeology” game, in which the player used a fun detector tool to locate pieces of an authentic artifact, e.g., Winchester Rifle. Beeping sound effects and an on-screen meter helped guide the player to the underground item. Once the dig site was located, the player could use a virtual pickaxe and brush to dig up, clean, and assemble the buried artifact.

But a true understanding of Gettysburg can’t be achieved simply by providing information and facts. We thought long and hard about how to invoke the emotion and pathos of the battle. Our solution was to incorporate a soldier on the virtual map who marched along a set route at certain times. If the player moved close enough to him as he passed, he gave the player a letter from an actual combatant. The letter unfolded and was read aloud, with 3D text appearing in AR on the horizon. “A fierce battle was fought here today…”

Once the letter was read, the soldier gave the player a virtual rose. The rose could be placed anywhere as a tribute; its GPS location was saved permanently. Players were able to see their own glowing rose as well as anyone else’s rose at any time.

Evaluating and testing an app when 3000 miles away from the location it was designed for was challenging. We “spoofed” monuments wherever we could around our office, (sidewalks, hallways, etc.) but that obviously wasn’t the same as actually being there. Fingers crossed, we visited the battlefield with the indefatigable Garry Adelman, Director of History and Education at the American Battlefield Trust, and had a blast trying it out with some enthusiastic visitors.

So how did HitPoint do in the Niantic Beyond Reality Developer Contest? We learned so much about the player’s expectations, what they found fun (and not fun), the critical importance of UI in augmented reality experiences, what’s good, (and what’s still baking in the oven), with the Niantic platform, and much more. But sadly, we didn’t win the contest. Not discouraged in the least, we’re now busily planning which historical and cultural locations to focus on next. Stay tuned!

Great Project-Great Partners

We are thrilled and humbled that the National Institute of Health is supporting us with our second Small Business Innovation Research grant. It really is a dream opportunity and team. The corporate leadership at Explore is smart, focused, and energetic. Academics from Purdue University are providing the theoretical framework and research results. And the project targets HitPoint’s sweet spot – challenging, scalable technology. We will be creating a multiplayer, collaborative AR platform with an open-ended style of learning, for teaching science concepts. I can’t wait to get started!

A quick video:

More details here:

How to Fix the Smartphone

Jonah Lehrer, my son and wonderful science writer, recently posted this blog. He gave me permission to copy it here. Between all of us, surely there is someone who can turn this eye-popping research into an actual product!

The astragalus is the heel bone of a running animal. It’s an elegant part of the skeleton, so curved it looks carved, with four distinct sides. It fits in the palm of your hand.

The astragalus is also one of the most common archaeological artifacts, found in ancient dig sites all over the world. The bones have been uncovered in Greek temples and Mongolian villages, Egyptian tombs and Native American cave dwellings. In Breughel’s masterpiece “Children Games,” two women toss astragali in the corner of the painting. They look like they’re having fun.  

The women tossing astragali in Breughel’s “Children Games”

The women tossing astragali in Breughel’s “Children Games”

Why are these small animal bones such a universal relic? The answer returns us to the peculiar shape of the astragalus. Because it has four sides, the bone can be used like dice: when thrown on a flat surface, it turns into a primitive randomizer, injecting a dose of uncertainty into the game. As the science historian Ian Hacking writes, these dice made of skeletons are so ubiquitous that “it is hard to find a place where people use no randomizers.” 

Of course, we don’t throw bones anymore. Now we have more advanced sources of randomness. Just look at slot machines, those money-sucking devices that enchant people with their unpredictable rewards. Although we know the games are stacked against us, we can’t resist the allure of their intermittent reinforcements. 

Or consider the smartphone. If the reward of slots is the rare jackpot, the reward of these devices is the arrival of a notification. As noted in a new paper by Nicholas Fitz and colleagues in Computers in Human Behavior, “In less than a decade, receiving a notification has become one of the most commonly occurring human experiences. They arrive bearing new information from or about a person, place, or thing: a text from your mom, news about Donald Trump, or a calendar invite for a meeting.” The ancients tossed animal bones to experience the thrill of random rewards. All we have to do is glance at these gadgets in our pockets.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with notifications. Unfortunately, their intermittent delivery (and the way they are constantly evolving to become more salient and sticky) creates a digital system that sucks up our attention, which is why the typical America spends 3 to 5 hours a day staring into small shiny screens. The end result is a permanent state of distraction, a mental life defined by its addictive interruptions.

Is there a better way? This urgent question is the subject of that new paper by Fitz et al. The scientists explore the potential benefits of creating smartphone notifications that are batched and predictable, arriving at regular intervals throughout the day. If our current smartphone experience is like a pocket slot machine, every random beep another reward, these batched notifications try to remove the twitchy uncertainty. We know exactly when the rewards will arrive, which will hopefully make them far less exciting.

To test the effectiveness of this setup, Fitz et al. recruited 237 smartphone users in India. Each of the users was randomly assigned to one of four conditions: 1) notifications received as usual 2) notifications batched every hour 3) notifications batched three times a day 4) or no notifications at all. The conditions were implemented using a custom-built Android app.


Which setup worked best? It wasn’t close—batching notifications into three predictable intervals led to improvements across a wide range of psychological outcomes. (Hourly batching was less effective, though it did lead people to feel less interrupted by their phones.) According to the data, those who got three batches reported less inattention, more productivity, fewer negative feelings, reduced stress and increased control over their phone. They also unlocked their phones about 40 percent less often.

Interestingly, silencing all notifications tended to backfire, boosting anxiety without any parallel benefits in focus. (People were still distracted, just by their FOMO, not their gadgets.)

This research comes with enormous practical implications. In a little over a decade, the smartphone has transformed the nature of human attention, consuming gobs of our mental bandwidth. It’s a consumption we often underestimate. According to Fitz et al., most people think they get about thirty notifications per day. The reality is far worse, with the typical subject receiving more than sixty beeps, pings and buzzes. But if you ask them how many notifications are ideal, they give an answer closer to fifteen. In other words, we desire technology with limits, a smartphone that shields us from its own appeal.

And this brings us back to the power of intermittent reinforcement. Randomness has always been entertaining. The difference now is that we’ve engineered a technology that’s simply too irresistible—software evolves far faster than our hardware—which is why we end up spending more time staring at our phones than we do parenting, exercising or eating combined.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. One day, a gadget maker will give people what they really want: a machine that doesn’t hijack the brain. Based on this paper, a core element of this future gadget will be a default notification system that delivers its interruptions in predictable batches. That text can wait; so can the update from the Times and Twitter; we don’t need to know who liked our Instagram in real time.  

Sometimes, less is so much more.

Fitz, N., Kushlev, K., Jagannathan, R., Lewis, T., Paliwal, D., & Ariely, D. (2019). Batching smartphone notifications can improve well-being. Computers in Human Behavior.