Imagination Tools, Future Tech and Candy

What have we learned while building a toy for the 21st century kids.

When we started working on our first product back in 2014, we allowed ourselves to be open about the outcome. Justyna and I agreed on a few things — it has to be a quality experience, it should allow kids to discover the world around them, and it will use technology to create a magical experience.

The most exciting 24 hours, the beginning. You don’t know what it’s going to be, anything you’ll make will be new, unknown, full of potential. This is how we felt when we bought two bags of prototyping materials at a local hobby shop and a couple of Arduino boards. We told ourselves — let’s play. What is there to lose? Worst case — we would have fun while doing it, in a best case — we discover a great product idea.

Can we make a hiding game for the 21st century? Kind of a scavenger hunt for 4–8 year olds?

24 hours later we were ready for our first test with kids.

You know what’s hard when designing and building a product for kids?
It’s to let go, to let the kids take control. And when you hand your creation to them for the first time, trying to explain what it is, what it does,
noticing that they are maybe interested in completely different things you thought they would in the first place.

The first test was awesome. The prototype was clumsy, the code was awful, radio signal buggy, but it worked! Enough to make the kids happy for one hour and ask for more. We had a confirmation.

The very first test, using an iPad as a treasure detection device. Note the participants of all ages!
We were really surprised how well kids can collaborate when solving the challenges!

Learning by doing. Again and again.

Some of the findings we have discovered after doing 8 months of testing:

  • Age matters a lot. A half a year difference between 5.5 years and 6 year-old, is huge! E.g. kids below six have a still very vague understanding what ‘hidden’ means, where’s a six year old can hide a treasure as good as any 40-year-old.
  • Boys and girls have different preferred behaviour patterns. Test after test we saw boys running chaotically in a space trying to hit the best signal, while girls systematically scanned the room corner to corner. Not without exceptions, but pretty much in 90% of the cases.
  • Everybody likes to play with dolls. It’s parents who consciously or subconsciously force the kids to choose the gender toys. For kids it doesn’t really matter, as long it’s interesting enough, engaging and fun.
  • Don’t ask kids questions, let them do instead. Children are much more capable in expressing themselves through drawing, re-enacting, crafting than describing concepts in words. Some of the best ideas and breakthroughs we had were based on the kids drawings or alterations of our prototypes.
  • The interaction prototypes have to be functional. For an adult you can show a piece of paper with a wireframe drawing and ask “where would you click”? For kids, you have to build something that magically works, only then you’ll be able to get the information by observing. It doesn’t have to beautiful, just magical.
  • Characters create stories. It’s much easier to create worlds when you introduce a character into it. Our tests changed completely when we switched from basic forms like spheres into something that had 2 black dots in the upper part of the cylinder. Suddenly it became alive!
  • Testing is easy when you know the right question. How big is the thing we are building? Make 5 different paper cylinders and ask the kids to run around with them. You’ll know the answer in 2 minutes.
  • No reward, no fun. We started our tests by hiding sweets inside of the treasure. This worked amazingly well, so we decided to test what happens when we remove the candy from the equation. Unsurprisingly, the motivation to play was down. And then my daughter proposed to write a small secret note to her friend and put it inside of the doll. Paper instead of candy? It worked even better! This was a real discovery, as you’ll see later.
  • We learned so many other things, like the decoy strategies of the 10-year-olds, negotiating game order, power of the box, using iPads as non-screen devices, distinguishing between private and public things, hiding in the nature and hiding at home, alliances and collaboration, degrees of feedback etc. etc.
The very first prototype, big enough to carry the beacon and the sweet ‘treasures’ inside.
We explored some construction features in one of the prototypes, but abandoned that later because of the cognitive complexity. It looked nice though!

Meaning of everyday things

We don't want to make toys, we want to make imagination tools, objects that kids can use to design their own experiences, build their own worlds. A common problem with toys is that they have a meaning only during play, and the rest of the time they’re just annoying plastic bits on the floor. We saw in our tests that kids loved playing hiding games with our prototypes, but as a parent I also knew that a treasure hunt isn’t an everyday game.
How can we turn it into a meaningful object? Something that delights and inspires in a daily life? And then we remembered the 'secret note game'.

What if kids could send messages to each other? From one room to another? From one floor to another? From New York to Paris? A message as simple as “Hey!”, “I’m thinking of you”?

Sending a message from New York to Paris — watch the interaction video here:

We were really inspired by the elegant telepresence of a Good Night Lamp, the wordless musical communication in the Journey, and we told ourselves: “this is the future, lets give it to the kids now, while their parents are still stuck on smartphones”.

One more discovery — initially we thought kids would simply tap on the head to switch colors, but already during the first test they stroked the head of the doll instead. Magic.

This article is just a small glimpse of what we have discovered during the last 12 months. In case you want to learn more let us know!

So here we are, in May 2015, ready to go to the next stage — build the things, bring them to the kids around the world. For that, we are coming to Kickstarter very soon!

Interested in how we'll change the way children will play in this ever connected world? Subscribe to our newsletter on — and be the first to know.

Matas Petrikas, Co-Founder of Vai Kai

Originally published at