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Digital coloring books

Online and off, I like coloring. But don’t call it a hobby.

Sandbox is an iPhone app that offers color-by-number pictures. There’s a free level and a premium level (~$40.00US/year). The free level’s been fine for me but I am tempted by some of the more complicated pictures that the premium offers.

Once you fill in the squares (all the pics are pixel grids), you can check a box to show an animation of the order in which you filled in the grid. Early on I began manipulating the order in which I populated pixels with “paint,” so I could make a certain animation happen.

Above you see a gif of completed grids. The animation that is added to the finished product is a separate feature from the grid-fill animation. The animation you see above is an easter egg of sorts. The grid has a surprise element that you can only see after you’ve completed the grid. Two examples of this post-fill animation are in the pic above.

A user can also make their own grids on Sandbox and submit them for others to color. You can scan in your photos and the app will convert it to a grid, with the premium customers getting better pixel detail than the freemium users. I’ve not shared any photo or drawing so I don’t know exactly how that works.

How I chose to color in the pixel squares affects the end animation

Like many people who spend hours playing Tetris or cards or the latest hey-pop-this-bubble/candy/bomb game, I also feel a bit guilty for the time I spend on Sandbox. Like Nir Eyal points out in his Indistractable book, the transition times between activities is the red zone. After everyone left the table tonight and it was time to go on to another activity for the evening (kid: Overwatch. Husband: Sports podcast/news on the phone. Me: blogging), I pulled up Sandbox “just for a minute.” I probably lost about 30-40 minutes. Poof. Gone.

For one thing, I didn’t want to blog. For another, I was tired. I heard on a TED podcast that people check Facebook, like, a gazillion more times when they are tired than when they are awake and alert. This rings true for me too. I scroll when my brain or my body is slowing down. Lately I’ve been coloring instead of scrolling so much. IMO this is an improvement!

There’s something soothing about repetitive actions, though, especially super-simple ones like tapping squares. And when I don’t have the energy or my thoughts are racing (or both), I tap, tap, tap away, planning out my final animation strategy while (almost) mindlessly filling pixels with color.

One of these days I’ll stop feeling guilty about it. I would be very embarrassed if, say, alien overlords invaded the Earth and I was forced to account for my pastimes. They would call Sandbox use a “hobby,” as if it were at the same level as knitting! Or sewing! (the horror). I would be ruined. More ruined than now having alien overlords, that is.

We all need some sort of calming exercise. The “boob tube” held the status as the mindless pastime for all of western civilization. Then came the internet, the web, and phones. Now we scroll and we watch TV very deliberately instead.

The real question is, why do I feel guilty? Why would I hide Sandbox from the aliens? What implicit value has society placed on iphone apps? We all know the answer – they are guilty pleasures. Trash. The new boob tube. But isn’t it merely a tool for us to calm our racing minds? To avoid stress? It may be boobtastic but it is useful. We’re human.

As I said. One day, perhaps when the aliens come, I’ll finally give up feeling guilty about being human.

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