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What Happens When Kids Can Hack Physical Play?

by Josh Tyson
3 min read
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Design for Experience award-winner Hackaball bridges digital and physical experiences while teaching kids programming basics.

Give a kid a tablet and watch them go. As a parent, it’s plenty tempting to hand your child a mobile device because, frankly, it’s keeps them quiet and engaged for hours. If you fed them intravenously, kids would probably go for days on end with their favorite app. And while some of the best apps for youngins are useful educational tools, this situation presents a problem: it’s not healthy for kids to sit around exercising only their thumbs.

That’s where Hackaball comes in. The creation of London-based “innovation accelerator” Made by Many, Hackaball is a durable, croquet-ball-sized sphere that kids can program via iPad to respond with light, sound, and vibration. Kids are invited to use the ball’s functionality to create their own games and use cases (imagine the cathartic wonders of an alarm clock that you can turn off by throwing it against a wall).

Winner of the Design for Experience award for Experience for Children, the project was funded by Kickstarter and moved through several rounds of prototyping and loads of user testing.

The Made by Many team met and tested with hundreds of kids while developing the product, with one clear dictum: put no restrictions on imagination. If the kids wanted to turn the Hackaball into a dragon’s egg and make a game out of not waking the sleeping dragon, great. If they wanted to juggle it like a soccer ball and let it count the number of consecutive kicks, awesome.

Of course, the ball itself is only half of the product, and the kids were also instrumental in developing the interface that would allow them to control it. This part of the testing phase involved oversized physical versions of the digital interface, like a giant cardboard iPhone that allowed kids to experiment with if;then rules. The results of testing with the younger set proved very useful.

“Kids are more honest and upfront with their answers than adults are,” says William Owen of Made by Many. “Not that adults are intentionally dishonest, but an important principle of design research is not just hearing what people say but listening to what they mean. We’ve noticed that what children say is usually what they mean.”

As the kids helped refine the product and the project grew, partners were brought in to help with specific aspects of the design, including Map Project Office, an industrial design firm who helped develop the outer casing; Kudu, a hardware studio that helped with internal hardware; and Karl Sadler, an independent sound designer who produced idiosyncratic sounds for the ball.

Kids are more honest and upfront with their testing feedback than adults are

But again, what sets Hackaball apart from other learning apps—specifically learn-to-code games—is that it encourages both imaginative and physical play, prying children away from screens. Learning to code transforms from a sedentary activity into an active one.

Yet another perk of the Hackaball is the way that it broadens kids’ understanding of the changing relationship between the digital and physical worlds. If all of the projections are to be believed, soon the environments we move through each day will be riddled with sensors and connected products working in congress to make our lives (seem) easier. Teaching a ball to do tricks using an app is a worthy foray into this strange future world.

“It’s interesting that many children grow up not understanding that there is a clear divide between physical and digital products,” Owen says. “We hope Hackaball will be a toy that makes sense as a bridge between these two types of products.”

So what happens when kids can hack physical play? All kinds of awesomeness.

post authorJosh Tyson

Josh Tyson, Josh Tyson is the co-author of the first bestselling book about conversational AI, Age of Invisible Machines. He is also the Director of Creative Content at OneReach.ai and co-host of both the Invisible Machines and N9K podcasts. His writing has appeared in numerous publications over the years, including Chicago Reader, Fast Company, FLAUNT, The New York Times, Observer, SLAP, Stop Smiling, Thrasher, and Westword. 

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