Innovation & Design

Super Design Powers, Activate!


Slide Show >>As a child, I was always fascinated with telepathy. I had these bracelets, and in my imagination, I believed I had superhero powers, including telepathy. Once I shattered a glass window, and my aunt and grandmother ran to treat my cut arm. I boldly told them that it didn't hurt because I was Wonder Woman.

O.K., I didn't grow up to be Wonder Woman. Instead, I'm a recently hired interactive designer for BusinessWeek.com. Instead of having superhero powers, I've been trying to use my creative powers as a designer to develop a toy for girls ages 10 to 14 that lets them to use their imagination to create fantastic adventures.

It all started in my second semester at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, where I enrolled in a course in toy design. I wanted experience designing products that are interactive. What really excited me about the class was the requirement that you design and develop a prototype that designers from Mattel (MAT) would critique.

OCHIE'S CUBE. My ideas came together in a toy I called Sasu Friendship Bracelets. I wanted to interest girls in various technologies, but present them in a playful way. The bracelets allow kids to covertly communicate with each other using light patterns. There are a number of these patterns to which kids can assign meaning, creating their own vernacular. For example, a pulsing light pattern can mean love. These coded messages—similar to Morse code—can be sent wirelessly to your friends' bracelets (distance: about 600 feet).

In addition, the bracelets can lock or unlock Ochie's Cube, a security box for safeguarding your belongings, like a diary. A visual light "alarm" signals when someone has accessed it without permission.

Near the end of the course, Mattel's designers reviewed my prototype of the bracelet and box. The designers made several points, including that I should define meanings for the light patterns because otherwise girls would be confused. But I felt that underestimates the capabilities of tweens. I tested the bracelets with two 11-year-old girls at a slumber party, and they loved them. One girl was able to explain to her friend the instruction of the bracelet and attributed her own meaning to the light patterns.

REALIZING THE VISION. For now, I'm not sure what to make of Mattel's advice. What I did gain is real-world experience, though. A designer typically works with one phase of the production process. I was able to see this project from start to finish (research, design, development, and production). I collaborated with an engineer, which is as close to real experience as I could get without a job. And I thoroughly enjoyed the process of coming up with an idea, experimenting with potential designs, and creating an emotional link with the technology.

Sasu Friendship Bracelets won't be on retailer shelves anytime soon—and may never be. But the experience and the knowledge I have gained have me excited to continue developing the project (on my own time), as well as a companion Web site and video game. Whatever direction the project takes, the things I learned from the development process are priceless.

Click here for the slide show


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