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Hacking Smart Toys for AI Learning


This is the syllabus for the Hacking Smart Toys Graduate Class at NYU ITP Spring 2019


Students will also design their own AI toys or construction kits which they will test in local communities (schools, libraries, museum, community centers). Final projects will be displayed in a play exhibition where all communities involved throughout the course will be invited to participate.


Much of our daily life is quietly being reshaped by AI while an entire generation of children is growing up with this technology in their homes. The best way to understand the algorithms that drive AI applications is to make your own -- to write and train them through playful and interactive activities. The Hacking Smart Toys for AI Learning course consists of a series of hands-on activities focused on designing and testing several smart toys, construction kits and play experiences that can support youth to better learn and play with AI. Both beginners and more advanced students are welcome. In this track participants will design with and hack existing smart toys and AI devices to support youth, families and educators to customize and appropriate these technologies in playful ways. The goal of the course is to imagine the future of smart toys and AI devices for youth and to explore the social and ethical conditions of children growing up with AI. The course will introduce students to different aspects of machine learning through play while engaging the local community of toy designers, artists, AI pioneers. The things we will do include writing applications for current smart toys and AI devices like Cozmo and Vector robots, Amazon's Alexa, Lego Wedo bricks.


Most of the class materials will be provided by the instructor, students will have to purchase materials for personal final projects and for home prototyping.


Half of the total grade is based on individual work and the other half is based on teamwork. Class and lab participation grades are based on both attendance and quality of in-class activity. ACTIVITIES PERCENTAGES Class participation (Individual) 15% Brainstorming assignment (Individual) 5% Idea presentation (Team) 5% Individual sketch model (Individual) 5% Team sketch models (Team) 10% Final presentation (Team) 15% Final prototype (Team) 25% Design journal (Individual) 20%

Weekly Breakdown:

Week 1:Learn through play and why it matters

Date: 02.01.2019 Before Class: Please watch these videos before class:

In Class Exercises: We will discuss why we play? How children started playing and what effect that had on their development? What are the opportunities and challenges of AI toys and devices for kids and why does it matter? We will also use random objects to create games based on a series of design constraints.

Reading Assignment: "The Veldt" Short sci-fi story by Ray Bradbury (available here! Design journal assignment: Share a story about an evocative object from your childhood

Week 2: Diving into smart toys: Cozmo, Hello Barbie and Sphero Mini

Date: 02.08.2019 Discussion: Impressions and thoughts on "The Veld" short story In Class Exercises: We will play with three connected toys(Cozmo, Hello Barbie and Sphero Mini) and then learn how to look behind the curtain and re-engineer them by using their SDKs, Cognimates and other platforms. Students will also learn how to analyze these toys by looking at their form factor, interaction design, play affordances, and many other criteria. We will also discuss co-designing for play and creative learning with youth and what are some of the most successful strategies for learning by playing and by doing.

Reading Assignments:

Production Assignment: Make groups of 2-3 students. Pick a persona (it can be a child or adult) and design an activity in which this person can learn with and about one of the smart toys presented in class. Try to make the activity as interactive, weird and unexpected as possible. Document your activity and make a 1 minute demo video in your design journal.

Week 3: Learn from Toy Designers

Date: 02.15.2019 Discussion: We will have a toy designer guest who will introduce us through their process and present the toys they built. They will also provide feedback on your home projects in a critique studio session. Show: Every group will get 10 minutes to present their home project and then 5 min for questions and feedback.

Reading Assignment:

Research Assignment: Find a toy that you like (or dislike) and try to see how different stakeholders talk about it: how is it presented by the creators, how are parents and kids talking about it, does the toy match their expectations, do they use it in unusual ways? Analyze the toy you picked from all the different perspectives and discuss also cultural, SES and age differences in the recounts you encounter. Document and present your findings in your design journal. Drawings, collages or any other way to capture and present your conclusions are welcomed.

Week 4: Tinker Toys: Lego, AIY, and Microbit

Date: 02.22.2019

Discussion: 3 students will be randomly selected to present their findings on the research assignment (5 min each + Q&A) In Class Exercises: In this week class we will play with more DIY and tinkerable toys and learn how to assemble, program them and make them "smart" by connecting them to other cognitive services like vision or sentiment recognition. Students will then divide into groups, pick some of the parts from different kits and try to combine them in unusual ways. We will also have crafting and prototyping materials for this part of the session. We will end with a play session where we all go around and play with each other creations and provide feedback on each other creations.

Reading Assignment:

Production Assignment: Make groups of 2-3 students. Pick a persona (it can be a child or adult) and design a lo-fi toy for them that can only be played within a specific environment. Also design a field research methodology for playtesting your creation with kids

Week 5: Playing and learning from kids (site visit)

Date: 03.01.2019

Activity: We will visit an after-school center and play-test your lo-fi projects with kids and get their feedback. After introducing them to the lo-fi prototypes you will show them the other toys you got to use during the class and observe how they play with them, what they like and what they don't. What is unique about the way they play with a specific toy? Do they play alone or together? What are their feature requests? You will work in groups and use your field research methodology to best capture the findings.

Reflection & production assignment: Go back to your lo-fi prototype and make changes based on kids feedback and field observations. Document your thinking and design process.

Week 6: Learn from interaction designers for kids

Date: 03.08.2019

Discussion: We will have an interaction designer who will introduce us through their process and present some of their projects. The guest will also provide feedback on your home lo-fi projects in a critique studio session.

Show: Every group will get 10 minutes to present their home project and then 5 min for questions and feedback.

Assignment: Pick a paper from previous proceedings to Interaction Design for Children conference! and prepare a short resume in your design journal. Explain why you picked the paper and what you learned from it.

Week 7: Discover and play with VUI (Alexa, Ghome, chatbots)

Date: 03.15.2019

Activity: we will dive into various VUI platforms and learn how to customize the interaction flow.

Assignment: Find a paper that researches the impact of VUI on people and discuss it in your class journal.

Week 8: Bring to life your old toys

Date: 03.22.2019

Activity: In this class we will hack our old toys and bring them to life. Bring to class old toys of yours or that you can source from thrift stores or online. We will also have lots of leds, speakers, sensors, and other electronics to bring the old toys to life.

Assignment: Make a proposal for your final project (toy, kit, learning experience) that is meant to be a learning experience for 21st centure that is truly designed for kids and it enhances their understanding of new technologies while building on an old tradition and history of play.

Week 9: Program your DIY toy/kit

Date: 03.29.2019

Activity: In this class, we will learn how to make our DIY programmable toys/kits for kids by creating and modifying existing Scratch! and Cognimates! block extensions.

Review: We will review and discuss final project proposals and create teams.

Assignment: Create a starter project and learning activity with the new programming extension you built.

Week 10: Train your DIY toy/kit

Date: 04.05.2019

Activity: In this class, we will learn how to train our DIY programmable toys/kits for kids by using transfer learning and custom classifiers APIs. See example Teach AI! page on Cognimates. We will discuss how to build games and learning activities for children to be able to use our teach the toy system.

Review: We will review and discuss starter projects from previous week assignment.

Assignment: Create a user-friendly interface for kids to teach/train your DIY toy.

Week 11: Materials trip (site visit to Material Connexion)

Date: 04.12.2019

Activity: We will do a site-visit to and discover properties of different materials and make a selection of things to use in your final projects.

Review: Teach/train toy UI's from previous week

Assignment: Pick a target audience for your final project and conduct user interviews and initial playtests.

Week 12: Putting it all together!

Date: 04.19.2019

Activity: In this class, we will put together the initial concept boards for our final projects based on user interviews and explore various technical options for the programming/training functionalities.

Assignment: Build an initial prototype for your final project and test it with friends and target audience if possible.

Week 13: Guest speakers - Game Designers

Date: 04.26.2019

Activity: We will get to hear presentations from several experienced game designers and learn how to think about flow and engagement when designing a toy, kit or any other learning activity. Assignment: Work on final projects and play expo.

Week 14: Play-a-thon (final presentations)!

Date: 05.03.2019

Activity: Final projects play-a-thon with external guests (kids, families, educators, etc).

Suggested Reading

On Kids & AI

Sherry Turkle - Second Self! Edith Ackermann - AniMates - Playthings that do things! Stefania Druga - Growing up with AI! Emilie Beneteau et al - Communication Breakdowns Between Families and Alexa!

On Toys & Play

Brian Sutton-Smith - Toys as Culture Michael Michalko - Thinkertoys Johan Huizinga - Homo Ludens

On Design

Kritina Holden - Universal Principles of Design Karl Ulrich and Steven Eppinger - Product Design and Development Donald Norman - Emotional Design Donald Norman - The Design of Everyday Things Mike Ashby - Materials and Design


Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as though it were your own. More specifically, plagiarism is to present as your own: A sequence of words quoted without quotation marks from another writer or a paraphrased passage from another writer’s work or facts, ideas or images composed by someone else.


The core of the educational experience at the Tisch School of the Arts is the creation of original academic and artistic work by students for the critical review of faculty members. It is therefore of the utmost importance that students at all times provide their instructors with an accurate sense of their current abilities and knowledge in order to receive appropriate constructive criticism and advice. Any attempt to evade that essential, transparent transaction between instructor and student through plagiarism or cheating is educationally self-defeating and a grave violation of Tisch School of the Arts community standards. For all the details on plagiarism, please refer to page 10 of the Tisch School of the Arts, Policies and Procedures Handbook, which can be found online at:


Please feel free to make suggestions to your instructor about ways in which this class could become more accessible to you. Academic accommodations are available for students with documented disabilities. Please contact the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities at 212 998-4980 for further information.


Your health and safety are a priority at NYU. If you experience any health or mental health issues during this course, we encourage you to utilize the support services of the 24/7 NYU Wellness Exchange 212-443-9999. Also, all students who may require an academic accommodation due to a qualified disability, physical or mental, please register with the Moses Center 212-998-4980. Please let your instructor know if you need help connecting to these resources.


Laptops will be an essential part of the course and may be used in class during workshops and for taking notes in lecture. Laptops must be closed during class discussions and student presentations. Phone use in class is strictly prohibited unless directly related to a presentation of your own work or if you are asked to do so as part of the curriculum.


Tisch School of the Arts to dedicated to providing its students with a learning environment that is rigorous, respectful, supportive and nurturing so that they can engage in the free exchange of ideas and commit themselves fully to the study of their discipline. To that end Tisch is committed to enforcing University policies prohibiting all forms of sexual misconduct as well as discrimination on the basis of sex and gender. Detailed information regarding these policies and the resources that are available to students through the Title IX office can be found by using the following link: Title IX at NYU.

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