The teaching opportunities of a virtual pet don’t extend beyond a minor amount of detached responibility. In an effort to bring a deeper, worldview-altering lesson to the world of animated animal ownership, Comedy Hack Day virgin Benjamin Apple created My Real Puppy this past weekend at our Comedy Hack Day the MIT Media Lab.
One of the astonishing three projects he undertook over the 24 hour working period, My Real Puppy is an interactive web site that let’s you name a dog, pet him, and feed him; all in an effort to keep his health and happiness high. The only caveat: after three days of reloading the page on your cute new friend, there is a 10 perecent chance the dog will be dead. Thus is the cruelness of life.
I talked with Ben about what inspired this rather dark idea, and how he managed to win over a crowd that knew he was about to kill a virtual puppy right in front of them.
BJ: I can safely say we’ve never had a pitch at a Comedy Hack Day before that centered around puppy death. Where did this idea stem from?
BA: I started to come up with ideas the day before the hackathon on the bus ride up from New York. I kind of went through various technologies in my head. Different gadgets, etc. I ended up thinking about Nano Pets. I had a Yoda Nano Pet as a kid—which was weird because Yoda is not an animal. He is a sentient being. But anyway, I just thought, “wouldn’t it be funny if it died no matter what.”
And did you know from the beginning kind of how you wanted to demo it?
The funniest thing to me about the idea is the personality of it. Like that a game can just be over. And that’s it. The idea itself was funny, but to be serious about it. To teach kids this big lesson about death or that life is sad, that sort of became the way to tie it all together. I brainstormed about that, and came up with the introduction about dog being man’s best friend and death being man’s greatest foe. I thought if I could get the audience on my side, I could improvise off it. I had all that as the loose idea, then I just got lucky that it survived so long on stage.
You built this entirely on your own, I think a first for somebody whose come to a Comedy Hack Day explicitly as a comedy person and not a developer. How did you do it?
I’ve done some web developing before, and even kind of tinkered with building a digital pet when I was 14 or something back on HyperCard, if you remember that. But on Saturday when teams were forming, I still wasn’t sure how it would work and I was distracted by the other projects I was working on. But once things settled, I wanted to do some thinking on my own on this topic. Once I did, I realized I could use photographs and html elements. I got so excited about the idea of programming it myself to match that vision I had.
How did you technically execute it?
I found a photo of a dog then Photoshopped the two parts, head and body. Then used a html page with bunch of elements in it to create the background and animate the clouds. I made the head randomly pick a degree of rotation using CSS3 transitions. That looked real cool to me, and it was just about the few interactions from there.
But the dog eventually dies. So I mean, you needed a second picture. Of a dead dog. Right?
Well to get started, the first dog photo I found, I went with it. Then I thought I’m gonna need to make this dog look dead, so I did a Google image search of sleeping dogs and dogs playing dead. I didn’t want to see any actual pictures of dead dogs because that would make me sad, but in all my searches I couldn’t find anything that matched. So I needed to get more specific and had to look up a chart to help me figure out what kind of dog I had for the main puppy image. Once realizing it was close enough to a corgi, I could do the sleeping search again and I got what I needed.
So you got it all working, then talk to me about the demo.
When it started, I was not sure whether I would be able to get people on my side. If you go a little weird or dark, there is always a 30 percent chance they will not go with it at all and just think you are weird. But after the first 45 seconds, with a first big laugh, I felt comfortable.
You made a very interesting decision to say right up front that this whole thing is about death and make it clear that the puppy will die. It seems like the first instinct would be to save the dog dying for a big, hilarious reveal midway through. What made you go the direction you did?
I thought about that big reveal at first for sure. But when faced with two options for a performance like that, I like to imagine both options. When I went through it as a surprise, it seemed to me like the virtual puppy stuff would feel pretty boring. Everyone would wonder “what’s the purpose of this.”
There is an Alfred Hitchcock quote that I’ll probably butcher, but it says something like: “If you see two people having dinner and bomb goes off, that’s surprise. But if you see the bomb under the table and then you watch them eating dinner, you are experiencing tension.” I thought letting everybody know that something bad was gonna happen would make the adorable things take on a more a new, more poignant meaning. Fortunately I think that worked.