Child’s AI Companion

A project looking to create an educational toy for nursery children aged 2.5 to 4 years, culminating in a robotic dog designed to provide companionship and empathy building skills.

The dog, designed to resemble the function of a pet to an age group unsuited to live animals, is tied into the IBM Watson API to respond intelligently to the child’s actions, mimicking a real pet. Within my high school, this project was the first and only SQA Higher Product design assignment to reach 100% in grading.

initial ideas sketches
The six initial ideas, some focusing on empathy building, some on cognitive development and some on physical development.

The target age group possess a challenge given they are so young, this outcome aimed to stimulate social and empathetic skills, getting them to play and connect with something that, to their eyes, is a real animal but without the risk or spontaneity of having live pets in the vicinity.

a model of the dog made from polymorph plastic
An early sketch model to judge the proportions of the dog. After this it was decided to make more elements geometric for fear of negatively blurring the distinction between the tech dog and real animals in the child’s mind.

The Dog would function full time in the context of a nursery school or play centre, randomising its behaviour (in a controlled scope) and reacting to environmental stimulus. Through the Watson API, it is sensitive to the behaviours of young children, reacting to their needs, for instance, backing off and acting docile if they express fear, coming to comfort if they look sad, excited during play.

technical details page
Some internal technical development to boost durability and implement safety features.

Control interfacing would be done through a custom computer software to customise behaviours, activate games, map the play area and ignore certain people should a particular child take exception to it.

The dog is short, geometric and robust, moving on protected wheels at the base of the legs, the dog can take a considerable amount of abuse whilst being possible to undergo repairs.

a sketch of the screen construction
In hind sight, more research and development could have been spent on the ‘analogue’ functions of the dog rather than tangents such as this screen for playing games.

This project definitely veered into territory that at the time I was unfamiliar with, that being an area of psychology / therapeutic design and speculative territories about our future relation with technology.

If I were to do this project today, I would like to not get as hung up as I was on the physical aspects of the design, for example, the touch screen game interface that was unnecessary and far beyond the comprehension of the target age group. More attention could have been payed to the beneficial (or otherwise) ways we interact with animals and what core empathy skills a child of that age could benefit from boosting.

CCV Interface

A very early project to engineer a desk table with built in computer interface extension.

This project, developed over the summer of 2013, was one of the first ever long-form, self-directed projects I undertook. A small, movable work table with a reflected PC display extension and touch capability. It was built on the open source software Community Core Vision (CCV).

community core vision software
The main interface for CCV, on the left is the raw infrared image, the right shows the filtered image and registered touch points.

CCV is an open source software designed to interpolate data from an infra-red camera for use in this kind of project. The above image shows data from an experiment before the LED arrays were even introduced (i.e. working only with ambient IR light), already the software can detect ‘clicks’.

a disassembled and modified webcam
The final camera assembly after modification.

The device works by flooding the display sheet of polymethacrylate with strips of infra-red light via IR LED arrays. A small standard webcam is housed inside, modified to block visible light and pick up IR radiation. The IR light is even throughout the sheet until something comes into contact with the surface, at which point light deflects into the camera. The camera is in continuous use by the CCV software.

testing a prototype for the ccv table
Throughout development and testing, several mock-ups were setup to simulate different conditions such as the amount of outside light pollution and camera / projector distance tolerances.

To design the casing, I created a minimalist but aesthetic form, inspired by the set design of one of the Star Trek movies. The display is created by linear setup of a projector reflecting off a mirror. The table has to encase the projector reflection assembly and camera with minimal light bleeding in so avoiding a ‘blocky’ aesthetic was a challenge.

an exploded view of the components
The exploded CAD model, designed as a reference for the real-world build.

A full assembly was designed with a wooden frame clad in sections of polymethacrylate to give a smooth aesthetic in line with trends at the time. The table was designed with home / workshop manufacture in mind; I did intend to make it only opting not to due to cost and storage constraints.

In reflection I realised that I had, for the longest time, brushed away this project because of a restrictive mindset I was in at the time; this has no particularly beautiful renders or SQA-style presentation sheets. However, on closer analysis, I am very satisfied with how this project came out; the design was ready for manufacture, the projector camera assembly was working, acting as a proof of concept, and much was learned about electronics, interface software and engineering techniques which would serve useful later on.