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Avakai Twins


concept, industrial design, product management, UX / interaction design, design lead, product management, branding, design research, startup founding, supply chain management, Chief of Product
Avakai are wooden, digitally connected dolls. They were created in response to the need of millennial parents, who love technology yet are concerned about their kids' excessive screen exposure. 


Dolls were designed to support cognitive and emotional capacities during early childhood, inspired by how children play. I wanted to combine two toy worlds that previously seemed incompatible - offering open-ended, tactile, natural play with computing sensor technology. Here is extensive scientific research completed by Dr. Dylan Yamada Rice (RCA) to investigate the design and use of Avakai, which findings validate my design intentions.  

Because the dolls are so simple, there’s no limit to how they can be used.


The Guardian


A wireless Bluetooth connection enables the dolls to communicate with each other, offering affordances for open-ended imaginative play. We explored many different features of the dolls. Here are just a few examples of user stories:
Kids can express and share how they feel with color and singing sounds.

While gently stroked, the light in the doll’s body changes color. When tapped, the cutie plays musical notes.



Now a child can send the color and sing a musical note to another doll by ‘hugging’ it.
The blinking light on another doll signals an emotive message awaiting. When the doll is picked up, it reveals the color and melody together with the haptic feedback that feels like a heartbeat <3

A parent can communicate the same way from a mobile device to a doll through the accompanying app.

The closer the dolls are to each other, the stronger you can feel the heartbeat haptic feedback <3
This way, kids can play hide and seek.




When touched together, they respond with a kissing sound.
While put horizontally, the doll snores as if falling asleep after a few seconds.



No need for words here, just the universal language of the senses: touch, sight, and sound.


Babyologie


Avakai accompanying App allows pairing with parent’s phone, customize settings, and updating the firmware so that the toy could “grow” with time.


Cross-device interactions - musical notes:



How it all began and some of the end-to-end process

I did an internship at my college friend’s father’s wooden toy factory, and I fell in love with this traditional craftsmanship. At the same time, I got passionate about new technologies and media, exploring them while studying Interface Cultures Programme at Linz Art University. I started to dream about combining what’s best of those two seemingly separated domains.

Classical wooden horse from the toy factory where I made my internship:

Soon enough, a friend of mine introduced me to someone sharing my dream. Matas from Berlin, a father of two young daughters and a former SoundCloud founding team member, was about to start a new venture to build tech toys better than what was on the market.

We did some workshops on our values and future vision when we met to see our common purpose. Feeling a good match, we decided to found a kid tech startup together, and that’s how VaiKai (Lithuanian children) came to life.
Having no funds initially, we attracted advisors working previously at IDEO, Toca Boca, FitBit, and Lego.

Getting into the ideation phase with my co-founder:

Emphasizing the developmental needs of the end-users, which are the young children, we defined the following design principles:
  • kids in control
  • open-ended play
  • involving physical activity
  • igniting imagination
  • sensory-rich
  • non-obtrusive
  • screen-less
  • quality material
  • organic, intuitive experience

Bang Bang Design for VaiKai based on our values - imagining a child playing with tech:

We made the prototype in 48h and immediately gave it to kids without explaining it. We held our breath, and...it worked! Girls played for a few hours, just changing the roles and coming up with their scenarios, having tons of fun!

The idea was to take the hide-and-seek/treasure hunt game and enhance it digitally so that kids could get a physical sense of connectivity, making invisible visible. In two days, we made a prototype on iPad acting as a space scanner, giving visual and sound feedback for the proximity of a customizable round character with some treasure inside, hidden by one of the players.

First Prototype made with the use of iPad worked just perfectly:

These white balls were made to encourage kids to create their characters with various wooden components. They were used in the game being hidden with some treasure inside:

From that exciting moment, we started organizing regular play sessions to continue developing our product with kids and their care-takers. This way, just with word of mouth, we grew a fantastic community of enthusiasts supporting us from the very beginning. We observed children playing, and we’d take it back to the product, prototyping new ideas, testing and validating them. 
Connected companions concept - first sketch:

It made its way through many concepts to the final version:

Craftsman from Poland doing his magic on a lathe machine :
UX, interactions, and everything beyond:

Mapping affordances for play experience:

One of the first play sessions, here with little Liam and his dad:


Daily standups, countless workshops, planning, and retrospections in our Toy Workshop:




Avakai are meant to connect children through technology, not isolate them.


Inventorspot


Play sessions became a regular part of the design process: 





Some of our little testers made this hat and this bag, especially for Avakai doll *^.^*

Preparing production golden samples at the VaiKai Toy Workshop in Berlin:





Testing for certifications:

In the meantime, together with our visual designers, we developed the VaiKai language, always inspired by kids from our growing community. One could recognize some of the elements made by Avakai little fans:




We were blown away - when we saw this elephant created by my co-founder’s daughter..!
The face of a doll became a face of a company, naturally. Stickers were always in high demand:

To fund the first production, we decided to go with Kickstarter. While visiting the significant events and fairs during the campaign, we took every opportunity to demonstrate Avakai Twins, which happened hundreds of times with kids and grown-up enthusiasts, who became our early adopters and supporters.




One look at the Avakai toys, and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were anything more than solid wood dolls. But with a little more inquiry, you discover something far deeper, engaging, and highly considered.


House and Leisure



We reached over 4000 followers on Facebook organically. We got a lot of good press in magazines like FastCompany, Stylus, WIRED Japan, The Guardian, Brand Eins, Das Spielzeug, and many others more.

Photo by Jens Passoth, for Jakob Vicari‘s article at Brand Eins:

Although we missed the goal by 10%, we decided not to give up. Using our angel investor’s fund, we produced a small batch of 400 dolls that we’ve pre-sold directly through our website.
The biggest challenge for me was producing this complex hardware product roadmaps and executing it:
Doing campaign at VaiKai’s friend studio in the neighbor district:

Toys in the making:

We did the final assembly and quality check in our Toy Workshop in Berlin, with the help of generous friends and family. Just before Christmas, dolls have reached our customers in over 30 countries worldwide.


Avakai dolls were among the first connected products that received Trustable Technology Mark - a ThingsCon initiative with the support of the Mozilla Foundation, led by Peter Bihr. The project aimed to empower consumers to make informed decisions & to enable companies to prove their connected products are trustworthy.

“I was incredibly psyched when I received my VaiKai Companion doll, and it already shipped with the Trustmark!” - Happy Fan.

VaiKai hosted a Short Term Scientific Mission as part of the broader COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action IS1410 on The digital literacy and multimodal practices for young children (DigiLitEY)’ as an industry partner, resulting in several scientific publications that are valuable for policymakers and industry, some of which are listed below: 


  • Mascheroni, Giovanna & Holloway, Donell & Eds,. (2017). The Internet of Toys: A report on media and social discourses around young children and IoToys. DigiLitEY. !. 10.13140/RG.2.2.18100.35206. The aim of this report is therefore twofold. First, we aim to provide a critical introduction to the Internet of Toys, by setting its conceptual boundaries and discussing the theoretical, methodological, and policy challenges it raises. Second, we aim to report on the findings of a small comparative project we have carried out as part of the activities of Working Group 4 of the COST Action DigiLitEY. At this stage, Internet-connected toys are an emerging market, thus making empirical research on their appropriation and use in the everyday lives of children and their families difficult. Consequently, and to understand whether and how IoToys have entered play discourses, we examine the discursive environment of smart toys, i.e. its representations in media commentaries and commercial advertisements.

  • Yamada-Rice, D. (2018) Designing Play: young children’s play and communication practices in relation to designers’ intentions for their toy. Global Studies of Childhood, Vol.8, No.1. p. 5-22. This article looks at the way in which changes in technology, as well as wider social and cultural patterns, bring about new materials in the landscape of young children’s communication practices and play. This is done in relation to a new form of screen-less digital toy known as Avakai. Avakai are a set of digitally interactive wooden dolls that combine set movements and sounds. The study had two parts that focused first on the toy’s design and second on how it was used in combined play and communication practices by seven 4- to 6-year-olds. This was to ascertain the extent to which the design and children’s use aligned. Data were gathered through conversations and email exchanges with the toy designers and observations of the children’s play and communication practices with the toy. All data were transcribed and analysed using thematic analysis. Three key findings are discussed in relation to the alignment of these two areas: (1) children’s customisation of the toy design, (2) designing to produce emotional narratives in play and (3) the use of a compartment in the toy’s base. Each finding is described in relation to the designers’ backgrounds and intentions for the toy, and then the children’s use in terms of play and communication. In doing so, the extent to which the child and the toy’s design influenced play and communication practices is shown. These findings make a contribution to the field of materialities in young children’s communication practices when playing. This is ever important given the evolving speed of new materials and technologies for play and communication. In particular to how non-visual modes of communication are foregrounded in the absence of screens. In addition, it adds to prior research that has taken an object ethnographic approach by uniquely considering the toy in relation to primary data about the toy designers’ backgrounds and design decisions rather than from what can be inferred from the object.