Meet Stitch - A Material-focused Interactive Toy

In early 2019, a playful artefact was presented as an outcome of exploration in the domain of materials experience. The artefact was heavily influenced by materials experience in the context of interaction design. My team and I sought to unfold the correlation between materials experience and playful interaction to gain insights into how Material Driven Design relates to playful interaction

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Field Research

Play is an experience—a dynamic, ever-changing process that is filled with ambiguity and surprise. It is characterized as being generous with various kinds of improbability and excitement. Likewise, we were fascinated by the material dimensions of interaction design. For this design case, Elvin Karana’s founding method of Material Driven Design was utilized. It is distinguished in its experience-oriented perspective. This methodology facilitated designing for a meaningful experience as the material was the starting point in the design process. Likewise, to support designers, to entail a thorough understanding of the material in order to unfold its qualities. These premises were the basis for our design-based research.

We considered play highly situational, to not be felt separated from the context. What would feel playful in one context, could feel undesirable to engage within a different one. From this, we visited various toy stores and textile shops in hopes of understanding existing toys, how they are playful, what makes them playful, what materials are used, and what kind of toys we found interesting and playful?

Experience Testing

An early prototype of eyeballs was made to explore technical possibilities but foremost to dive into the realm of playfulness. We found out the technical insights and limitations during the testing of the eyes. People were drawn in closer to the eyes, inspecting them in a curious fashion. Likewise, people were cautious during their approach, until they were more accustomed to the eyes. The behaviour of the eyes had both positive and negative effects. We concluded that the eyes did have playful properties and people interacted with them in an exploratory manner. We, however, dwelled on whether they would add to the playfulness of Stitch once everything had been made.

Design Process

The design process was divided into six stages; (1) Material Exploration I, (2) Material Exploration II, (3) Field Research, (4) Material Exploration III, (5) DIY Material Exploration, and (6) Playtest. In the earlier stages the aim was to answer the following questions: Describe what the material makes you do. Describe what you feel (through touch, vision). Which emotions does the material elicit? Describe your associations with the material. Five versatile materials were selected. From our user testings, my team and I found that imperfect surface qualities of the materials were expressed as a surprising feeling, fascinating and very fidgeting.

According to Elvin Karana, understanding the context was a crucial part of Material Driven Design. From this notion, we set out to explore contemporary playful artefacts and found which materials would play a ‘playful’ role and what sort of materials was in use. Here, our findings concluded with memory foam being particularly interesting as it was a material that we desired to include in our research. For it shared the characteristics of various of the paddings of contemporary toys in our field research. The foam itself had naturally playful characteristics that the participants enjoyed interacting with.

Design process of Stitch material exploration

Next, we aimed to answer the following questions: how would people interact with the material within a playful context? What would the material's unique contribution be? What would it make people do? Would it elicit ‘playfulness’ from people? Three new textures were introduced, sharing similar material qualities to the ones previously tested.

With our findings, we decided to step into the domain of DIY materials experience. Here, the outcome of our DIY material ‘slime’ was another of the must-have filling we considered. Truth be told, the slime itself was not the entry idea but derived from the squishy and jelly-like substances of toys we witnessed from the field research. The DIY method allowed us to create and manipulate something into becoming the output material for this project. In comparison to our textile patches, this method allowed us to get to know the material on a different level of understanding. In summary, we observed how people interacted with our materials in what seemed like a playful manner in accordance with the studies presented in this paper. We had identified the interaction they afforded and analysed this information in order to later decide on the placement of the materials on Stitch. The insights gathered had also been used to later guide the overall shape of Stitch. By following this process we aimed to identify and apply playful interaction to Stitch.

Hardware and Software

Stitch housed three pressure sensors, four vibrators, and two micro servo components. Stitch successfully ran on two Arduino boards, each controlling two separate functionalities. One of the Arduino boards ran traditional processing language that controlled both the sensors and vibrators. The second Arduino board ran the 'smart' aspect, which made use of facial detection (via its housed web camera), volume detection (via a microphone), and talk-back (via a mini speaker). This was made possible because of the combination of WebSocket and Johnny-Five. These libraries allow for rapid prototyping as well as 'smart' functionalities.

Outcome

The body of the toy was based on memory foam with a lower-body part consisted of contained ‘slime’. The ‘black’ material covered the whole toy. It was the base material and all other textile materials were added on top of it. It afforded mainly stroking. The material on the belly was similar to the ‘black’ material in softness but afforded fiddling due to the bumps. Our users expressed liking towards this material, relating it to an animal’s belly. Combining this insight with the slime filling we achieved a tender softness.

 

This promoted petting, stroking and careful scratching. The ‘furry’ material promoted fiddling and gave off a ‘cute’ and animal-like impression. This was reaffirmed throughout the user tests and was therefore applied to the ears. The ‘brown’ material afforded rougher scratching. It was soft to the touch with a rougher base. Therefore, it was applied to the back of the ears as well as the head.

Tri-fold brochure and A4 paper mockup of Kaländra service proposal