Berlin based startup Vai Kai, spoke to us about how they’re crafting 21st century toys using wood, haptics and IoT to encourage children to find new ways of interacting with technology.
Co-Founder ofVai Kai Justyna Zubrycka, is an industrial designer who, fittingly, used to work in a wooden toy factory. With a passion for tangible interfaces, she was working on both digital experiences and traditional wooden toys when she thought about combining the best qualities of each to create a new type of toy for modern children.
Q: How did Avakai begin?
A: Last year, I met Matas, former product manager at Soundcloud, who shared my vision and we decided to make our dream come true together. Matas' inspiration was his six-year-old daughter Lia, who continues to spark our imagination, and together with other children, takes part the design of Avakai.
Q: What exactly is Avakai and what can they do?
A: Avakai consists of a couple of wooden figurines that enable children to discover free play and the connected world without screens. They express emotions and respond to each other even if they are thousands miles away. This month, we’re launching our pre-order campaign and we’ll reveal the video presenting Avakai new behaviours.
Q: Can you explain some of the technology behind them?
A: Avakai are connected via BLE or via internet through a Bluetooth enabled smartphone. They have capacity sensors, accelerometer and gyroscope, which make them interactive.
Q: Tell me about your manufacturing processes, it’s clearly incredibly important to you how and where Avakai is made.
A: The main idea was to merge traditional craftsmanship with the electronic parts. We believe that the tactile experience of a material is one of the crucial parts of childhood memories and that’s why we decided to use wood.
From the beginning, we decided to keep the manufacturing in Europe. First of all, it’s incredibly important to be local for the developing process. The design of the wooden parts depended a lot on collaboration with a master of traditional woodturning, who I found in Poland. Together, we had a few prototyping sessions and looked into every detail to improve the quality and production efficiency. This talented turner builds his own custom machines and tooling for each product, this allows him to manufacture faster than any CNC milling machine; it’s pretty amazing.
For the electronic parts, we’ve found a great partner in Europe for developing and manufacturing, but it’s too early to go into detail about that at the moment.
We develop very close relationships with these people, because we feel that this familiar, close communication makes the business a fun, beautiful experience for all of us, this way everyone puts their own heart and passion into our product.
Q: The design of Avakai is so traditional and looks incredibly satisfying to hold, why have you gone with this design and how did you get there?
A: I used to work in a wooden toy factory where I learnt about ergonomics required for children’s hands and how the physical object supports child development. The simplicity of an object to character representation strengthens children's imaginations and creativity, and allows them to express a whole spectrum of emotions. That’s the secret behind the minimalistic face of Avakai. And that’s what I meant by “taking best qualities from traditional toys".
Q: You’ve found a great balance between craft, IoT and play. It must have been quite a journey to get there, tell us about what you’ve learnt along the way.
A: We’ve learnt, that to create playful objects, we need to play all the time too and find a true joy in that. We have to live to our company values to create an authentic product and culture. We learnt to be led by kids during the play tests. They’re the best inventors, when they play. We’ve also learnt, that introducing a character and its story is a much more fun and efficient way for children and parents to play and understand. Children appreciate the comfort of crafted, tangible objects, once they hold it in their hands. It’s not a matter of parent’s nostalgia, but a real deeper need in every one of us.
Q: Is this kind of toy the future of play? Why do you think it’s so important for children to interact with new technology in such a tactile way?
A: Open-ended, tactile play with classical toys is known for its positive effects on the youngest imagination and cognitive development. Modern digital interfaces, that are used as play interfaces as well, tend to narrow down our senses and isolate us from the surrounding world. Children who are growing up immersed in technology should have a chance to explore it using all their senses.
Q: Your team has a varied background and in depth experience in software. What have you found to be the biggest differences / challenges between software & hardware development?
A: In short: hardware takes much more time and money. We have learnt to take both these aspects are needed to develop a sustainable hardware business.
Q: You’ve mentioned previously that in focus groups children have explored different ways of playing with Avakai, what’s been your favourite use you’ve seen?
A: An important detail in Avakai is that you can open it like a Russian doll and hide something inside. This is where two girls started to play with Avakai as a guard of their secret drawings. One of them had to find a hidden Avakai with a drawing inside, then replace it with another drawing and hide it somewhere else. Then another person had to do the same. At the end, we had bunch of horses, cats, stars and hearts, and we made stories out of those. I still have a few of those precious little pieces.
Q: What’s next for Vai Kai or Avakai?
A: The most exciting part of the hardware company starts more or less now, when we’ll begin our production process right after the pre-ordering campaign this month. Next year, we want to add more people to the team and scale up for the mass market. By the end of next year, we want to sell Avakai in the biggest cities in the world. We’re already planning future features of Avakai, exploring how a toy can grow with a child.