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Story RoomsStory Rooms


What technologies do kids need to tell stories in an entire room?  Many museums, public spaces, and experimental research projects have tried to answer this question.

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Their answer usually involves adults building these rooms and technologies for children to use.  At the University of Maryland, we want kids to be able to build their own rooms to tell their own stories. Therefore, we have begun to make "Storykits" which are used to create "StoryRooms."


You enter a room with two friends. Inside, you find three houses built out of  cardboard boxes, held together by glue and covered with colored paper. One house is made to look like it has been constructed out of straw; another out of sticks; and the third out of bricks. You also notice colorful, squeezable physical icons that look like hands, mouths, and sunbursts connected to these houses.

hungry A loudspeaker, embedded inside an icon shaped like a mouth, utters in the voice of a wolf; "I am hungry! I am hungry!"
straw   stick1   brick Thinking that you might become the wolf’s dinner, you and your friends run away.  As you are running, you notice lights on three "houses."
Squeeze Hand Each of you runs into a separate house. In each house is a hand.  All of you squeeze the hands and from a speaker, just outside each house, you hear “Little pig, little pig, let me come in!” In turn, you say, “No, no, no, not by the hair on my chiny chin chin!” A few seconds later you hear from the speaker, “Then I will huff, and I will puff, and I will blow your house in!”


You may recognize the above as an adaptation of the classic story, "The Three Little Pigs."  There are many ways that children could have heard this story: it may have been read to them, they may have read it themselves, they may have seen it performed on stage, or they may have watched it as a cartoon.  Stories can be experienced in many ways, even through physical interactive environments such as StoryRooms.

Young children could have created the props (the three houses) and recorded the sound effects and speeches; but how did they program the room to interact with the visitors? That is, what tools did they use and what steps did they take to create the condition-action rules for the story?  Until now, programming systems for interactive rooms have been created with screen-based text or graphics. We believe that the programming actions could be more natural, concrete, and direct if the interaction rules could be created by manipulating physical objects in a real environment.


Children create worlds out of everyday objects such as boxes, tables, and stuffed animals. This constructive process is how children make sense of and refine their mental models of the world.  It reflects how children learn.  Should we then interfere with this creative process by introducing technology? Technology can be expensive, fragile, difficult to use, and environmentally unfriendly. On the other hand, tools such as sensors and effectors enable children to add magic to their stories.  Technology can make traditional play experiences repeatable and shareable in the same space as well as across geographically distant locations.

Research from four areas of computer science is the foundation of the technical aspect of our work.  These areas are: 1) technologies that interact with physical environments, 2) programming environments for novice users, 3) technology for learners, and 4) participatory design methods and processes. 

The groundwork to support recent computationally enhanced environments can be found in ubiquitous computing, augmented reality, tangible bits and graspable user interfaces.  In addition to the belief that people are more adept at and comfortable with manipulating everyday objects in their natural settings, they also share common technical challenges, such as scale, context awareness, gesture recognition, networking, location tracking, and software infrastructure.  However, no one has yet suggested an approach for novice users to physically create ubiquitous computing programs.


  • Create a physically active multi-sensory learning experience

  • Provide a social opportunity for learning among many co-located children

  • Give young children the ability to be storytellers with technologies which enable children to move from improvisational play to story authoring

  • Ensure that StoryRooms is an intrinsically motivating experience, otherwise known as fun

Design Process

First we acted out a story room without technology.       Acting Out a Story Room
Then we split into 3 groups. The stage group thought about what sensors, props, actuators, and output we might need.         Sensors, Props, and Output

The software group thought about how to program the room. The story group thought about the stories we might need to tell.  Each group brainstormed and made low-tech prototypes.  Then the groups reconvened and discussed their prototypes.

The next step was to design a mid-tech prototype.  We decided to make an interactive version of the Dr. Seuss story "The Sneetches".   We created sensors, props, and different kinds of output for our mid tech prototype.  Then we invited parents and friends to try out the story room.

Currently, we are exploring what tools can support the creation of different types of room-sized stories. At this point we see the need for three different types of tools in our kit: funware, low tech and high tech hardware, and software.

funware Funware can help children come up with story ideas. Here are a few examples of idea cards that can be used to brainstorm story possibilities.
Low Tech Hardware Low tech hardware includes anything that can be used to create props for storytelling such as cardboard, paper, glue and markers.
High Tech Hardware High tech hardware includes sensors and actuators that make interesting things happen in a storyroom. These are the devices that tell a light to turn on when you touch a sensor or make a cup say "Hello" when you pick it up.
Physical Programing Devices Software is what children use to program the storyroom. For example, children can squeeze the green hand to make the pink light turn on or to program the mouth shaped speaker to say whatever they want.

The hardware is embedded in physical programming devices like these.

Potential Applications

  • Physically active learning experiences for classroom exploration

  • Child-centered and child-created entertainment for homes and public spaces



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