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éTui: an i3 Experimental School Environments project

an "intelligent" toy to engender meta-level learning in 4 - 8 year olds

éTui project log

There is so much to say about the éTui project, that it has taken me almost a decade and a half to write it up! But the works needs a narrative - for the sake of Weiya Wang, Andy Simpson, Kris Poppat, Carole Chapman, Josep Blat, Dai Griffiths, Terje Rydland, Richard Millwood, Tom Smith, Lys Chandler (now Johnson), Greta Mladenova, Jonathan Furness, Leonie Ramondt and the many others across Europe who contributed. It is certainly one of the projects I am most proud of from the remarkable Ultralab days. Rather cleverly Any Simpson used FileMaker Pro to build a paper writing engine to generate the vast numbers of reports that an EU project will always need. I'm still working on extracting them for these pages - watch this space! Here is the original proposal as a pdf though.

Apple (for EU reasons via their Benelux office) were involved and we had some very useful chats with Jony Ive's team about material science and design / manufacture issues. I'll try to sort of the file formats on more of the outputs and add them here at some point. Anyway, in the meantime, here is that éTui narrative - not final, but at least the bare bones of a remarkable project and its conclusions back in the last century:

tiny éTui A4 flyer a group of éTuis

a pre-project information sheet
(click it to enlarge)

The project started in 1997 and ran for 2 years, with a few outcomes in 2000 too. The EU had a notion back then, a good one, that a European MIT might be a useful thing but could / should be a distributed virtual thing, building on the many good research teams already doing remarkable work - our's included. The resultant i3 project began with a number of calls for collaborative research which with pals in Trondheim University and Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, we responded to, offering outcomes and deliverables in the usual European Workpackage Plan format.

The plan was simple: build "smart" little programmable toys for 4 - 8 year olds where a primary intention was to see them reflect on their own learning as a result of reflecting on the little toys "learning" as they programmed them (remember that the 4 year olds were pre-notational, so that the programming task design was interesting).

The complexity came because we wanted to develop the whole programme of toy design in conversation with, and in response to, our Learners' voices and that needed a proper on-line community of practice, across cultures, with quite small children. Luckily, Carole Chapman's uniquely early Learning in the New Millennium project - from 1993 - 2000 had pioneered these communities of practice and she was able to build a community in First Class to do that for our éTui collaborators to use too.

éTui processes

This collage (left) shows images from the on-line community:

they exchanged video and conversations using First Class - some of the windows from that are top left and top right in the collage;

it shows some of the early screen based simulations - children played with the toys in simulation before they tried various iterations of the engineered real things;

it shows some of the toys - including unrealeased lego prototypes, Furbies, etc - that they explored as we sought their views about what was engaging;

it shows some of the conversations we held with the young lelarners and centrally it shows one of the nearly finished éTui toys.

The toys we ended up with were certainly engaging: obviously with children as young as four using them they needed to be programmed without a keyboard. They could be programmed by flashing light at them, by pushing them in a shape / pattern, by making them follow lines or head for light beacons, and so on. The little finished toys were dressable - came with varied colours, had three central sensors that could be bent to seek lines, look out for light beacons and so on. The toys communicated with each other too - they could elicit group as well as individual behaviour.

We spent time giving the childrenall sorts of alternatives - in size, weight, in programmable functionality - and their feedback was always reflective and helpful. Some features were imagined, but were then too expensive to fit - we wanted to fit GPS, and accurately predicted its cheapness and ubiquity, but it was too expensive at the prototype stage to invoke. Here Carole and Andrew chat to some of our collaborating students about some toys we gave them, that they had tried - Furbies, George, etc.

The few actual buttons were embedded into the soft coverings making the whole use of the toy quite tactile - in that way little behaviours became procedures, so to speak, like this hand-programmed (ie by pushing) spiral in the simulation environment:

spiral procedure

Of course, the real things were more fun, and more tactile, than the virtual simulations... Here are three final ones: a red éTui, a green éTui, and a pink éTui. We had a mass of activities for other interested parties too - for example a BAFTA Interactive TechnoToys evening for cutting edge Interactive folk. The flyer for that BAFTA event read:

"20 years ago toy shops were full of little programmable toys: trucks, cute "robots", turtles and more. These toys delighted children who then struggled with the notation needed to actually control them. As a result the "programmable toy" slipped out of sight from shops although children were still hungry for interactive toys that they could control. In more recent years the ability to put some real interactivity back into toys has been delivered by new (cheaper) chip technologies and the beginnings of a new generation of delightful toys are appearing. These are not Furbys or Tamagotchis but something well beyond them.

This evening at BAFTA explores the trend towards smart, programmable toys, and shows some of the emerging work at the cutting edge of this field that may just be appearing in sacks for Christmas 2002. And it'll be lots of fun too, but mind your ankles!"

As it happens of course, the toy manufactures had (and still have - I just visited the UK's Olympia Toy Show in 2012 and it was dismal - missing the whole zeitgeist of children as maker / producer / learner / reserchers) an imagination failure, so we didn't have these little smart toys in 2002 even though every child who saw them immediately wnted to own one!. Anyway, to see what fun the éTui was, and to see what the dim manufacturers missed, you can watch a QuickTime movie showing all the éTui actions from here...

And this MP4 movie interviewing some of the key participants (although not showing Weiya who did all the hard engineering and electronics) about the whole project, is certainly worth a watch (QuickTime version is here).

So, the short version of all this was: it worked.

Two interesting little cameo memories:


page last revised, by Stephen Heppel, on Wednesday, October 17, 2012 8:07 PM

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