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Bloomington inventor's game explores origins of life

September 14, 2014

Mark White is obsessed with technicolor, mold-plastic orbs and the meaning of life.

His newest invention is a 3D board game called "Mutation," a clicking, clacking puzzle ball. It's best described as tic-tac-toe on the surface of a sphere, but players are limited only by the rules and games they create. Its rainbow pieces are attached to the board, and a typical match lasts about 5 minutes. The "Mutation" globe is a puzzling, perhaps addictive thing to have within arm's reach at any time.

It's inspired by the genetic code, and, White says, could be the best clue toward solving the mystery behind the origin of life on Earth.

"I got the idea that Mutation was a dispensable idea beyond being a toy," White told The Herald Times (http://bit.ly/1tPF6Ev ). "I was the only one who believed that."

Bloomington resident White, a practicing emergency physician for three St. Vincent hospitals, and a self-proclaimed "idiot-savant," didn't expect to wind up in the toy world. But a fascination with the genetic code, and an obsession for illustrating its madness in game form, took the IU School of Medicine grad down the saccharine path normally reserved for Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, and for New York's international toy fair, which he attended in 2004, as well as the startup game industry.

To him, New York's toy convention was the World's Fair. Kings Island. A massive exhibit hall with thousands of toys, including science-based plaything rivals: The Rubik's Cube. The Hoberman Sphere.

"Everybody thinks they have the next Rubik's Cube or the next Pet Rock. It's not always gonna happen," White said. "And if it does, it's gonna take a lot of time and money to happen."

White produced a batch of his 300 original "Code World" spheres in 2004, a visible ancestor of his current "Mutation" project. The mold work was quite complicated, with more than 200 parts forming each model.

"I couldn't compete on the simplicity of the Rubik's Cube, and I couldn't compete on the price — and they make them a million at a time," White said. "When I got that far, with something so fundamental to the understanding of biology, I thought people would shell out a few extra bucks."

They didn't quite bite.

"You can tell them it's five times better, but they're not going to pay five times more," White said.

In the 10 years since that fateful Big Apple trip, White still formulates and molds new plastic iterations of his theories, including the "G-Ball," a psychedelic soccer ball that also focuses on our genetics. He's taken things into his own hands with new media, filming a commercial with young adults replacing their checkerboard with a Mutation game sphere.

And it's all come to this — his Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, an online marketplace where virtual strangers can invest money towards a new product in exchange for some posh rewards, which White launched Friday.

White is still a little hesitant, though, having seen Kickstarter prototypes of little importance get monumental funding. There was the $80 ice cube tray. The $200 geometric blanket. A sarcastic potato salad recipe somehow earned $55,000 in early August.

"They're jaw-dropping," White said. "It doesn't seem like a lot of rhyme or reason. ... Why not me? This is the secret of the origin of life in the universe and I can't get $25 for it?"

White's toy-and-galaxial-code is available on his Kickstarter at levels ranging from $10 to $25. He distributes them in plain white boxes, stripped of expensive and flashy packaging, to keep costs as low as he can. There's also the perhaps unattainable $10,000 donation level, which bestows the donor the original "Code World" prototype.

Is it the conventional route for selling a toy? Perhaps not. But neither is his mission of explaining life's origins.

"I thought that I could get a Nobel Prize, and that would lead to the sale of a lot of toys," White said. "Now, I am just hoping that I can get some toys out there so the idea will have a chance to be recognized and debated."

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