Technology Will Save Us: The magic behind designing a wearable kids will love

We talk to CEO Bethany Koby at the kids tech startup's Hackney HQ
The magic of Technology Will Save Us

I'm in Hackney, North London, shaking a prototype Mover, side to side, in what feels like really fast circles, but I can't get it to light up rainbow. This mode for the make-it-yourself kids wearable, currently killing it on Kickstarter, has been programmed to light up red then pink then rainbow to reward the wearer for shaking it as fast as they can. I can't get past red and that's not the only reason any self respecting eight year old would poke fun at me during my tour of the Technology Will Save Us studios.

Because I'm an adult and adults don't spend enough time playing or moving. What stupid idiots! The $65 Mover Kit, for kids eight and up, comes from the learning obsessed startup behind toys and tools like the DIY Gamer Kit and the BBC micro:bit. TWSU has shipped over 70,000 kits, all conceived and assembled on one quiet London street, and raised £1.2m in investment at the end of 2015. When Wareable visits, we interrupt the making of Thirsty Plant Kit moisture sensors for an upcoming workshop which looks like wonderfully messy work.

Read this: #Trending - Imagination expanding wearables for kids

What's most exciting about the new Mover Kit is that it doesn't just encourage kids to build and code. The idea is that as kids program the wearable to react to different movement inputs, the costumes and inventions and games they come up with will keep their imaginations, problem solving abilities and bodies all healthy and humming.

"Designing wearables and kits for kids is so different from designing for adults," says CEO Bethany Koby who co-founded the company with her husband Daniel Hirschmann. "Because with adults, you're designing for utility. If you think of big businesses, the ones that we respect in the toy world, like Lego, there's a reason why they've been around for 85 years. Because they are about some universal principles that help kids to be kids. Forcing stuff on them will never work. Eventually kids will just do what they want to do."

Make, move, invent

The Kickstarter campaign has now sailed over the initial $50,o00 target and TWSU has announced its first stretch goal: if the campaign reaches $75,000, its Make platform, which kids use to program how and when the Mover's eight LED lights will respond, will launch with eight modes to get everyone started. (The Mover itself can hold three modes at once). The campaign runs until 10 June so something tells us we'll see at least one more stretch goal by then.

The Technology Will Save Us team, now 28 strong, began researching wearable tech for kids two years ago but picked up the project in earnest in September 2015. Amongst the ideas discarded in the early stages, a 'small data' visualisation wearable - Koby says "it was a tracker" like tracker is a dirty word - and one form factor which used 12 LEDs and looked as though it should behave like a watch.

"At a Teen Tech workshop, we gave ten to sixteen year olds some prototypes, no instructions, just had them play with them," she says. "One boy was convinced that when he moved and it changed colours, it was telling him the gender of different people: 'It's helping me find girls, right?' What that told us what that if it's wearable, responsive and open ended, kids will project things onto it, they will invent and create."

In home testing and beyond, TWSU found lots more ideas from kids and parents, based more around what the Mover Kit's accelerometer, magnetometer and LEDs, which all takes just 15 minutes to put together, can do. The common thread is moving more - running, jumping, shaking, playing.

For starters, a simple bike light, an obstacle course with a colour for each level, a treasure hunt that uses the compass. Or else an Iron Man costume that glows all red when you run, a red and blue siren for a remote control car, a toothbrush trainer that glows rainbow colours (ah, the elusive rainbow) once two minutes is up. "The point was discovery through experimentation. Kids are like 'Can I wear it as a headband? Can I put it on my tutu?' What we started to see was these cycles of play - make, move, invent. That's what you want from a toy."

As the CEO points out, it's not augmented reality, it's reality, using real bodies and real spaces to create outputs. The potential for pranks, another pastime adults should devote more mental energy to, is also strong. Koby tells me that really you could get people trying the Mover for the first time to do anything: "You can say it won't do anything unless you moonwalk and people are like 'OK!"

21st century craft

As the co-founder of a learning tech startup (and the mother of a four year old), you'd think Koby is used to hearing wacky things all day. What seems to shock her the most during our chat, though, is the stat she brings up that 65% of today's primary school kids will work in jobs that don't exist. "It's insane," she says. "I have a kid that's part of that 65% and I think about what I want him to have. Confidence that he can do things with tech, for one, but I also want him to have fun and be a kid."

By aiming to make its kits friendly, open, playful, colourful and about what you can do with the tech, not just the tech itself, TWSU has also managed to open up its products (starting at around $20) to a diverse range of families. Over the Christmas period, according to a survey the startup sent out, over 70% of kits were bought for girls, for instance.

"When we started the business, the intention was to be gender neutral, with a recipe for attracting more diverse people but never to absolutely target women. It just so happened that it did. Things that are just for girls are not necessarily what all girls want. We position our kits as 21st century craft, there's a tangibility to it. It's engaging, it's pretty, it's fun."

Which brings us back to rainbow. "I think it's pretty awesome to reward people with rainbows. Kids start to invent stuff with the colours - so red is this, blue is this. Basically they realise the one you want to get to is rainbow. Rainbow is the epic one and that's the one you have to shake and move and do all the things to get to but when you get to it, it's like a drug. For a kid, it's magical." Even as a boring old adult, I'm sure I'll get there the next time I play with the Mover Kit. I've just got to move really fast and imagine really hard.

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