A while back, our friends at industrial-design blog Core77 held a design challenge with Autism Speaks called Autism Connects, with the goal of spurring innovative product designs "to assist individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in their communications with others and, in doing so, to increase the public's understanding of this unique and growing population." The Jury Prize winner, a robotic toy called GoBug, is built around an ingenious mechanism for encouraging social teamwork: It only works if more than one kid is playing with it.
Katz and Rim describe GoBug as "a dynamic facilitator for social interaction... a fun experience, one where everyone is invited" -- not just children on the autism spectrum, but any kids, and parents and teachers too. No point in making a well-designed toy that just keeps autistic kids apart from the others, after all. But since children with ASD can often have trouble in social groups, the GoBug's main design feature is group-oriented: Kids control the behavior of the robot with Wii-like wands that only become active with multiple players, and the GoBug moves in the direction that the wands are pointing. (Play is designed to be open-ended -- the robot can be programmed with learning games or left to the kids' whims.)
"The children are rewarded for good teamwork," write Katz and Rim in their project description. "Each controller has a color ribbon running across the top. When the users? controllers are pointed in similar directions, the color ribbon turns green. If the children's remotes are pointed in opposite directions, for example, the ribbon will turn red. Additionally, when the children's controllers are pointed in similar direction, the GoBug will actually go faster -- a form of positive feedback."
Autism is a touchy subject, with many perspectives on what constitutes the disorder, or if it even is a disorder. (Some people call those of us not on the autism spectrum "neurotypicals.") Whether GoBug's emphasis on social cooperation is helpful or stifling is up for debate, but Katz and Rim created a thoughtfully designed solution that encourages the kinds of sensory and motor interactions that many autistic people struggle with. And if it just turns out to be fun to play with -- well, that's the main point in the end anyway, isn't it?