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Avakai Twins

concept, industrial design, product design, design lead, product management, UX design, interaction design, branding, design research, usability validation, startup co-founding, Chief of Design

Avakai are wooden digitally enhanced dolls. They were created in response to the need of millennial parents, who love technology yet are being concerned about an excessive screen exposure of their kids. 


A wireless Bluetooth connection enables the dolls to communicate with each other offering affordances for an open ended imaginative play.

Toys were designed to support cognitive and emotional capacities during early childhood, inspired by the natural way children play. 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


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 doll 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 that there is 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, after a few seconds the doll snores as if falling asleep.



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’.


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 who was 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 at the time.

When we met, seeing our common purpose we made some workshops on our values and future vision. 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 at the beginning, 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 much need of explaining it. We held our breath and...it worked! Girls were playing 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 in a way that encouraged 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 to organize regular play sessions to continue developing our product together with kids and their care-takers. This way just with word of mouth we grew an amazing community of enthusiasts who were supporting us from the very beginning. We were observing 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:


Everyday 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. During the campaign, while visiting the big events and fairs, 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 and we got a lot of good press in magazines like FastCompany, Stylus, WIRED Japan, The Guardian, Brand Eins, Das Spielzeug, and many more.

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

Although we missed the goal by 10%, we decided to not give up and 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 to execute it:
Doing campaign at VaiKai’s friend studio in the neighbor district:

Toys in the making:

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


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 wider 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. As a consequence, 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.