Rethinking Digital + Analog Play
Digital Whirligig is a playful device that bridges children's physical and digital learning experience. By spinning the geometric wooden toys, the player correlates the physical volume of the toys with their virtual 3D models.
Why do we need new interfaces for digital learning?
While most millennials began learning by playing in the physical space, before engaging in digital simulations, many of the "digital natives" nowadays are learning through the screen displays since they are toddlers.
As educational products are increasingly built as Apps and delivered through laptops and tablets, and children spending more time on mastering iPad games, we - as adults and as a society - gradually loose sight of their learning and understanding of physical space. For example, the study of shapes and volume is now relying largely on flat screens, touch pads, and computer mice, which are two-dimensional control devices that lack any meaningful tactile feedback. Therefore, children's understanding of geometry is hinderedd if they don't connect what's displayed on screen with what's happening physically.
"Pre-Digital" and "Post-Digital" Interface of Play
Nowadays, toy companies are increasingly migrating to digital platforms, creating a "virtual body" of their iconic physical products (Barbie, for example). Software company also see the connected digital devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc) as both fast and efficient medium to deliver their digital products, making digital games and apps seem like the ideal mode of "the future of education".
Current Initiatives for Analog and Digital Play
A number of products have emerged in the past few years, in the attempt to shift the singular mode of touch screen interaction. For example, LEGO Fusion allows the players to use iPad to record the front view of the house that they built with lego bricks, and turn it into a virtual 3D object. The virtual object can then be placed within the iPad app and facilitate story telling. Doodle3D is an application that works the other way around: it takes the 2D doodles of the kids as input, and digitally transform the drawing into a 3D model that can be printed through a 3D printer.
However, in both examples, the analog play and the digital generation are divided into separate stages: in LEGO fusion, the player has to exit the construction mode in order to engage in the digital story telling; in Doodle3D, the player draw and manipulate the sketch in a 2D interface, and then passively watch or wait for the 3D printer to complete the fabrication. In either case, there lacks an inherent integration of digital and analog interactions.
Synchronize Physical Movement with Digital Graphics
I brainstormed a few different designs for the technical hardware that could allow the physical to digital interaction possible. I first thought of setting digital pins inside cylindrical spindles, but for the need of mechanical strength and limitation of manufacturing capability, I migrated to the idea of using existing USB 3.0 ports as connectors.
Mock-up and Rendering
The formal attributes of toy blocks, such as color, shape and orientation, result in different computer-generated 3D models Therefore, I built a series of 3D models in Rhino to visualize how the interaction could play out. Based on the 3D renderings and possibilities of user manipulations, I started to design the digital interface.
Physical Computing + Computational Graphics
The hardware prototype includes two key components: the connectors that identify different ports of the wood toys, and the motion sensor that tracks the rotation after a wood toy is connected to the main device.
I altered the USB 3.0 ports by connecting selected pins to ground, and leaving other pins to pull-up resistors, thus customizing an array of binary values. Those binary arrays informs the graphical interface which shapes and orientations to display. A gyroscope is attached to the main device and functions as motion sensor.