For my research paper I selected a paper from the 2011 Interaction Design Foundation Conference titled “Steps Toward Child-Designed Interactive Stuffed Toys.” I selected this paper because the abstract sounded relevant to the toy prototype that Veronica, Arnab and I are working on. While many other papers centered around some common topics (tangible programming, math concepts, and augmented reality), it seemed to be the only paper that dealt with soft or plush toys and I was excited to see how they were thinking about this material.
This paper outlines a toy “system” called Plushbot developed to allow children to design and build their own plush smart toys using the recent developments in microprocessors and sensors for soft or textile wearables. Children’s toys - especially those that the authors call “character toys” - have taken advantages of these small new devices for physical computing and the authors want to give children the agency and support to use their creativity to make their own.
Among others, Furby and the Aibo dog are referenced as precursors to these kinds of toys. More recent toys such as Sniff (a dog that we actually used as a reference for our prototype!) that uses an RFID sensor and Probo (a huggable elephant) are referenced as new developments in toys with “sensory abilities.” The authors argue that our current moment in history is a unique because the hardware is cheap and accessible enough for the first time to allow kids to design and create their own toys. They propose their Plushbot software as a way for kids to do this.
Plushbot uses Arduino and LilyPad boards and is designed to work with other sensors and electronics made for wearables. The authors point out that the community of tinkerers focusing on soft toys is small (Plushie is one example they cite) and hope to expand this with their software. Plushbot consists of two main web interfaces: the pattern interface and the playground interface.
Plushbot’s pattern interface allows children to draw out a fabric pattern for their toy.
The playground interface allows the child to add microcontroller, circuitry and sensor elements to their pattern. This software is also designed to integrate with laser cutters.
The final phase is the construction phase (it’s not clear from the paper if this is done by the child or how this is supported by their system).
This software looks like an amazing planning tool, but seems pretty advanced for a child. Even though there is a high level of support and assistance from the software, it’s a lot to learn: design, circuits, fabrication. The authors say that they plan to test this software and process with a group of middle school children, which seems like the right kind of supported environment for this kind of learning. Some of the steps seem pretty challenging - for example, there is a note about sewing extra patches onto the conductive thread to prevent short-circuits. In addition, I think it can also be challenging to design a 3D object in 2D and understand and see ahead of time how those two perspectives map together - it’s a type of thinking that has to be developed and could be challenging for first time users.
It seems that there’s a bit of a mismatch with the software design and intended audience - I think that middle schoolers are the right age group to be able to understand the concepts involved and execute them, but I’m skeptical that they are an age group that would want to design plush toys for themselves. In terms of future work, the authors also describe making their own development environment for this system instead of using Arduino. I think that this could be one way to break down the complicated process of making a toy and make it more accessible to more people.
Since this paper is from 8 years ago, I thought it might be out as a consumer or educator product. When I tried looking up the toy, I only found a beta website. However, I was able to login and play with the software! It seemed to have some glitches, but it was fun to see how they were thinking about designing a system to make this process available to young tinkerers.