Sunday, March 20, 2016

Wind-up Toy Hack

Taking apart toy, exploring their inner workings, and remixing different kind of characters using scissors, tape, screwdrivers, and thread can disturbingly destructive while being at the same time satisfyingly creative. During this week's activity, we were asked to hack a toy in the context of the constructivist idea of evocative objects. Turkle (2007) describes evocative objects as those everyday materials that bring together practice and thinking. Through the doing with an objects new ways of thinking about the world can emerge in action. Through interactions with these materials, often surprisingly mundane objects, the materials can ground deep understanding about knowing and being in everyday practice and in this way teach us about ourselves (Turkle, 2007).

While I brought a few toys to class with me, I was most drawn to a plastic round character of a mummy. Turning a knob in the back of the mummy made it waddle forward. Maybe a character from a television program, this figure seems to have the power to inspire playful stories and adventures when brought together with other play-things. An evocative object? It seemed like it was made for adventurous storytellers, easy to get started and potentially leading to complex plots.

To get to its inner workings, I carefully observed how it might have been constructed. There was a crease that indicated that two pieces of molded plastic were put together - the mummy's front and back side. There were holes where the legs could stick out, having enough room to waddle. In the back of the mummy, a small button was positioned to wind-up the toy. The screws that held the body together were not common, and I had to find a special shape to unscrew the little guy. To my surprise, the two molds of the body did not fall open once the screws were out. The plastic firmly stayed in place. It seemed responsible, given the target age for the toy, however, less convenient for my purposes. The careful deconstruction was over, and I started pecking away plastic with a wire stripper. The plastic, bent away with little effort and as I slowly made my way along the crease that held the mummy together I lost connection to the mummy and started feeling more interest towards the gear based mechanical motor inside of the plastic mold. It was the material that blew movement into the character for me, the material that made it waddle. It was perhaps something I could use to create something else, something bigger, something fun.

In the design of powerful objects that are created in an attempt to call out these kind of entanglements between people and objects, Resnick and Silverman (2005) present ten design principles based on their experiences of designing construction kits for children. One that particularly resonated with me while engaged with the mummy, was Resnick and Silverman's (2005) design principle Choose Black Boxes Carefully that explains a way of selecting the materials and components that are part of a construction kit for children. Similar to the idea of evocative objects, Resnick and Silverman (2005) argue that materials invite children to explore ideas that can be far reaching and ways to understand the world. Ideas are entangled with materials and they can become graspable through the active engagement with materials. Hence, the choice of kind and form of materials inside of a construction kit can have implications on the kinds of ideas that unravel in play. The idea of black box references a certain transparency of the construction kit materials, asking the designer's to responsibly consider how easy it it to explore the bits and pieces or inner-workings of a toy or parts of a toy.


It was not easy to get to the mechanical machine, and the desingers of the toy likely did not consider this as part of the play-activity of the storytellers they might have designed for. Once the opening in the mold was large enough, I used the wire stripper to prop open the mold even further. I reached into the mummy with my hands, and, careful not to break it, I pulled out the wind-up motor. It was a white, rectangular box with a handle to wind up the gears on one side, and a flat circle that had translated the motion of the gears to the legs. On the thin sides of the box, there were holds that revealed the gears inside. Repeatedly I would up the gears to observe how they worked. It was quite fascinating to watch, and I discovered that the flat circle was not centered, which seemed to have caused the waddling effect. I placed different objects, including a 3d printed sphere, on top of the moving flat circle to see how this combination might behave. The exploration inspired me to think about different sets of adapters that could be part of a construction kit along with the wind up motor for children to create their own imaginative waddling characters and to explore the motion in relation to position and shape of materials – I hope that I will find time to continue exploring this idea!  

Resnick, M., & Silverman, B. (2005, June). Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids. In Proceedings of the 2005 Conference on Interaction Design and Children (pp. 117-122). ACM.

Turkle, Sherry. "Introduction: The things that matter." Evocative objects: things we think with (2007): 3-10.

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