Previously I wrote about the Alphabet Porridge Idea, a concept for a mobile connected ball for creating and playing digital games. The principal reason for Tom and I joining Made by Many was to explore the world of connected devices as part of a two month internship. This post describes the next step of the project where we developed and tested the idea.

We setup two testing sessions to find out how receptive people were to the two ideas, after collecting feedback we set about prototyping Alphabet Porridge. In parallel we began to focus on two things

  1. An electronic hardware prototype.
  2. A mobile application of the game creator.

From the outset of the project we had been planning to use Arduino, an electronic prototyping platform. We were able to explore the possibilities and constraints of the technology and discover if the ideas for games made sense and how they made people feel.

We were now using a little electronics, but our early prototypes were purposefully very low fidelity. Our first prototype was a circuit taped to a stuffed dogs ball, tethered by USB to Tom’s laptop. See the pictures above for an idea of what this looked like.

One of our main challenges was to condense the ball down in size, which started out impressively chunky. We repackaged the prototype up in lots different ways, constantly testing, remaking and reshaping it to eventually create a better ball shape. You can see from the pictures above that different packaging let us test different games and electronics.

We tested out different combinations of components as we explored variations like changing colour, vibrating and buzzing. We also spent time exploring what we could sense; fast throws, slow throws and the number of catches and when the ball is dropped. 

We were really pleased (and pleasantly surprised) with how much we were able to shrink our prototype down in size with the Arduino Pro Mini. Although only the last of our prototypes implemented it, we had planned from very early that we would use Bluetooth LE to connect our ball to an iPhone.  It's a really interesting technology that enables you to create connected devices that can be powered for years from a single coin cell battery (and offering a range of up to 50ft). We had an Arduino shield made up following Dr Michael Krolls designs (which has since been launched on Kickstarter). This was exciting as we were using technology that was literally hot off the press.

 

 

The game creator application was central to our concept. It aimed to enable everyone to be able to edit and create new games for the hardware; we really want to see what happens when you give people the ability to create their own games with the ball. The first test we did was really insightful as it showed us that coming up with ideas for new games wasn't easy, people seemed to struggle to understand the capabilities of the ball. 

For the mobile app, we wanted users to create new, interesting games and then be able to communicate their idea accurately that would allow the hardware to be programmed. The application would also need to support game instructions so users can share games with other users. 

We quickly tested some ideas in the office for different game creators, experimenting with fill the gap sentences and drop down menus in the office. Unfortunately this flopped fantastically, it was then suggested that a pack of game creating cards should be used instead, which was a real break through. 

With the idea of a set of game creation cards, we took all the variables of the Alphabet Porridge ball (“flash yellow”, “vibrate”, “detect drop”) and player variables (“throw the ball”, “shake the ball”, “kick the ball”) to create a pack. The cards aimed to visually inspire the use with ideas for games and allow them to be laid out in the structure of the game. It worked really well, supporting very simple and quite complex ideas for games. 

Tom Harding helped us develop the game creator application by building on the successful elements of the set of game creation cards. The game variables could be structured using; “when”, “then” and “after” in a simple program for the ball. The design kept the interface very simple, whilst combining the game creation, the programming of the hardware for new games and the game instructions all together. 

By the time we had reached a design for the mobile application we had also prototyped all the electronics on different prototypes at different occasions. We had big ideas for where the concept could be pushed, but only a few weeks to round up this stage of the project. We planned and designed a prototype for some product testing, which grouped together the important elements of the idea. We worked with a great model maker (Mandy at Mandy Maker) to cast a silicon ball to house the components and defuse the light. Below you can see my early sketches and CAD designs. 

With Cath and Mike we organised two days of toy testing with 9 - 12 year olds. In a rush to squeeze everything inside our ball I cooked some of our favourite components, (making Monday morning quite exciting) - but it all came together. The final prototype squeezed a few RGB LEDs, a motion sensor, buzzer, vibrator and an Arduino nano into a 100mm of our Silicon ball. 

The above video is our Alphabet Porridge Testing from on Vimeo.

In the toy testing we were looking to find out children’s reaction to an electronic ball. We asked them questions like 'how does this make you feel?' 'Is it exciting?' We were trying to find out if playing the simple electronic ball games was fun and if they were able to create their own games.

Our testing began as we met Mike’s 9 year old son and his school friends in a park. I will never forget the combination of the surprise (heavy) weight of the prototype along with the excitement of 9 year olds - a little scary!

There was a buzz of excitement surrounding the ball, we explained what the ball could do and then played two contrasting games. The most successful game was always hot potato; a simple group game of throw and catch and when the ball turns red and vibrates, that player is out. Editing existing games whilst in game play seemed very natural and enjoyable in these group games. 

In smaller groups, Tom explained how to create totally new games and guided them through it and we then played the games they created. During this game creation we had some really unique games created that we never would have thought of, with my favourite being a running game. The ball was set to turn red and beep while we were racing between two trees and if we were in the explosion zone (between a bottle and a tree) we had to go to “heaven”.

The testing concluded our internship and this stage of Alphabet Porridge. There was a lot we could learn from the simplified prototype and we have some ideas (and have had some interesting suggestions) for where we could take Alphabet Porridge next. Creating games and playing with a ball is universal, can we make this connected ball universally interesting?

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