Everyone has the right to play

Friday 23 Sep 16


Henrik Hautop Lund
DTU Electrical Engineering
+45 45 25 39 29
Henrik Hautop Lund from the Center for Playware applies his technological knowledge to encourage people of all ages to play. When people take technology on board gladly and of their own free will, he has achieved his aim.

He has discussed self-educating robots with the Emperor of Japan, developed musical LEGO Bricks for Peter Gabriel, and had HM Queen Margrethe of Denmark hopping around on his flashing tiles. He is one of the co-creators of LEGO Mindstorms and has won the World Championships in humanoid robots. He also taught the founders of the company Universal Robots, which was sold last year for DKK 2 billion.

Briefly put, Professor Henrik Hautop Lund is one of the world’s leading experts in robot technology, and is energized by the idea that the technology can be transformed into play and thus have a direct influence on people and society.

“We often think of play as ‘something for the children’; something that’s ‘just for fun’. Our society is dominated by the Protestant credo that the meaning of life is work and production, and that we will only make it into Paradise if we have worked hard enough during our lives. However, I believe that play has value in and of itself; I would even go so far as to call it a human right for children and adults alike,” he says.

There is evidence to suggest that work is actually play for ‘the robot professor’. To the question of why play has taken on such a key role in his work, he answers with a smile:

“One of the reasons is that I was fortunate to become a professor at a young age—I was only 30. This meant that I could look forward to 35 years or more in the position, so I thought that I was damned well going to have some fun.”

Photo: Ditte Valente

Play dynamics

It was back in 2000 that the University of Southern Denmark secured Henrik Hautop Lund’s expertise in robot technology by setting up a professorship for him.

A few years earlier, LEGO and Aarhus University had enticed him back to Denmark from a postdoc position in Edinburgh to build up LEGO Lab, where he was involved in creating LEGO Mindstorms, the company’s robot toy system. However, while working in the new Center for Playware, the professor started looking far beyond the boundaries of children’s playrooms. 

"We develop playware for anybody anywhere anytime. By building bodies and brains we allow people to construct, combine and create."
Henrik Hautop Lund, professor at DTU Electrical Engineering

‘Playware is a set of intelligent digital products intended to generate play and playful experiences among users of all ages.’ So wrote Henrik and his colleague Carsten Jessen back in 2005, since when a whole series of intelligent playthings for all ages have been created at the Center for Playware, which relocated from the University of Southern Denmark to DTU Electrical Engineering in 2009.

One famous example is Moto Tiles, the system of interactive tiles that light up in different colours when you step on them. The tiles can be laid out in a variety of patterns and programmed to run 20–30 different games that appeal to both young and old players.

“You should see 80–90-year-olds jumping around on the tiles—you’ll hardly believe your eyes. They turn up supported on their rollators and can barely walk unassisted, but as soon as they forget about time, place, whatever, they slip into this play dynamic and can do much more than they thought. It could be that our minds are what impose limits on us. You feel scared and so you sit down again, and then you can do even less,” says Henrik.

So it is clear that elderly people love the tile game, and that is the feedback Henrik and his colleagues receive in the evaluations. At the same time, they have been able to record measurable effects as regards balance skills, endurance, etc. In randomized tests, one of the PhD students documented how the elderly players actually improved their balance skills by 80 per cent, simply by jumping up and down for 12 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks.

“It’s not necessarily just because of the tiles, but also—we hope—because they do all kinds of other things once the tiles have got them started. It’s good to think that our technology makes a tiny, invisible contribution. And if it turns out that this is what encourages people to keep going, then I’ve achieved my purpose.”

Tiles used in Africa, too

The tiles have made their way all over the world, even reaching rural districts in Africa, where they are used to train motor skills in physically handicapped children. Contact with Africa was established through a partnership with a Finnish colleague who had been commissioned to set up a playware laboratory. The Finn had links in Tanzania, and knew that they needed help to start up a new IT university programme.

“We travelled down there, held some workshops and helped them launch the study programme and build up a kind of science and business park. In that way, we’re using our research into electronics to go out into the world and do some good in society. Of course, we do spend time sitting in the lab soldering, making models and improving protocols for radio communication and so on. But the reason we do this is to take it outside the lab and apply it in society,” emphasizes Henrik.

Musical LEGO bricks

‘Playware for anybody, anywhere, anytime’ is the first sentence in Henrik’s ‘playware ABC’. So it comes as no surprise to learn that he has also invented a social game for young people who love music. Large cubes that can each control one of the tracks in a piece of music.

“The red block might control the guitar track, the blue one the bass and the green the vocals, so depending on which way you turn the cube, you hear different aspects of the track in question—or perhaps mute it completely. The magical thing is that no matter how you choose to combine the module, the music remains aesthetically pleasing,” explains Henrik.
That particular game stated when Henrik met British music legend Peter Gabriel at MIT Media Lab.

“We talked how I’d done something with music and robots, and he’d done something with robots and monkeys—so there had to be some kind of foundation for us to develop something fun together.” It was also around the time that Peter Gabriel had re-released his hit album ‘So’, and they came up with the idea of separating the tracks so that people could remix them using a Tetris-like app.

“We spent perhaps 1,000 hours in the studio with the producer, listening to the songs over and over again so we could be sure of dividing them up appropriately. In the end I’d had about all I could take, but it was well worth the effort. Peter Gabriel has actually used the game during performances on stage to great acclaim, and we’ve packed the small modules inside the large cubes and expanded the range with songs by artists such as Marie Key and Rasmus Seebach.”

Boundless research

Although Henrik has visited Roskilde Festival with his musical LEGO bricks on more than one occasion, he is not overly keen on attending concerts. He simply loves finding out how he can use the technology in this context as well. His next project is sure to centre on something completely different to music; it all depends on whom he meets on his way.

“We have some skills with this playful, modular technology, but when it comes to content, we have to team up with experts in other fields, be they musicians, healthcare professionals or football players,” relates Henrik, who naturally called in Danish football stars Brian Laudrup and Lars Høgh when he was working on an interactive football game South African townships in connection with the 2010 World Cup.

“There are around ten of us working at the Center for Playware, but by maintaining our fundamental core and remaining true to it—even though many people have challenged our ideas that adults want to play, too—we’ve become the leader in our field and can work with the best of the best. I think this is an important message to learn.”


Photo: Ditte Valente     

Henrik Hautop Lund lives in Virum with his partner Gunvor and their 10-year-old daughter Freja.

  • 2009– : Professor at DTU Electrical Engineering and head of the Center for Playware, which is a partner in the EU’s Human Brain Project, for example.
  • 2005: Three of Henrik’s students found the company Universal Robots, which is sold to the American company Teradyne in 2015 for approx. DKK 2 billion.
  • 2004: Participates in an official Danish visit to Japan and presents modular, self-reconfigurable robots to the Emperor and his family.
  • 2003–2007: Member of the Danish Council for Independent Research.
  • 2002: Together with a couple of other researchers, wins the World Championship RoboCup Humanoids Free Style in Japan, in front of 120,000 spectators.
  • 2000–2008: Professor at the Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute, University of Southern Denmark, and head of the Center for Playware.
  • 2000: PhD in computer systems engineering from the University of Southern Denmark.
  • 1998–2000: Head of LEGO Lab at Aarhus University.
  • 1996–97: Postdoc at the University of Edinburgh.
  • 1995: MSc in computer science from Aarhus University, concluding with an MSc thesis that was awarded top marks.
  • 1992–93 and 1994–95: Research assistant at the Italian National Research Council (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, CNR).

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