Tangible Games workshop

A few weeks ago we conducted a short lab on tangible games in the context of the Families Share’s Friday MiniLabs. Families Share is a Horizon 2020 project that advocates for social innovation in the difficult context of work/life balance, capitalizing on neighbors and citizens’ networks to share tasks, time and skills for childcare. Here in Trento, the living lab focuses on the organizational context and enables childcare activities with the voluntary participation of employees at work. In this context, four Friday MiniLabs were held on Friday afternoon and co-organized by the employees of Fondazione Bruno Kessler in Trento, Italy. Each lab had a specific theme that valued the skills and expertise of the researchers participating with their time: today, I am talking about the lab on Tangible Games for WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment).

WEEE is a directive by the European Union designating responsible collection, recycling and recovery procedures for electronic waste.

The lab was held in partnership with InnoWEEE, a project funded by EIT Climate-KIC that puts together teachers, children, and their families to collect electric and electronic devices and learn together how to recycle, reduce and reuse them in a resource efficient process. During the lab, we asked the children to play and help us to test a tangible device designed by Andrzej Rzeszotarski (a brilliant student from Poland who spent his undergraduate internship with us), and developed with the help of i3 and E3DA*.

The magic wand

In its current version, the prototype is a tangible user interface that helps children to classify their electronic devices, but it can potentially be extended to foster learning and reasoning on any type of classification and categorization task. It consists of a magic wand and twelve polystyrene placeholders. Four question placeholders represent each dimension of the classification:

  • Integrity: is the object whole? Or does it have any broken parts?
  • Composition: is the object a unique piece? Or is it made of more than one element?
  • Battery: does the object work with a battery or not?
  • Functioning: does the object work properly? Or is it unable to function properly?

In the context of WEEE, these questions help to decide the right way to dispose of an object, i.e. whether it should be recycled, repaired and resold, or given to charities as it is. For each dimension, two placeholders represent the two possible answers (so there are 4*2=8 answer placeholders). The placeholders are designed as pieces of a puzzle, so children can physically play & place the pieces together as they reason on the questions and answer them. Once they have placed all the pieces together, they take the magic wand and place it over the answers. The placeholders and the magic wand are empowered by BLE proximity technology, so the magic wand collects the answers and sends them to the classification manager software on a computer, where the correct classification has previously been entered, and sends auditory feedback for the correct or wrong answer. When the classification is done and correct, another sound from the magic wand provides appropriate feedback:

Warning. Technical language ahead. Credits: Alex Cappelletti and Davide Giovannelli.

The system consists of two components: an input/output device ( I/O IF) and the application logic. The I/O IF is made of a single board computer and a portable NFC Reader, which are connected by means of a Bluetooth rfcomm serial port, flexible and reliable enough for the task at hand. The data acquired by the NFC Reader is encapsulated in a message and transmitted to an MQTT broker. Meanwhile, the application logic listens to incoming messages from the MQTT broker. So, when the I/O sends a message, the application logic receives and elaborates it. If it’s required by the logic, the application returns a response to the I/O IF, which performs the required action (i.e., a LED turns on).

This solutions employs standard IoT protocols – MQTT and HTTPand supports cloud deployments.

For those like me who do not eat MQTT, raspberry pi, NFCs and RFIDs for breakfast, suffice it to say that:

It’s flexible. It’s reliable.
It works both on cloud servers and local networks.

How the workshop worked

To test the magic wand and see whether the tangible feature provided a different user experience for the children, we compared it with a GUI (Graphical User Interface) that resembled all the features of the tangible device except that it was operated on a touchscreen. To allow all the children to try both, we used a counterbalanced design: the children divided into two groups, one starting to explore with the magic wand and the other with the GUI. For each group, we provided three different objects that could be classified along the four dimensions I mentioned above, so that every child had a chance to classify one object with each device. The children took turns taking one object, observing it, discussing its features and then classifying it. When the groups classified all the objects, they switched to try the other device.

Of course this was a preliminary and veeery relaxed test that involved only six children, so we just had a hint on the dimensions we were interested in, taking notes and qualitative observation during the interaction. We were interested not only in how the individual user experience may have been different with the two systems, but also whether the device provided a different social user experience, affecting for instance role taking.

I don’t want to spoil the results yet, since Andrzej has a thesis to write 🙂 and possibly a short paper too, but here’s a few things I observed:

  • Overall, the children learnt quickly to use both devices, although there were a few interaction issues that may be related to the affordances of the systems and could lead to a partial redesign of the flow.
  • I also noted different interaction patterns with the two systems, both individual and regarding role taking.

In the meantime, Andrzej is continuing to explore the patterns of use of the magic wand in Poland, conducting focus groups with teachers. I’m eager to see what the results will be!

Glossary
IoT: Internet of Things
MQTT: (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) A lightweight messaging protocol for small sensors and mobile devices, optimized for high-latency or unreliable networks
NFC: Near Field Communication
RFID: Radio Frequency Identification
Led: Light emitter diode

*This project is a collaboration between Andrzej Rzeszotarski, i3 and E3DA.

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