Since 2018 I've been coaching a young Interaction Designer in adding a Cognitive and Experiential dimensions to Traditional Toys, culminating in an honours graduation Thesis.

In developing the young brain, toys functions as tools of learning. They are representations of ideas or bigger real world objects and beings that the child can use for experimentation. Toys are often used in scientific experiments by Developmental Psychologists and Neuroscientists to tease out comprehension, decision making and theory of mind in young children. We are exploring how Smart Toys with their own cognitive abilities to sense the environment can be used to create new approaches to learning about the developing Human Brain.


We started with cutting out foam models to get a feel of the size and shape. At this stage we didn’t expect to gain much to get reactions from children from the foam models as they might as well react to attributes of the model that weren’t relevant. Instead we compared to existing toys and gamed out play scenarios together with other toys.

After figuring out size and shape the next challenge was texture, look and feel. Many toys are made out of plastic, but the aim was to associate more with traditional wooden toys that can last for generations. A common theme of brightly coloured plastic toys didn’t seem to have any scientific basis as more appealing to children, the design seems more driven by being cheap to make at large scale. At small scale plastic toys are actually expensive to make.

To prototype with simple materials can get you very far

So we set out to prototype stuffed toys and created 6 versions using fabric of different colour and texture. Since the toy must contain camera and vision electronics part of the prototyping internal involved scaffolding to attach it on.

We then went around town, in toy shops and to the Zoo and put it up in a context to think physically about what we had. It was pretty clear that the instinctive reaction to the look and feel was positive from grown-ups and children alike. It’s hard to say why, but children just naturally engage with stuffed toys, even if they are hand made.

Making it Smart

In most toys the electronics used are extremely simple. Even Lego Mindstorm uses very simple chips without a lot of compute power. The first reason to do this is to limit the battery requirements, which makes safety much easier to deal with. LiPo batteries can catch fire if they are heated up, so avoiding big batteries is a plus. The second reason is cost. The expected price of toys is fairly modest.

The product we were designing is technically more like a Smartphone than todays smart toys so we decided to use a Raspberry Pi for the prototypes. It also like Smartphone uses a camera, so we used the models available with Raspberry Pi. We added custom hardware to the Raspberry Pi to make it battery driven and play audio and make some internal scaffolding for the electronics. We should probably have used 3D printed scaffolding to capture the experiments for the future, but since we’re not going to use Raspberry Pi for the actual product and the time it takes to design and print this sort of model, it turned out to be faster to make it out of modelling wood.

Raspberry Pi worked well for building a simple prototype

How should it work?

At this point the easy bits were done…. Ok it didn’t feel easy, but at least they are pretty standard parts of prototyping. The hard part turned out to be figuring out the behaviour. How should it behave in response to interactions. The great part was that the rest was all made with software. It would be fun to go into the details, but since we’re working on the real product we’d better keep that for a future article once the product is released.

Responsibility & Experience

  • Interaction Design Coach
  • Evaluating hardware options such as platforms and chipsets
  • Planning battery sizing
  • Surveying expert users in Education
  • Brief testing with children
  • Researching existing products in the area
  • Preparation of Academic Paper and Presentation

Further Product Development Stages

After the initial working prototype had been completed we started working on the actual product. This leads to many more challenges to solve, also from a design perspective.

  • How to fit high performance computing hardware in a toy
  • How to service the battery in the real product
  • User Experience for the Product Onboarding
  • Designing for Assembly and Disassembly
  • Choosing Field and Depth of View for the Camera
  • Outside-in vs Inside-out: Balancing the requirements of the components with needs of the user.
  • Fire and Water proofing
  • Weight and internal structure
  • Etc. etc.

These are some of the questions that we have subsequently worked on.