Plush flowers that make music when held and arranged! Inside, there are RFID tags in the flowers, RFID readers in the pot and a Wii Remote in the biggest flower. The pot has its own sounds, the flowers create a pitch, and if the biggest flower is shaken, it determines the tempo. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

How To Make Hybrid Toys

The Dutch Mediamatic centre is known for connecting the physical world with the digital. So, a couple of weeks ago, they held a Hybrid Toys Workshop to teach people how to make physical toys with digital and/or networked components. Ah, so this means playing around with RFID, GPS or other transmitting devices and stuffing that in your favourite teddy bear. Now, how is that done and what can we learn though playing with that? Interaction designers Dana Gordon and Jean-Baptiste Labrune will show what you can also do with your Wii Remote (!), a handful of RFID transmitters and an Arduino board

Written by Verena

A pony with a photosensitive sensor and a recorder. Record sounds with it and it will play them randomly until it is dark. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

For starters, what is a Hybrid Toy? And what do people do at the workshop?

First, we raised a few issues regarding toys: Is technology really needed? What is the difference between a toy and a gadget? Can we really create a new kind of play, or only enhance the experience we already know? And what is the additional value we try to obtain with new technology?
Then, the participants worked in groups to define the values and concepts of their toys. We were amazed: The combination of people from very diverse backgrounds and all the new possibilities suggested with technology lead to a complexity of the concepts. In addition, many of the participants did not have previous technical knowledge or skills, which allowed very interesting ideas that were not feasible to be prototyped with existing technology. Our goal then was to simplify those into coherent ideas.

For the “Kiitos,” LEDs were deployed on a breadboard for toy communication… Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

We saw the sweet plush RFID turtles that were made. Please explain the process of the making?

That project was actually named The Kiitos by Evgeniya Pashkina, Jenny ter Horst and Suvi-Tuuli Junttila. They were interested in creating a dynamic toy to be shared between friends, which can receive certain types of information and change accordingly. Each little creature (Kiito) contains a secret coded message from a friend, regarding his or her emotional state. The bigger plush (mother Kiito) consists of one RFID reader, an Arduino board and a small circuit for the light communication, simply made with LEDs on a breadboard. Each one of the smaller Kiitos contains an RFID tag.

… to be connected with an Arduino board. It’s for the “mother” Kiito that displays the signals from its “kids” via RFID. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

Okay, and what would be their overall function?

When placing a friend’s Kiito near the Mother Kiito it expresses the mood of those friends through colour changing lights. In this way, the project creates a link between the traditional personal plush toy and a larger social system. It allows friends to communicate their hidden feelings through coded light messages. The experience leans on the social meeting in the physical world. The RFID reader – placed in the mother Kiito – allows the identification of the smaller Kiitos and their current mood.

Then, the breadboard with the LEDs is stuffed inside the “mother” Kiito. Photo By Dana Gordon.
Finished! The RFID reader inside the “mother” Kiito allows the identification of the smaller Kiitos and their current mood. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

Ah, so you show your mood through the lights. And what about these sweet plush flower pots? They make music…?

The Musical Flower Pots project was created by Arjan Scherpenisse, Alun Owen, Nina Serebrenick and Noam Knoller. They were interested in building an intriguing interactive system, which provides a playful experience for composition of sounds. It is a magical tool for music creation, focusing on the tangible qualities of the interactions to play with sound.

For this prototype we used RFID readers (in the pots) and RFID tags (in the flowers,) a hacked Wii Remote, and the processing software using a sound library named ESS, controlling sound samples.

The Kiito with its little offspring. So cute! And full of RFID chips! Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

A Wiimote? Yay! What can these cutsie flowers do with a Wiimote?

Each flower, according to its colour, provokes a different tone, and each pot generates a different kind of sound. A special bigger flower controls the beat according to the way it’s been shaken. By placing the flowers in the two pots, we add different sounds. Then, according to they way we move the bigger flower we manipulate the whole composition of sounds. We can remove specific sounds by taking flowers out of the pots, and continuously change the tones and beat – all of the sound control is done through playing with those six flowers. [See the fun below.]

How to make music with lots of plush and a Wiimote hidden in a flower stem: “Musical Flower Pots!”

Oh my! Then, what other components can be used for hybrid toys and also wearables – I’m thinking of GPS, for example?

All our modern devices such as GPS, mp3 players, Bluetooth devices, can easily be controlled and merged with toys or wearable items. One of our projects, the Social Vibration, uses wireless communication to bring the web 2.0 communities into the real world: by sending signals between members of the same community, the shirts vibrate, informing their wearers of the nearby presence of the other. The vibration is subtle and allows the wearer to play the social game or ignore it, protecting his or her privacy.

The flowers are prepared each with a RFID tag, the bigger flower on the left has a Wii Remote in its stalk. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

Wearable devices have more constraints, especially power issues and the fact they should be mobile and active in various environments. That’s why wearables could benefit from solar or kinetic energy modules as well as low power communication technologies such as ZigBee. In addition, one promising technology for toys and wearables is conductive textile, usually available under the form of conductive thread – silver or copper coated wires – and conductive fabrics such as Zelt and FlecTron.

The assembly – tupperware as pots. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

Endless possibilities… but how to use it for everyday life… Could you please break down the open source Arduino board’s, especially the LilyPadArduino’s possibilities for normal humans – and what they can do with it?

The Arduino platform is a family of different prototyping boards that allows designers to rapidly sketch electronic ideas, and create functioning devices. It allows prototypes to be independent from a computer. A code uploaded to the Arduino board allows it to control data reading sensors or actuators such as motors or LEDs without the need of a computer.
The LilyPadArduino, created by Leah Buechley, is a textile version of the Arduino where metal and plastic parts are replaced by soft materials such as textile and laser-cut conductive thread. This allows the board to be easily sewn into garments and follows the properties of textile such as flexibility and in some cases, washability. The LilyPadArduino is also operated with low power, such as 2.7 Volt which makes it perfect for wearable applications that can be powered with a single 3-Volt battery.

The flower pots – everything is connected via USB to the computer for use with Processing and the ESS sound library. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

A question for Jean-Baptiste: with your dissertation titled “Children and Creative Technologies: an exaptive phenomenon” you researched children’s play and their creative processes. Through this, you developed several techy toys, such as the Tangicam, a tangible, digital camcorder for kids; Telebeads, jewelery like a finger ring developed for ten to fourteen year olds to connect with each other via a transmitter; and SktechCam, a camera that lets kids take pictures by sketching, meaning using the camera’s touch screen. Could you tell us a bit about these wonderful toys?

Children are very good at making links between different objects or contexts. Playful activities allow them to materialize these new assemblages and share them with their peers, building something both tangible and imaginary. In the context of technologies, I tried to observe this phenomenon through the perspective of children, starting from their experience. And in order to let them be young ethnographers, I needed to design with them new observation tools.

Shake the flower stalk with the Wiimote inside, and its move sensors determine the pace of the sound from the flowers. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

So, I studied how children creatively reconfigure interactive technologies like tangible interfaces or augmented reality technologies. I was surprised to see how the kids constantly hack or transform their digital and physical objects. If they have an object that does something, they will try to make it work differently or in another context, exploring the limits of its initial design. Children’s play is about changing perspectives on objects by deconstructing them or repurposing them, finding original and appropriate new functions. I call this process exaptation, a term borrowed of evolutionary psychology, which describes how some biological functions evolved as a by-product of existing ones.

For “The Three Hippos,” sensors were connected to a recorder… Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

Now we all wish we could play like that again! What can we learn from this when it comes to our own creative processes?

Last summer Dana published a paper at the Creativity and Cognition Conference in Washington about the nature of the creative process that described the multiple paths followed in an interaction design creation: the creative process is multi-dimensional, with many intricate layers. At early stages, interaction designers often tinker or hack objects, mostly the existing stuff found in the environment. This very important physical phase confronts concepts of reality and constraints. However, these constraints may also bring inspiration, leading to unique improvisations and unexpected, or random, opportunities…

… to keep talking their pre-recorded messages as soon as they get close to each other: “The Three Hippos.” Photo by Jean-Baptiste Labrune.

Thank you, Dana and Jean-Baptiste! Have a look at their workshop report and their recent Hybrid Wearables Workshop. For you true geeks with a handcrafting passion, learn how to deploy the Arduino board over here.

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