A polar bear is sweating on a floating ice cap. The bear needs help, but tapping the screen—like a child might for any other iPad game—does nothing. So instead, she looks to her series of wooden toys. One senses temperature, another light. The child immediately begins to concoct a plan. She'll stick the temperature toy into the fridge. She'll stick the light toy under a pillow.
Then, after running around the house, she'll check the iPad again. On the screen, the sun has dimmed, the temperature has dropped, and the polar bear is frosty cool again. Success!
This is the vision of Yibu, an iPad app connected to a series of playful wooden sensors, developed by FrogLabs Shanghai. It’s a working concept that’s designed to encourage kids to explore their environment, while at the same time rethinking the role of sensors—such as Fitbits or Nest cameras—in our lives, suggesting that they could become something more than mere quantified graphs of our behavior.
"Sensors around the home are always hidden, looking over you, in a corner. Or they’re a black thing with a red light," says Simone Rebaudengo, senior interaction designer at Frog. "I think adults are so jaded already with smartphones and connectivity that it was interesting to start from scratch. What if we made something for kids? Let’s sit with the positive vibe instead of criticizing what sensors are at the moment."
Yibu’s hardware consists of five wooden toys, sensing light, sound, direction, temperature, and wind. While they’re stuffed with electronics, you’d never know it, as they were actually developed in conjunction with a wooden toymaker in Shanghai. The result is a classic, analog-feeling toy that invites you to interact with it—minus the buttons or LEDs.
"[To design] the temperature sensor, we thought more about what type of physical interaction you might have with it," Rebaudengo says. "If you want to make something warmer, you might hold it in your hands or roll it in your hands. Or to make fire with a wooden stick, it could theoretically create friction to make heat. So the shape we designed is inviting this idea of holding it with your hands in two arms or holding it closer to your body."
Meanwhile, the software tells a nonlinear story—so instead of taking a child through some prescribed story and forcing them to react, the polar bear finds herself in various situations that often mirror the child’s own environment. If it’s raining where a child is playing, it may be raining in the game, too. To solve problems for the polar bear, the child has to use the toys alone or in combination. But crucially, the solutions occur in the real world, not the digital one.
"It’s funny, because we’re kind of tricking kids to use the iPad to start the game, but most of the game takes place outside the iPad," Rebaudengo says. "It’s a tricky way to convince them to not always be attached to screens. We’re assholes, I guess."
"Assholes" may be overstating it, but it's true that there’s no grand technical reason that Yibu needs separate sensors at all. The iPad can already sense light, or sound, or direction completely on its own. But by building the sensors out as separate toys, they're inviting the child to put down the device and explore. And while Frog has no plans to take Yibu into production, it's easy to see how its lessons could inform our greater thinking on screens and sensors to come. If we rethink our relationship to the quantified surveillance mentality of modern sensor systems, maybe the Internet of Things won't feel so much as though we're being controlled by the things.
"We thought at some point, when these sensors are used for a game, they could become more accessible home monitors," Rebaudengo says. "If you think about Toy Story as a metaphor, it’s about what happens when the toys aren’t being played with."