‘Song for Olivia’ is a project initiated by my brother, David, when our niece was due for surgery in the fall of 2013.

In the lead up to Olivia’s surgery, David unexpectely reached out to me with a song he had written for her, asking if I might create artwork for the project and a simple, 1-page site to feature both the image and accompanying audio. The song is a beautiful one — I’m always amazed at the ability capable songwriters possess in capturing the spirit of an individual, and I believe my brother represented Olivia perfecty in what he created — so I quickly obliged. The result can be seen and heard here*.

*mobile users: tap the artwork on the subsequent page to play the song

Our family was thrilled upon receiving the song, and Olivia’s parents — our brother, Tyler, and his wife, Kristin — played it for her time and again in the evening before her surgery. The following day, Olivia’s surgery went swimmingly well, and she remains as happy and healty a niece as an uncle could ever hope for.

However, something wasn’t sitting quite right with me about the way I had packaged the gift my brother had provided our beloved niece. Specifically, my issue was that a connected device was needed to experience the song and, worse yet, at less than 1 year old, Olivia could not play it without assistance from her parents.

Clearly, a tangible, real-world solution that Olivia could, herself, interact with was needed; one worthy both of the niece I so love and of the effort my brother had put into such a beautiful song.

The idea struck me almost instantly.

I reached out to my father’s wife, Bev — Olivia’s grandmother — and asked what kinds of stuffed animals Olivia enjoyed. Bev informed me that Olivia had reached the particular age at which children know precisely what they want, and Olivia wanted either monkeys or giraffes. Period.

I found an adorable, stuffed monkey online and purchased it:

When the toy arrived, I took the monkey and an RFID tag to a dry cleaner down the street from my office. To the horror of the employees there, I asked them to rip the head off the monkey, stuff the RFID tag into the front of its nose and sew the toy up just like new. Reluctantly, they accommodated my bizarre request.

I then approached my friend & super-talented colleague, Garrett Winther, to help out with the rest of my idea. I wanted to create a custom housing for a picture frame that held the artwork I created, one that played my brother’s song when the monkey kissed Olivia’s face in the frame. I knew I needed an Arduino enabled solution, but I had only lightly worked with the technology. Garrett is a mechanical engineer by trade, but one who has become an ace with Arduino in his time working at IDEO, so I was more than happy to have him aboard when he agreed to assist.

Garrett’s experience on a recent project helped to provide just the solution and expertise we needed. The housing behind the image would conceal an Arduino Uno Board, an NFC/RFID Controller Shield, an MP3 Player Shield and two speakers. Garrett quickly designed and laser cut a custom, acrylic frame and soldered circles around me as he and I wired up the boards. With the aid of a hot glue gun, the finished piece then took shape:

Olivia received her monkey and framed artwork for her first birthday in December, 2013. And, on Wedensday, February 12, 2014, she learned just how to play her song, whenever she likes:

Infinite thanks, Garrett, I couldn’t have seen my concept through without you. It’s because of impossibly talented and generous people like you that I so love that we work where we do.

Huge thanks also to you, David, for creating something as beautiful as you have, and for lending your talents at a time when our family so needed a reason to smile. Had you not taken the initiative, Olivia would never have eventually been on the receiving end of one seriously awesome birthday gift; one I’m oh, so proud to have been a part of.

And happy first birthday to you, Olivia. Your uncles sure do love you.

UX Lead at Google. Previously at IDEO & AIGA. Purveyor of unintentionally moody imagery. he/him ✶✶✶✶

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store