Jun 29, 2016 | By Tess

In a world where most things are becoming increasingly digital, there is an important question that keeps arising: how does the digital turn effect children and their social, physical, and mental developments? Though some parents have made the decision to keep tablets, laptops, and digital toys out of reach from their children, preferring more old school hobbies and toys, the question of how to make digital technologies better and more suitable for children has perhaps become more important, especially as the technologies are not about to disappear. In an effort to combine physical and digital playtimes for the young Generation Z in a productive way, a joint Belgian research team from KU Leuven, iMinds, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has been studying how children interact with both online and physical toys.

The research, which is part of the World of Online/Offline Personalized Interactions (WOOPI) project, has not only focused on how children between the ages of 4 and 6 interact with both digital and physical toys, but has introduced a solution to the growing conundrum through hybrid toys, which include custom 3D printed toys based off of digital and video game children’s characters.

Professor Bieke Zaman, research coordinator of the WOOPI project explains, “The world of children’s toys is changing rapidly. Tablet computers, for instance, have become very successful, but children still want to play with something tangible as well. They see a character in a comic book and want to play with a figurine of that character at school. And when they come home, they turn on the computer to play with the online version of that same character.”

Of course, one of the biggest concerns about children’s use of digital technologies, is that parents do not want their growing children to sit statically in front of a screen for hours on end. By introducing hybrid 3D printed toys, the research team is hoping to present an appealing way for children to integrate physical play into their favorite digital games.

This idea is not entirely new, however, as video games like Skylanders have based themselves on a “toys-to-life” idea, where kids can turn their favorite toys into animated video game characters. The WOOPI project’s approach effectively reverses this process, where digital characters are themselves turned into physical toys through technologies like 3D printing. Flemish digital research center iMinds has even created a software for this process capable of transforming 2D video game characters into 3D printable models.

According to the research team, hybrid toys can offer a number of benefits in terms of stimulating and educating children, especially when it comes to increasing their digital literacy. Zaman explains, “More and more often, tangible toys are integral to online game experiences. The opposite is true as well: online gaming becomes a richer experience when tangible elements are added to the mix.”

Naturally, with the extensive possibilities afforded by 3D printing technologies, there is little doubt that additive manufacturing has STEM education potentials. For instance, we’ve seen Root, a 3D printed robot that helps teach children about coding and robotics, as well as a number of other innovative efforts. The WOOPI project for its part has found an innovative way to turn digital playtime into a physical activity as well.

“Adults make a clear distinction between their online and offline activities,” adds Zaman. “But for today’s children, the distinction between online and offline is much fuzzier.” WOOPI hopes that by 3D printing models of a child’s favourite digital characters they will be encouraged to spend as much time playing with the physical toy as in front of the screen. Plus, imagine how much easier it would be to tear your kid away from a tablet if there was a 3D printed replica of the character he or she was playing!



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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