Instead of using keyboards, mice and screens to interface with digital technology, young children and the elderly are delightfully using stuffed toys and plants developed at Texas A&M’s Department of Visualization.
“We are providing more natural interactions between people and technology through alternative materials for computing,” said Jinsil Hwaryoung Seo, assistant professor of visualization.
“If you look at nature, it’s not made out of hard, rectangular shapes like mobile devices or keyboards,” she said. “These shapes and the materials they’re made of are convenient for manufacturers because they are durable, but we want to make technology more approachable, especially to young children and the elderly,” she said.
Seo and graduate and undergraduate visualization students have formed the Soft Interaction Group to create soft toys and interactive installations that integrate physical and digital experiences.
One of the group’s creations, “Touchology,” is a series of real and artificial plants that, when touched, produce sounds of running water or bird songs from electronic components in their bases. One installation in the “Touchology” series is a set of grasslike fiber optic strands that respond to touch by displaying lighting patterns on the tips of the fibers.
“We took the plants to a local nursing home, and the residents just loved them,” Seo said. “The nursing home activity director said residents were smiling the entire time they interacted with the plants, and that they had never reacted so positively to something brought to the facility.”
The “Touchology” plants are meditative, relaxing and bring nature to elderly people who aren’t able to garden anymore, said Seo, who created the plants with Annie Sungkajun, a Master of Science in Visualization student.
“Activating the sounds in ‘Touchology’ plants provides a little bit of interaction and physical activity, even if it’s in a really limited environment,” said Seo.
Further development of the concept, she said, could include a social component that enables a nursing home resident to exchange voice messages with friends or family.
“Stampies,” another interactive item developed by Seo’s group, are soft, colorful toys made of wool felt, thread and fabric that challenges toddlers’ mental and motor skill abilities when used to interact with a tablet application.
Project collaborators also developed pieces that are a hit with autistic youngsters who sometimes resist social touching or refrain from touching objects that, based on their appearance, seem threatening.
During a November 2014 Autism Awareness Family Celebration at the Dallas Museum of Art, children played with toys created by Seo, Sungkajun and Pavithra Aravindan, another Master of Science in Visualization student.
“A cat pillow that glowed with embedded LED lights, vibrated gently and made simple sounds when it was touched was very popular,” said Seo. “Kids touched it, hugged it and wanted to take it home with them.”
Interactions with the cat pillow and toys like it could be a boon to autistic children’s development.
“Making social touch more rewarding early in development might further help autistic children learn social skills, since learning is heavily dependent on pleasure,” said Time magazine’s Maia Szalavitz in an article about autism. “And, because later development relies on early experience, such a strategy could improve the children’s overall development.”
Jinsil Hwaryoung Seo