The Musikwippe (musical rocker) is a teeterboard that generates sounds according to tilt. It was designed to help small children develop their balancing skills and train their sense of hearing in a playful way.
Different programs keep the Musikwippe attractive as a toy for a long time, and make it suitable for children of different ages. For younger children, generated sounds can serve as an acoustic feedback to their motions. Older children can play it just like an instrument.
The prototype was developed by Sonja Kislinger and Mey Lean Kronemann
as a course project in the classes Physical Computing and Smart Baby Toys, held by Reto Wettach, in my first year at Fachhochschule Potsdam. The course objective was to conceptualize and prototype interactive toys for babies younger than 9 months (before crawling stage).
The course was held in cooperation with the department of developmental psychology at the renowned University of Heidelberg, led by Prof. Dr. Sabina Pauen and Prof. Dr. Birgit Elsner. The group's research focuses on the cognitive skills of infants before language acquisition, thus our research was based on the latest findings in the field.
I worked in a team with my fellow design student Sonja Kislinger, who holds a diploma in psychology. We approached the challenge of designing for a rather special user group with both theoretical and practical methods: We used iterative design methods and continuously carried out User Testings with infants. The special challenge was that this user group is not able to articulate itself, thus the methods used by our cooperation partner were very helpful.
The evaluation methods we used were very different from usual (psychological) evaluation methods, which rely on interviews and questionnaires. Since our users can neither speak nor write, we relied on observation as our only evaluation method.
Our guiding research questions were:
How long does the infant focus on the toy?
Small children lose interest very quickly, so how can we draw (and maintain) an infant's attention?
How does the child use the toy?
Infants do not read instruction manuals, but use items intuitively, often different than intended by us designers. It was thus important to observe carefully what exactly the child does.
Are our observations real?
Since we hope that the kids like the toy when testing a prototype we might possibly interpret too much in the test situation and influence the results. We must thus remain "objective" during the evaluation. The child should approach the toy on its own, without suggestions from the evaluators or the parent. We also recorded the test sessions on video for later analysis.
We started our course research with an overview of baby toys with interactive elements that exist on the market. We found that none of the toys met our group's idea of not having buttons and screens, and that a lot of them were even contraproductive for infant development according to our cooperation partner, since they supported learned helplessness by showing random outputs as a reaction to the child's actions.
We also looked for findings in psychological and pedagogical literature concerning which skills infants acquire at what age. We pursued the idea to motivate our test baby to more "exercise": In the books by The Prague Programme for Parents and Children (PEKiP) we found the notion that babies learn mainly by moving, and a suggestion for a game called incline plane, a tilted or uneven crawling surface where the child can train its sense of balance.
The project was developed before Arduino or Kinect were available. As a microcontroller, we used C-Control which can be programmed in BASIC or CCPLUS. As a tilt sensor, we used a joystick potentiometer together with a plumb (our own invention). The calculations and the sound output were done with Processing, using the Sonia sound plugin.
The Musikwippe was featured in the local tv (RBB) and by a magazine (Unaufgefordert No. 148, July 2004)
We thank our fellow students for their input and feedback, and the discussions about what "smart baby toys" could mean. Special thanks go to our test babies, and their parents, for their time, their curiosity and their patience.