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Playtrack Bootcamp: Technology, toys and the future of play

The marriage of digital and physical play

Info about event


Monday 9 September 2019,  at 09:00 - 16:00


IMC Meeting Room, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, Building 1483-312, 8000 Aarhus


Andreas Lieberoth

Wi-fi enabled dolls. Console games requiring physical action figures to use different characters in the game world. Programming toys hope to seed computational thinking and the joy of coding in stil younger and younger kids. We have come a long way since toy steam engines and wind-up elephants. But how does the march towards marriage of digital and physical toys affect fun, learning, thinking and the way kids play together? What are the frontiers of play in the age of digital media, smart homes and the internet of toys?



09.00   Introduction, Andreas Lieberoth 

09.20   Historicizing High-Tech Toys: Motives and Methods, Meredith Bak

11.00   Exploring the affordances of internet-connected robotic toys, Giovanna Mascheroni

13.00   Technological transformations for and with children. Principles and methods of design-oriented research, Bieke Zaman

14.30   Boosting Creativity through Digital-Physical Play, Ludwig Maul

16.00   Goodbye




      Meredith Bak              Bieke Zaman      Giovanna Mascheroni       Ludwig Maul 
    Rutgers University             KU Leuven                Universitá Cattolica         LEGO Group
                                                                                             del Sacro Cuore 




Historicizing High-Tech Toys: Motives and Methods

Meredith Bak

Today, the market is saturated with toys that blend physical and digital play. Connected toys are made by established industry giants and new independent companies alike, and variously promise radically unprecedented ways to play and new ways to enjoy traditional play. Whether celebrating novelty or appealing to heritage, these claims all gesture to longer histories of toys and play as they imagine either breaks from or continuity with the toys that came before. Although contemporary playthings are powered by and leverage emerging technologies, they are not introduced in isolation, but are positioned within centuries-old industrial and consumer contexts. Unearthing the histories that are implicitly and explicitly evoked by today’s tech toys enables us to assess their capabilities, risks, and opportunities with more nuance.

This talk has two primary aims. The first is to make the case for considering the Internet of Toys within a longer historical perspective. Drawing on work in several fields, including material culture studies, media archaeology, and childhood studies, the talk will explore the distinct ways that historical inquiry can complement and enrich ongoing empirical research involving children’s technologized play in the twenty-first century. It argues for the utility of “the excavation of manifold pasts…[for] generating an archaeology of possible futures.” (Elsaesser 2016, 25) Secondly, the talk will offer several methodological pathways for the study of historical toys and media apparatus, which combine visual and material culture analysis and turn to expanded archives that include sources such as patent records, advertising materials, and the toy objects themselves. This methodological toolkit will also point to ways to archive and preserve contemporary toy culture—a matter of importance, given the often ephemeral nature of many toys that house rapidly-obsolescing technologies or are considered market “failures.”

Meredith A. Bak is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on historical and contemporary children's media and toys, as well as visual and material cultures of childhood. Her work has appeared in Early Popular Visual Culture, Film History, The Moving ImageComunicazioni Sociali and The Velvet Light Trap, as well as several edited collections. Her book Playing with Vision: Optical Toys and the Emergence of Children’s Media Culture is under contract with The MIT Press. It explores the role of pre-cinematic visual media from optical toys to early pop-up books in shaping children as media spectators.

Technological transformations for and with children. Principles and methods of design-oriented research

Bieke Zaman

In defining the priorities for Horizon Europe’s Culture, Creativity and Inclusive Society, the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities calls for interdisciplinary collaborations “with scholars who are at the forefront of technological change to ensure that questions of technological transformation are connected to research on human resilience and societal needs” (The Guild, 2019, p. 4).

However, this ambition makes us wonder…

  • How do we make the connection between technological and social transformations?
  • How can we yield an in-depth understanding of the human values technologies are being designed for?
  • What does this imply if we are designing for children?
  • How can we make sure that digitization serves children’s needs?
  • How can we design for children’s online experiences when they blend with offline experiences?
  • How can we design the spaces / design for places where children’s physical play and technology intersect?

This talk takes these questions as a starting point to reflect on how we can reconcile technological and social demands during the design of new technologies in the realm of ‘the Internet of Toys’. Based on insights at the intersection between human-computer interaction research and media studies, the principles and methods to design for and with children will be discussed, including:

  • Participatory design: principles and methods
  • A systematic approach to analyze co-design outcomes
    • A posthuman approach
    • Multimodal semiotics and values-led approach

Bieke Zaman is Associate Professor (1.10.2019-present) and head of the Meaningful Interactions Lab (Mintlab, 2018-present) at the KU Leuven, Belgium.  Her research is situated at the intersection of communication sciences and Human-Computer Interaction research.  Bieke Zaman is the recipient of the KU Leuven Society Award Human Sciences 2018.  She is a Steering Committee Member of the Leuven Centre on Information and Communication Technology (LICT) and Associate Editor of the International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction. Bieke has an international reputation for her commitment to the organization of international conferences and networks, for instance being the Vice-Chair of the Children, Youth and Media Temporary Working Group of ECREA, the European Communication Research and Education Association and co-organizer of the yearly Interaction Design and Children conference.

Exploring the affordances of internet-connected robotic toys

Giovanna Mascheroni

As children’s lives are increasingly populated by smart objects—including domestic virtual assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, and internet-connected robotic toys—children’s interactions with robots have become a prominent object of research for different disciplines.  Most research in the field draws on a developmental psychological framework and toolkit – experimental studies focusing on the cognitive, emotional and moral consequences of interactions with robots for developmentally typical children (Peter, 2017). In this presentation, I will draw on the sociology and anthropology of media in order to propose a different theoretical framework and a different methodological approach to investigate children’s everyday practices of engagement with robots, and meaning-making practices in the domestic environment through a combination of qualitative methods—interviews, observations, visual materials. The focus of attention is also distinct: not so much on the developmental effects of child-robot interaction but, rather, children’s situated practices of engagement with robotic toys, and the robotic literacies that emerge from such interactions. Robotic connected toys are unsettling and remaking communicative practices and genres thus generating the need for new media literacies. Social robots, in particular, require literacies that help users understand and interact with these technologies. For instance, understanding that social robots are embodied learners (or that robots need teaching); that social robots express emotions through face, posture, timing of motion, and prosody of speech (or the way robots express themselves); or that social robots hear, see and sense differently via motion sensors, audio, camera/video (or that they perceive you in limited ways) are new social robot-based literacies relevant to our children’s future educational and social world. Drawing on the Italian data from a four country qualitative research (Australia, Belgium, Italy and the UK)* carried out with children aged 8-to-10-years-old, this presentation aims to contribute to the study of children’s interaction with robotic internet-connected toys both empirically and theoretically. More precisely, it proposes the notion of “robotic literacies” to refer to the complex set of practices, competences and meanings that emerge as children and robotic toys interact. The concept of robotic literacies is the outcome of an approach to internet-connected robotic toys that reflects the shift from the notion of affordances as affordances-per-se to the concept of “affordances-in-practice” (Costa, 2018)  - that is, as the ongoing and always situated enactments of the properties of technological artefacts through practices of use-in-context,  rather than intrinsic properties of technologies that bear homogenous and generalised effects. Relevant here is also the notion of digital materialities (Pink et al., 2016), and the acknowledgement that interaction with social robots is entails interaction with the materiality of the embodied, physical toy along with the interaction with the digital materiality of the app (Mascheroni & Holloway, 2019). The aim of the presentation is therefore three-fold: 1) it will present the conceptual framework that informed our research; 2) it will discuss how a focus on digital materialities and affordances -in-practices translates into methods – namely into a combination of discourse and observational methods, and in a participatory research design; and 3) it will illustrate the notion of robotic literacies through the preliminary findings of our study. More specifically, it will show how children enact, negotiate and/or resist the affordances of Cozmo – identified as its liveliness, affective stickiness (Berriman & Mascheroni, 2018), programmability and hackability – and in so doing, make sense of the robot’s agency, thus developing their robot literacies.

Keywords: social robots, Internet of Toys, children, affordances-in-practice, robot literacies, domestication

* This research is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme (Project: DP180103922). Research for this project is based in Australia (CI Donell Holloway and CI Lelia Green), United Kingdom (PI Jackie Marsh), Italy (PI Giovanna Mascheroni) and Belgium (PI Bieke Zaman).

Giovanna Mascheroni holds a PhD in Sociology and is a Senior Lecturer of Sociology of Media and Communications in the Department of Communication, Università Cattolica of Milan. She is part of the management team of EU Kids Online, has coordinated the Net Children Go Mobile project in 2012-2014, and was co-Chair of WG4 of the COST Action DigiLitEY (2015-2019). Her work focuses on the social shaping and the social consequences of the internet, mobile media and Internet of Things and Toys for children and young people. She has authored over 50 refereed journal articles and book chapters on online risks and opportunities, datafication and its implications for digital citizenship. With Donell Holloway, she has edited the book The Internet of Toys: Practices, Affordances and the Political Economy of Children’s Smart Play (Palgrave, 2019).

Boosting Creativity through Digital-Physical Play

Ludwig Maul


When done right, a creative process has the power to bring pride of creation to the involved users and boost their creative confidence. For kids in the 21st century this is a crucial skill to develop on a journey to becoming the innovators of the future. Well-designed play experiences can give just the right amount of guidance and at the same time also allow kids to reach goals with unique creations. With the rise of digital technology, new possibilities emerge: If using digital technology such as smart phones and tablets for passive activities, this might take time away from creative play. But if leveraging digital technology to enhance active and creative play activities, engaging experiences can be designed to boost skill building and help kids learn collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. In this talk, examples are shown for how digital and physical play are bridged to nurture kids’ inherent curiosity and imagination based on an established system in play.

Ludwig Maul is a Senior Experience Designer at LEGO’s Center for Interactive Play. His mission is to bring toys to life through technology-enabled experiences like connectivity and augmented reality. Ludwig has a background in engineering and technical management and did his PhD at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology on the human centered design of a community ideation platform. His passion is to create experiences that promote creativity. He draws from 3 years in Porsche’s innovation management department where he was responsible for open innovation projects with students and cross-industry partners. He also looks back at 4 years in Daimler’s society and technology research and Silicon Valley and corporate strategy department in Germany, in which he organized design thinking workshops, open spaces, hackathons and crowd ideation challenges. He has published several peer reviewed papers about the role of motivation in a creative process, cross-industry innovation, human centered design for ideation communities and digital culture and creativity. Today, his focus is designing and testing for engaging and creative user journeys in digital-physical play experiences.