Public Chess Reimagined

Nov 11, 2013

Joining the “internet of things”, a public chessboard shares the community’s chess and checkers matches with the world in real time. A uniquely hardened embedded system with Wi-Fi and RFID transcribes the action and broadcasts it to the world.

A magical, pastoral experience…

Playing chess or checkers in public, in an urban park or plaza, is a magical, pastoral experience. Friends gather and passers-by stop to play, or to watch and discuss strategy in hushed tones. It’s an intimate hobby practiced worldwide.

Chess in the park, with a difference

Oversized game pieces on a ground-level board bring to life the players’ armies and the field of battle. Players walk amidst the action to gain new perspective on the perils they face. Many spectators can take in the large-scale layout.

…now shared with the world

Beneath the playing surface, RFID sensors trigger when players move tagged game pieces into place.

A low-power computer system, hidden safely within a nearby architectural feature, watches the sensor feeds to track game play. It transmits each move (via Wi-Fi) to configured smart phones in the hands of players and spectators nearby.

Schematic for a public chess installation

The smart phones in turn relay game play to the world through SMS, Twitter, posts to databases and other endpoints. The links work two ways: players can communicate with and challenge opponents in other cities.

Participants specify their preferred channels and other information using Wi-Fi hotspot access. It’s an automatic function of most mobile devices, adapted to a new use.

User interface on a mobile device, safe from (almost all) vandals

A novel feature compatible with a classic facility

Successful facilities for public chess begin with durable, vandal-resistant table inlays or pavement decoration.

The embedded system within the architectural feature has no moving parts or exposed controls, substantially reducing the risk of mechanical failure or vandalism. Passive solar or thermal power generation relieves any need for electrical grid hookup and service.

The personal smartphones of players and onlookers serve as the vulnerable public-facing control panel for the system, shifting capital cost. Participants’ smartphones also provide the tariffed communications channels needed to broadcast match results to the world. The public installation itself needs no expensive network connection.

Players can bring their own playing pieces equipped with passive RFID tags, or can borrow or rent them following a number of traditional practices. For those playing without tagged pieces, the installation degrades gracefully and serves as a passive board; the embedded system accommodates manual transcription through the web interface.

Chess, with a hint 
of Rube Goldberg

This design reinvents public chess for two valuable purposes:

  • Conserving information. The public chess board becomes a specialized computer peripheral. It captures and filters input actions from the players, and passes normalized records through the connections they make to the outside world.

    It’s a labour saving device: with a little preparation, players and spectators can focus on the game and let the various computers record their matches for their own and others’ posterity.

  • Sharing the experience. The public chessboard becomes a social media terminal, sharing local events with the world. The computer-watched board guides players towards a common experience.

    Players enjoy both the social experience of their worldwide chess community 
and the aesthetic experience of playing chess out of doors.

Kirk Zurell 
advanced technology 
with the REAP lab
. is
 his tech & culture practice.