Animistic design and bringing toys to life

For a class assignment, we were asked to choose a research paper from Interaction Design and Children archive and summarize it. I was specifically looking for papers which talk about the design of the ‘form’ of smart and networked toys and I was lucky to come across this paper titled “When toys come to life: considering the internet of toys from an animistic design perspective“ Link

I have heard of the term ‘Animistic design‘ being used to define interactions between humans and non-humans. I believe that the Human centered design methodologies are limited in how they design with the non-human actors (specifically AI) and that we need to think of ecologies of use where every non-human actor is considered to be at par with humans. This article goes into more depth.

Coming back to the paper, it revolved around the design qualities of connected toys in a complex setting of people, objects and data that react to each other. The researchers specifically designed 3 toy concepts which were then analysed from the perspective of animistic design, questioning whether and how the design qualities would foster or inhibit 1) agency, 2) embodiment, 3) a certain ecology of objects and subjects, and 4) uncertainty.

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Concept A) Was a robot that the children could interact with as a play-mate by programming the robot to move in different directions. LEDs on the robot would give feedback and the children could also personalize the robot using Lego bricks.

Concept B) Was a figurine which could interact with many objects (such as cards) and create a virtual avatar and interact with it on an ipad. The figurine acted as an intermediate for the child to interact with the digital world.

Concept C) Was a smart bracelet which could connect to smart devices. The child could customize and attach different pins and each combination of pins had a unique effect in a game. The bracelet also stored the child’s data and preferences so they could continue play at a different location.

Looking at the 3 designs, the authors conclude that the bracelet allowed for divergent interactions, created less dependence on instructions, gave rise to more autonomy and had more fluid boundaries of use which encouraged children to display more agency. The anthropomorphic qualities of the toys created expectations of consistent use, actualizing certainty and predictability. The authors also conclude that the approach requires more grounding in user research for these findings to be validated but there is a rich space for exploration of divergent forms that do not stick to the usual approach of anthropomorphizing connected devices. This was an eye-opener for me and will make me reconsider the product form that we are working on for our finals.