Earlier this year I took an interest in developing an educational toy that builds on traditional wood letter blocks. Seeing my younger family members interacting with screens I noticed a gap between the experience of the tangible toys they were given, which were often monotonous, flashy, and not very responsive, and the educational apps they were allowed to use on adult families smartphones. Seeing this gap made me wonder if I could bring some of the responsive and educational experience from the smartphone apps to a tangible with the goal of teaching spelling and numeration. Hiding the technology as much as possible and designing for durability to withstand a 5 year old would be important as well.
My professors at ITP have been encouraging of combing projects between classes when possible. Thankfully the complexity of this project lends well to combining finals for all of my classes including Physical Computing (tangible design), Prototyping Electronic Devices (circuitry), Programming A to Z (text to speech engine), and ICM Media (responsive design).
In terms of the tangible experience I have been thinking over the design of the blocks quite a lot. My initial design based on wooden cubes included letters on every side of the block. While it seemed efficient to fit six letters on every cube some play testing with these made me realize that it was difficult to find letters and there was no obvious way to group them.
After the initial block prototype it occurred to me that tiles might be a better form. With tiles I could separate out each letter to create several tiles using the same amount of material as one block. The long shape also acts as a “key” to limit the number of ways that it can be oriented in the reader.
From the inception of this project I have wanted to make it as accessible as possible and have been doing a lot of thinking around tactile and aural learning. At the suggestion of Professor Tom Igoe I had a conversation with Amy Hurst who is and associate professor of Human-Centered Computing at New York University. Amy studies accessibility problems and builds assistive technologies. I was fortunate to take office hours with her earlier this week. From our conversation my big take-away was that the best progression for creating a piece of technology is to start with an investigation of a problem; to solve with folks who are living the experience and to work from there. While I had good intentions in thinking about inclusivity for all types of learners a better approach would be to take the time to get to know folks living these experiences first. For now I still want to include Braille on each block but realize I have more research to do in this area and will treat this as mostly a technology demonstration.
This week I have also been learning how to use Fusion360 to design the enclosure and circuitry with the help of my friend Zach Kuperstein who has shown immense patience with me.
Getting into the finer details of design in Fusion360 has opened a number of rabbit holes that are easy to pour endless hours into.