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  Whiz.kids
Children first: In designing toys, one lab turns to the experts in the field.
Michael Stroh
Sun Staff

 
  Helping hands: UM researcher Allison Druin (in baseball cap and Whiz Kids work out details of their storytelling program, KidPad. (Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

Ben Bederson was experiencing digital stage fright.

The College Park computer scientist crouched over an IBM Thinkpad computer, preparing to unveil his new storytelling program, called KidPad. Several of his collaborators sat on the floor around him, eyeing the PC warily.

While Bederson had programmed the software, his collaborators had designed much of it. He wondered how they would react to his efforts to bring their vision to life.

KidPad's opening screen came up -- so far, so good. Then Bederson clicked on an icon, and it burped.

"I think that's a bug, Ben," said one onlooker.

"No, that's a feature," he deadpanned.

His collaborators pounced. "Bug!" one blurted.

"Ben, you bugged it! You bugged it!" another squealed. Then several bellowed in unison: "Bug! Bug! Bug!"

Bederson shrugged sheepishly. Criticism is tough to endure -- especially from children.

Meet the Whiz Kids. Twice a week, these six tech-savvy children, who range in age from 7 to 11, tumble into a laboratory at the University of Maryland, College Park. While their friends are playing with toys or computer software, the Whiz Kids are designing it.

 
  Making it work: Seven-year-old Alex Kruskal tries out a prototype storytelling program. (Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

The project is the brainchild of 35-year-old Allison Druin, an assistant professor at the university's Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and authority on children and technology. For 10 years, Druin has pursued a singular notion: that kids -- not just adults -- should design new technology for kids.

"There's a lot we can learn from a 7-year-old," says Druin. "Kids are on the leading edge of technology. We have to listen, not tell."

Others are listening to what Druin and the Whiz Kids have to say. Children's technology is a hot market as toys with silicon smarts become must-have items. This year's hot list, for example, include Microsoft's Actimates, Tiger Electronics' Furby, Lego's Mindstorm, and Mattel's My Interactive Pooh.

"Computer chips are working their way into every damn thing," says Erik Strommen, a developmental psychologist who led the Microsoft design team that developed Actimates such as Barney and Arthur. "One of the ways that proves to be most revolutionary is bringing technology products to children."

Most high-tech toys and software, he says, are created by grown-ups sitting around a conference table with Cross pens and yellow legal pads. As the market for electronic products grows, so does the desire to bring kids into the design process. That's why companies like Microsoft are watching Druin and the Whiz kids closely.

"The details are useful," says Bederson. "More importantly, you get a sense of the bigger picture: Is what I'm doing worthwhile at all? Products flop all the time because companies don't bother to find that out."

The Whiz Kids are working on two big projects these days. One of them is KidPad, a program that tells stories. Developed with a grant from the European Union, it will eventually be used in schools in Nottingham, England and Stockholm, Sweden.

The other project -- which has attracted the attention of Microsoft and others -- is PETS, an acronym for Personal Electronic Teller of Stories.

Wired with sensors, gears and motors, PETS are robots designed to tell stories and show emotion. They have potential not only as toys, but also as therapeutic devices.

"If there's something you want to talk about but don't want to say, you can have the robot say it," says Jaime Montemayor, a doctoral student in the UM computer science department who is helping the Whiz Kids build the robots. "That way, it's not you, but the robot telling the world why you're so upset."

To design the PETS, the Whiz Kids took trips to the zoo to see how animals move and look. They visited the university's robotics lab to see what robots looked like. They didn't like it. Afterward, one wrote: "I don't like the way the brains show when you look at it." Another reported: "They're plastic and they should be furry like an animal."

So the kids decided their robots would be furryy and cuddly. They built prototypes with pipe cleaners, socks, laundry clips, Popsicle sticks, lick-on foil stars, and yarn. They decided to combine the parts of different animals to create customized pets and settled on a prototype with a spotted cow's head, webbed hands and bear fur covering a Lego body.

The robot is controlled by a software program, My Pets, which tells the robot what to say and feel.

Each week the Whiz Kids divide into three groups: a software group, a skins and sensors group, and skeleton group.

One recent afternoon, Lauren Sumida and Rebecca Wagner, were revamping the opening screen of the My Pets program. Lauren had an idea: "You know how elephants blow bubbles? I'll put an elephant here," Lauren said and scribbled a gray elephant with a balloon emerging from its trunk. Inside she wrote: "PETS."

Once they're done, Druin will scan the drawing into the computer. "The kids like the Crayon look," she observed.

Not everyone is sure where the PETS project is headed. "It could be the next generation toy or the next generation vacuum cleaner," says Montemayor.

It's not the first time Druin has set out to design such technology. In the late 1980s, nearly a decade before interactive toys such Barney and Furby appeared on store shelves, Druin created "Noobie." The feathery, 5-foot Muppet-like character, which was her master's thesis at the MIT Media Lab, had 25 switches snaking through its limbs and a Macintosh computer in its puffy belly.

Druin built the device to demonstrate how kids could communicate with computers without using a keyboard, mouse or other traditional device.

"If you throw away the box, how should kids interact with technology?" she explains.

Druin works hard to make her pint-sized collaborators comfortable, which means scheduling cookie breaks and budgeting for Crayolas and construction paper.

When she recruited the Whiz Kids last spring, mostly from the College Park community, Druin had them all sign contracts like other research assistants. In lieu of salary, each gets a new Walkman, and Druin credited the Whiz Kids as co-authors in a recent scientific paper.

The Whiz Kid's development lab is a psychological "Clean Room." Instead of keeping out hairs or bacteria, Druin isolates the Whiz Kids from whiffs of adultdom which might stifle their creativity.

As a result, adults who enter the Whiz Kids' domain must observe strict rules: First, no grown-up clothes (Druin dons loose Levis overalls, a baseball cap, and Nike Air running shoes.) Second, no looming over the kids (sit cross-legged on the floor or plop into one of the lab's crunchy beanbag chairs). Third, no taking notes with big note pads (only teachers and other authority figures do that).

Kids must observe rules of their own. When Druin asks for suggestions one day, a Whiz Kid's hand shoots up. Druin's face immediately puckers in disgust. "No, no, no. Don't raise your hand uuckkk!"

The work can be challenging, and Bederson says it's easy to see why collaborations between children and adults are so rare in the technology business.

"An adult will concentrate and talk to you for an hour -- even if they're bored to death. If a kid's not interested, you'll be in the middle of a sentence and they'll just get up and walk away," he says.

Courtesy of The Baltimore Sun
Originally published on 12/21/1998


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