Designing smart dolls for SAM

In a previous post, we have discussed how behavioural cues can help us identifying attachment patterns. In this post, the hypothesis that some behavioural cues could be expressed by the way children manipulate the dolls during the story telling was also evoked. To investigate this, we needed to find a way of collecting some data from children that could describe the how the dolls were handled during the play. As we mentionned before, we decided to make our dolls smart so they can communicate some information about their own state. For example, they could notify the SAM application when they are touched, when they are squeezed, or even when they are moved. Because we were also curious about the relationship between the two dolls as it is an important hint in MCAST assesment to categorise attachment, we decided to start with looking at the dolls movements. In this project we are mainly interested in clues that are tied to children’s doing. Therefore, integrating sensors into dolls to track children’s interaction with the toys was the obvious path to take.

Creating toys for children is a challenge and requires desginer skills. Unfortunately, our team is only composed of computer scientists, cognitive development psychologists and chilren psychiatrists. So we ordered a few different woden dolls from a toy store and dismantled them in order to understand how they are built. Fortunately fo us, the simplest model was made out a few elementary wooden pieces for the head and the trunk, and chords by way of arms and legs. The rectangular shaped woden body caught our attention as it reavealed a convenient location to hide some electronic parts that could sense movements. The next step was to find a computer that could suits our requirements.

Picture of smart dolls and tiny arduino computers from tinycircuits

This past decade has seen computer size decreased tremendously. This has allowed the design of wearable electronic devices possible such as smart watches or fitness tracking bracelets. Another trend that has grown quickly is rapid protyping. Several platfoms such Arduino provide software tools and electronic hardware to prototype new computerized systems that can sense pretty much anything depending on the sensors that are involved. In addition, access to affordable 3D printers has opened a door for on-demand design facilitating even more rapid prototyping. The real challenge for us was to find a computer and sensors small enough that could fit in a box of the size of dolls’ body. After an exhaustive research, we eventually found a company called Tinycitcuits that design tiny Arduino based computers and compatible sensor and communication modules with the same size factor.
The next stage was to find a way to attach the computers to the dolls. Luckily for us, Jason an intern in our research group who had some experience in 3D design and printing, designed some plastic shells to protect the computers. These shells were specifically designed to welcome the head and the limbs of the dolls. The picture above shows the smart doll prototype we used to collect the data during the first phase of the project. In the next posts, we will cover in more details what is inside the shells.