Up, not North

A new way to interact with fiction

October 29th, 2010

Introducing the Automatypewriter, a new way to experience interactive fiction! It’s still a little rough around the edges (in particular, you can see that the spacebar sticks a little, and the whole thing needs to be tidied up), but you get the idea: the Automatypewriter is a typewriter that can type on its own, as well as detect what you type on it. By reading what it types to you and responding, it can be used interactively to play a game or participate in a story (in this case, Zork).

Though the medium may be the message, a games platform is only as good as its content. To that end I’m collaborating with novelist, graphic novelist, filmmaker, community organizer, and award-winning interactive fiction developer Jim Munroe, who is creating custom software specifically tailored to the Automatypewriter.


Interactive fiction is a great genre that is too often overlooked. By providing a tactile and surprising way to experience these games, I hope to engage a wider audience. More generally, moving the platform to a typewriter highlights the role the user assumes as an “author” in helping to create the story, and not just as a “player.”

Also, the usual hacker reason: because we think it’s cool!

Where can I play with it?

Right now it is being tinkered with at Site 3 coLaboratory in Toronto, Canada. For the next few months you can come see it there on our Thursday night open houses (although it might not always be in working order). Soon you’ll be able to beta test Jim’s software as it’s being developed. Eventually we hope to exhibit it formally, in which case I’ll post about it here.

How does it work?

See the project page for technical details

Questions that may or may not be frequently asked, but that I’ll answer anyway

Isn’t this basically just a teletype machine?
Technically, yes (and it’s not even the first typewriter-to-teletype conversion that I know of). That said, I think the appeal lies in the keys moving “on their own,” and in the fact that it is in the guise of a familiar object.

Why didn’t you use a cooler-looking typewriter?
Cool-looking typewriters in working condition are expensive! I wanted to make sure it would work first. Don’t worry, there are plans to do so in the future.

Are those fibre optic cables at the back?
No, it’s just fishing line.

What happens when you get to the end of a page?
Jim’s software will be designed to have a full experience on a single page. For other software, well, you change the page!

Have you considered having it write “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again?


Jim Munroe, without whose enthusiasm and support I never would’ve gotten this far on this project.

Dana Sarafinchan, without whose expertise I would probably still be trying to figure out how to turn pieces of wood into a box.

All the members of Site 3, for their support and tolerance while I’ve been working on this.

And, as always, Ali.

§ 25 Responses to “A new way to interact with fiction”

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by brasslantern and Shannon Prickett, Jonathan Guberman. Jonathan Guberman said: Video and info about the first prototype of my new project is online! It's a typewriter that you can play games on! http://bit.ly/cQSiZ0 […]

  • Tim says:

    Any chance of releasing schematics? I’d love to build something like this to promote hacking on my campus (Georgia Tech)!

    • Thanks for your interest, Tim! I didn’t use any schematics to make it, but because you asked I’ve started drawing so up. I’ll add them to the Project page as they’re finished. Just bear in mind that the electronics are the easy part of this project: the hard part is getting all the mechanics hooked up to the typewriter.

  • Jack says:

    Hey, this is Jack from the USB Typewriter project. (There was a problem posting to the Typewriter page, so I commented here)I love your creation! People have been asking me about doing this for a while, and I had nothing to tell them… now I’ll link them over here. By the way, did you see Tom Igoe’s hack: http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2010/02/from_typewriter_to_teleprinter.html.
    – jack [at] usbtypewriter.com

  • […] saperne di più, visitate la Fonte. Games, Hacking & Cracking, Programmazione interactive fiction, macchina da […]

  • […] immerhin an Position eintausenddreihundertsiebenunddreißig meiner Liste geführt. Jonathan M. Gubermans Prioritäten sind etwas anders gelagert, also ermöglichte der kanadische Bastler besagtes […]

  • TCWriter says:

    You know, when I was in high school (mid 70s), our only access to a computer was through the teletype terminal stuffed away in a former closet, and we basically did exactly what this does.

    In fact, my final project for my computing class was to program a cross-country running adventure game on the thing.

    It’s amusing as hell that we’ve come full circle (at least one of us has…)

    • It’s funny, because people who are into computers look at it and say “you’ve turned a typewriter into a teletype machine!”, but non-techies say “it’s a ghost typewriter!”

      I think the real appeal lies in the fact that you can see the keys moving, and the fact that a typewriter is a familiar object to most people, while a teletype terminal is not.

  • […] I remember back in, like, grade 3, sitting on the old black and white Mac, playing text adventures at recess when I should have been outside making friends… ironically, I never really understood them (the adventures, not the friends), and mostly tried to input obscene commands. As far as I recall, many of them actually worked. I dunno what that says about the writers of these games as people. Anyway, point is, interactive fiction is the tits, and fellow Torontonian Jonathan Guberman has decided to take it to the next (previous?) level with The Automatypewriter. […]

  • Andrew K says:

    A very awesome typewriter. What is the maximum typing speed it can get?

    Have a look at this typewriter mod, I’m sure it would make your game playing easier to read:


    • Thanks, Andrew! Currently, the timing is semi-randomized, so as to give it a natural-sounding rhythm (it’s amazing how mechanical it sounds without that variability). I’ve tested it at 1 key/sec, which is 60WPM, so I know it can do that fine. I’m pretty sure I could crank it up to 80WPM, but I don’t want to damage the typewriter by going to quickly so I haven’t really pushed it.

      Also: we’ve considered putting in a continuous roll of paper for certain games, but right now I think Jim is focused on creating single-page experiences.

  • Sean Huxter says:

    Wow! I’ve been playing these games since the early ’80s. I wrote one in 2008, and am writing my second now. I’ve been investigating all sorts of unusual platforms for IF playing, including my Palm TX, my iPod Touch, etc.

    This is very exciting, and I hope you can somehow make available an easy way to do this – perhaps in conjunction with the USB Typewriter Project, or something easier than the solenoid-fishing-line method – I’d love to have one of these.

    One of the great things about this is that sound. That tactile clacking that I used to love so much coming from line printers, and electric typewriters I’ve used. LOVE this.

    Well done!


  • alainc says:

    nice job
    is there a place to find the arduino software?
    i’m in interested in driving multiple solenoide and shift regster yes it’s a good way

  • Russ Jenkins says:

    That’s wonderful!
    I had a similar idea myself whn I was at a school for the blind in Peru. to do this to a braille typewriter. They only have seven keys so it would be easier. And so turn it into a much more valuable braille printer.
    You have inspierd me to give it a go.
    Keep up the great work

  • Andrew says:

    Before modifications, was this an electric typewriter or a purely mechanical typewriter?

    • Andrew,
      It was an electric typewriter, which shouldn’t be confused with an electronic typewriter: the only thing “electric” about this model is the fact that it contains a motor. The motor is used to ensure that all of the keys strike with uniform force, and to return the carriage for new lines. However, there are no circuits involved, everything is still entirely mechanical.

      That said, I’m currently working on converting a completely manual typewriter. Come back soon for pictures and video!

  • Philip says:

    hej jonathan,
    great work. im thinking about building my own one for a interactive theatre thing and wondering about how much you paid for the build in pieces (especially the solenoids). i just calculated with really weak solenoids (7W) so far and got up to 500-600$. Which types did you use? and besides all the trial-and-error-buying, what did you spent? or is that your last secret about the ghost in the machine?

  • Philip says:

    love you, man! i owe you my saved pocket money ;)

  • BrightMinds says:

    That is one seriously cool innovation, kinda spooky too.

  • David says:

    This would work great during a Halloween party with a group playing a scary interactive story.
    Very cool.

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