I first ran into Qing and Danielle through the CSED (computer science education) events put on by the main branch of the Boulder Public Library. We both thought the other was doing really cool things. It was natural for us to get together as Build A Robot K12 was looking for unique curriculum and experiences for their after school students and Toys2Life was looking for kids to try out new features and new approaches to our creator tools. We were evolving our tools to allow not just professional writers and voice actors to make talking toys, but to allow the kids themselves to create talking toys as well.
Excited to collaborate, I volunteered a couple of workshops and I brought in some radio medallion kits and the kids used the new software to create some characters. We talked a bit about how to make your voice acting interesting and how to write characters that would be compelling and interact well with other characters using the dialog generator algorithms. I was impressed not only by the tech savvy of the mostly-mid-school-age kids in the workshop, but by the community they had developed after taking various after school classes together. They seemed a perfect group for the Toys2Life experience as they were fairly technically sophisticated for their age, but still un-self-conscious and young enough to find physical toys cool to play with.
In summer of 2020, my partner Bird Marathe, who teaches creative writing classes at CU, and I hosted a summer camp at Build a Robot K12 online and later morphed it into a club to allow the kids to continue on working on their characters and learning more about the system. The kids have really enjoyed the club. Six months in and almost all of the original kids are still coming and we have been adding more.
Bird does a great job of creating writing challenges and setting up additional things we can do with the system. We do new dialog models and add new tags that the dialog generating algorithm can use for new types of interactions specific to the kids characters. We even used the fully scripted mode of the system and did a whole video where the kids paired up and wrote scenes for their characters to act out. They drew maps programmed up in Scratch and wrote theme music for the band that played in their fictional town of Purple Shore. Their video is on youtube
With COVID, we couldn’t get the kids toys together to physically “talk” to one another, so we used the avatars they had picked out for their characters on the screen. We added some features to the software to allow them to set up images they drew as backgrounds in front of which their avatars could talk to create “sets” for the movie. It made it hit home that much of what we were doing was pushing the fun of puppetry into the world of high tech.
Additionally with COVID Build A Robot K12 was moving everything rapidly online. This brought on a number of technical challenges for their web infrastructure. I took on the CTO and advisory role at Build A Robot K12 to help them with their migration. It has been going well thus far.
Hopefully the new infrastructure will be in place soon and Toys2Life can use some of the community sharing platform pieces we are envisioning. It is tough taking the camaraderie kids have developed in person and translating it to an online interaction platform. Figuring out how to maintain, moderate, and curate a functioning online interaction community for kids could be a huge boost in this country. I think the spectrum of Build A Robot K12 classes could be a great shared interest pool to do that around. Many who have tried online communities for kids have either had to make things so locked down that it isn’t fun or engaging for kids, or they are open and pretending they don’t have significant under 13 year olds in a terrible social environment. But Build A Robot K12 has the seeds of a good community already that could do great things if spread more widely into the great wild online.
To learn more about our Toys2Life course, please visit our course page.