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DigiCrafters: fun, physical computing for kids

One of the last modules I took as part of my MSc at Sussex Uni was Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments, taught by my dissertation supervisor Dr. Judith Good. In a laid-back, “caffeine addicts anonymous” atmosphere, we covered learning theories, learner-centered design and issues of motivation and emotion in instruction. Good fun.

The Fear sets in.

Then our graded project for the module was announced and it was… erm… daunting.

Our team was to visit a local school and, with the help of its students, devise a way to teach kids how to become creative users of technology. For a child-allergic introvert like myself this was as close as you could get to “worst nightmare” territory.

But hey, it’s nice to be surprised – especially by yourself. Over the course of several visits to the Self-Managed Learning College, Marie, Andy and I hung out with a group of 10-12 year old girls, made silly Arduino-based projects and generally had a grand time. In the end, inspired by the fun we had, we made something which I think is pretty cool: DigiCrafters.


But… what is it?

DigiCrafters is a handful of basic, color-coded projects which let kids craft cool stuff with circuit boards, lights and sensors. As a “thing”, DigiCrafters is a website and a series of instructional videos – but only for now.

How did it come together?

Wires and circuit boards are intimidating. We wanted to show our girls how easy it was to use a few basic digital components to make crafty stuff. We decided the best way to go about it was to make things that were weird and mysterious – like our Glowing Gremlin Egg project.

Our team’s objectives meandered somewhat at the start, as our intrepid group of girls decided they wanted to use our treasure chest of electronic gizmos to build a musical instrument which responded to their heartbeats. We briefly pursued this, but then realized that, rather than teaching the kids anything, we’d end up making them a toy to play with. So we shelved the idea and focused on small, rewarding projects that slowly opened up the possibilities of wires, circuits and code.

But the idea that 10-12 year olds were keen to design something as amazing and complex should not be dismissed. It showed us that kids are keen to make new and fantastic digital products, even if they don’t yet have the skills to do so. So something may yet come of the musical heartbeat idea – watch this space.

What are you teaching?

Our projects are not aimed at kids who – as many lucky ones already have – had exposure to electronics and basic coding concepts. We wanted to introduce kids to the idea that it’s easy to make something fun and creative with computers and their various components. Along the way, we would slowly be exposing them to the core concepts of digital and analog signal processing, I/O, tangible UI design and of course code.

Why circuit boards and sensors and wires?

We think teaching kids to code is fantastic. But computers don’t just exist as laptops, tablets or smart phones anymore. They’re everywhere! Almost any object can execute code. Almost any object can sense. We felt the idea that the digital and physical boundary has long ceased to exist should be taught.

What’s next? Workshops!

This feels like the first, tiny step in something that could become quite awesome. And while having an Instructables-like website is great, DigiCrafters is more fun when done in a hands-on, group environment.

This is why we’re keen to develop a proper “curriculum” of crafty projects and package them into kits and workshops suited to various interests and skill levels. And then let kids come and make stuff!

To start with, we’re hoping to run a few trial workshops during the Brighton Digital Festival. There’s loads to be done and we’ll need help: volunteers, experts, sponsors. If you want to get involved, please get in touch

Last but not least, epic thanks.

It’s early days but we already have tons of awesome people to thank. Dave, Kate, Jenny, Naomi, Philip and everyone at the Self-Managed Learning College: thank you so much for your support. May you be richly rewarded with kittens and cakes forever.

Feeling the future

The Man Who Fell to earth

In 1974, four years after Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ was first published, the BBC made a documentary about David Bowie called ‘Cracked Actor’. In it, the gorgeous, fragile, coke-emaciated Bowie (see 30:25) likens the first swell of success to being a frightened passenger in a rapidly accelerating car.

What does it feel like to be unsettled by the rush of life around you – especially by the onset of new technology? If Douglas Adams was right then my age – early 30’s – has yet to qualify me for future shock. But in Bowie’s analogy I recognised the slight, unsettled sensation which now besets me as I come across certain news stories or life events.

As part of a technology-assisted learning module I’m currently doing at uni we’ve been working with a group of 10-12 year old girls at the Self-Managed Learning College. The hope is that we can broaden their understanding of how technology can be used to make things, not merely to consume them.

Our first meeting with the kiddos evolved into a project brainstorming session. With almost no prompting, the group showered us with ideas: they demanded we build pillows that store dreams, jackets that detect moods and robots that babysit. They wanted to design fridges that suggest recipes and thought-controlled musical instruments.

What struck me was not the breadth of their whimsy – but that I knew for a fact not a single idea spawned from their 10-year-old imaginations could be dismissed as science fiction. The technology for everything they wanted to make is already here and within reach. And that’s wonderful. And that’s also really weird.

Slowly it dawns on you: little belongs anymore to the realm of outright fancy. There’s Google Glass. Then there’s no-touch biometric data capture. And then there’s – no, really – rat telepathy over the internet. There’s my friend whose life-saving ICD can be hacked and compromised. It also makes her, in strictest definition of the the word, a cyborg.

I don’t have a weighed, rational opinion about the ethical and social implications of any of these things. They continue to fascinate and absorb me. Nor do I, in earnest, have future shock. I have some of its symptoms, sometimes. But that gives me enough to describe it, not just in Bowie’s visceral terms.

It’s the feeling of waking up in a world that doesn’t belong to you.

The value of folly: the UX Camp Brighton talk that (nearly) was

I very nearly spoke at last month’s excellent UX Camp Brighton. My talk was to focus on the user experience merits of cutting edge, high tech tat.

That’s right. I wanted to defend the sorts of gadgets which beg the question: “You made this… why?”

In the end though, I was felled by an epic cold, foiled by the failure of my demo, and distracted by my volunteering duties at the event. Excuses, excuses. Let’s face it: I mostly just wanted to enjoy the day without having to fret about my own talk. Then there was the pressing matter of participating in assorted banana abuse and three-legged bin bag races with Kat.

Besides, there was already a bounty of clever speakers on offer. Jiri’s talk on designing emotional experiences – complete with awesome slides – introduced me to a few qualitative tools I’d not heard about, such as the Geneva wheel. Kat covered some of the methodologies she used in her MSc dissertation on tablet ergonomics in office environments. Louise shocked, SHOCKED her audience with her Pound Shop Personas. Luis chatted to us about cognitive biases – specifically the adaptation bias. Luke took us on a grand tour of monitoring and analytics tools. Calliope lead an interesting discussion which ended up focusing on the UX of new product development. And the pogonolicious Danny had a packed room for his HyperCard demo.

Right, back to my non-talk. During the last Spring term at Sussex I discovered the work of Mark Hassenzahl, whose work explores the underlying causes of our positive experience with interactive products. Mark has shown that: pleasurable dealings with devices are closely tied to the fulfilment of basic psychological needs; and that products are far better positioned to fulfil those needs – such as competence, the need for popularity and stimulation – when they emphasize their “hedonic quality” over their “pragmatic quality”.

Naturally I took that to mean that when it comes to new digital toys “the more fun and pointless the better”. I set out out to blatantly abuse Mark’s research in my slides by defending a kaleidoscope of recently released, wonderfully pointless gadgets such as Olly, the smelly robot and iRock, the iDevice-charging rocking chair.

UXers are famed for bleeting on about products needing to “solve real problems”. But as with everything, it comes down to your definition of a “problem”. Sometimes a “problem” is simply the insatiable craving for something new, useless and fun.

Here are the slides:

Massive thanks to Patrick for organising a great event. Roll on #uxcb13!

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