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Children help scientists, engineers design the toys of tomorrow

Tuesday, June 20, 2000

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Twice a week, seven children finish their school day and head over to a nondescript building in a corner of the University of Maryland main campus.

They go to a third-floor laboratory and gather with a group of adult scientists, engineers and educators. Seated on the floor or in colorful beanbag chairs, everyone has a snack and then the work -- the play -- begins.

Using paper and markers, Legos, foam pieces, fabric, computers, metal pieces, wires and sensors, the children and adults work as a team to craft the next generation of high-tech toys.

The team includes three girls and four boys, ages 7-11, who are pioneers in a unique experiment in the world of high-tech toy design. At the school's Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory, the children and adults work as full partners in creating and testing toys that combine technology and play.

So far, the group has developed a furry robot that can be programmed to show emotions and tell stories written by its child operators. The HCI team also is working on a "storyroom kit" that combines old-fashioned dress-up play with the newest technology, letting children add computerization to stories they create and act out.

Surprisingly, having children help design toys is a novel idea. Toy companies invariably use children as "testers" to check out their latest playthings once they're market-ready. In addition, companies often ask children to be "informants" and give their opinions while a toy is being created.

But industry officials generally don't see the beginning stages of toy development as child's play.

Allison Druin, the Maryland professor who heads the intergenerational toy design team, readily acknowledges that involving children as full partners can be challenging and time-consuming.

But children also bring invaluable insights to the team, added Druin, editor of "The Design of Children's Technology" and the upcoming "New Robot Technologies for Children."

"Children are not afraid to be wrong. They are not afraid to make technology that will help people giggle. Children also will challenge an adult's ideas and push that adult to be more creative," she said.

While adults on the HCI team have had to learn to accept children as equal partners, eight-year-old Alex Kruskal said the children have had to learn a new way of thinking about the adults.

"You have to be patient with them, since they only know what adults know," said Alex. "But when we are patient, you can learn from adults and they will learn, too."

Since it was formed two years ago, the HCI team has focused on an increasingly popular segment of the toy market: computerized toys. From a small start just a few years ago, the high-tech toy industry has grown so quickly that, for the first time, it had its own pavilion at February's trend-setting Toy Fair.

But many of the high-tech toys developed by toy companies have been criticized because they lack flexibility or creativity. Microsoft's "Talking Barney," for example, basically tells preschoolers what to do, instead of inspiring the children to use their imaginations.

Druin and her HCI team hope to offer some alternatives. One project in development is "PETS" (Personal Electronic Teller of Stories). Possibly headed to stores by Christmas 2001, the project consists of numerous fur-covered modular pieces that can be snapped together to create an animal-like robot.

Children can then use software devised by the HCI team to program the robot to tell stories and even show emotions. When the child wants the robot to show happiness, for example, she can program it to flap its wings or quickly turn around and around.

Although aimed at all children, Druin and the HCI team see the PETS robot as particularly helpful for youngsters with physical and developmental disorders like cerebral palsy and mental retardation.

The HCI team also has produced a prototype "storyroom kit" that blends low-tech items like pieces of foam, colored markers and dress-up clothes with high-tech sensors and computers. With sensors from the kit strategically attached to props and clothing, children act out stories that are recorded on a computer, where they can be replayed or revamped.

In addition, the group is helping to fine-tune "KidPad," a children's software drawing program that allows playmates to collaborate on stories -- using two mice -- and bring their tales to life by "zooming" around different parts of the computer "canvas."

Finally, in conjunction with a local elementary school, the group is creating a digital library accessible to children as young as five. Most digital libraries are aimed at much older children, Druin said.

"Our first and foremost goal is to support children as authors of their own learning experiences," Druin said of the group's projects. "We need to give them tools -- not directions."

Dan Olsen, a professor of computer science at Brigham Young University and member of the HCI advisory board, said Druin's intergenerational design group is tackling an important assignment.

"One of the issues is, how do you make these toys more interactive?" Olsen said. "Part of it is a barrier of mechanical problems. But part of it, frankly, is the people who are building the software.

"They assume, 'I am in control, and you the user will respond in ways I have programmed.' That's pretty stale." he said.

That's why Druin's work is so important, Olsen added.

"If you want to know what's good for kids, you ought to ask the kids."

The children on the HCI design team were drawn from a pool of youngsters that Druin met through talks, open houses or friends' referrals.

Each child and parent was interviewed to see whether they could commit to the two-hour sessions after school twice a week during the school year, plus an intensive two-week session in August.

It took about six months for the intergenerational design team to get comfortable working together, Druin said.

"It takes time for the kids to trust us. It also takes time for adults to trust the kids as partners," she said.

Eight-year-old Jack Best is clear about his role.

"It will be a new millennium and we can change lots of stuff," he said. "Grownups want to know what kids are asking for."

One of the team's "guiding principals" has been that both children and adults work best in a comfortable, informal environment. Much of their work is done on the floor, or while sitting in bean bag chairs.

Adults aren't allowed to "loom" over children, but are asked to sit at the same level as children. Conversely, children aren't allowed to raise their hands, but instead are encouraged to speak out freely.

Druin and her adult colleagues relish working with children, although they acknowledge the youngsters add an element of uncertainty. For example, one time when a potential donor visited the lab, the children were making shadow animals instead of demonstrating their high-tech software.

Druin expects many of the HCI projects to be eventually marketed commercially. The team recently signed a contract with AnthroTronix, a new College Park engineering and product development company, to get PETS into a marketable form.

But Druin also emphasizes that "we are not in the business of commercialization.

"We know how to come up with great ideas. But we explore an idea for a year to two years before it could ever be moved to a commercial idea," she said. "That's a luxury that most toy companies don't have.

"We really see ourselves as an advanced research lab, and then we can develop partnerships with companies that would like to further develop our ideas."

(Editor's note: To get more information about the HCI team, visit their web site:

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