We’re so excited to be introducing the first part of The Storytellers Project by Laura Boffi. This project aims to create a community of senior readers who volunteer to hold remote reading aloud sessions for children and their families. A robot called ‘Storybell’, powered by Makeblock’s mBot, is used by children at home, allowing them to connect with seniors willing to have a reading session.

Laura is an Italian design researcher, interaction and service designer, who has collaborated on an array of projects – researching and consulting – with organisations mainly amongst the EU.

We recently interviewed Laura, who was more than happy to elaborate on the first steps and hopes of this long-term work. To follow the progress of The Storytellers Project and the development of the Storybell, make sure to follow Makeblock on Facebook and subscribe to our e-mail list here!

Hi Laura, can you start by introducing yourself and tell us what being an Interaction and Service Designer entails?

Introduction of Laura

There are multiple ways of being an interaction & service designer. In my case, it deals with an interest of researching people within their context. I like to think of possible alternative futures for people, in order to enrich their experiences.

At the early stages of a project, I plan fieldwork to discover unmet needs and gain insight. That’s how I generate my design challenges, or research questions, as one might like to call them.

I start by focusing on the relationships and interactions that people have with artifacts and technology. Whether I design an interactive object or service isn’t important as usually, it’s a combination of both. What is consistent throughout my work is a certain appropriation of technology. It encourages people to use it in a meaningful way that may have not been initially intended. Throughout the process of interaction between people and product, I adjusted the prototypes and observed how the relationships evolve.

Laura's sketch

Laura’s sketch (source)

What is the Storytellers Project and why did you start it?
The Storytellers Project is a library service connecting a community of senior readers to children and their families, for remote reading aloud sessions. Children use the Storybell robot at home to connect with seniors who are willing to read. The Storybell robot transmits audio of their reading and images of the story are projected onto a wall.

After working in several ageing related projects, I gained quite a lot of insight about seniors and retired people that were not being addressed by (EU funded) technology driven projects. In the meantime, I became a mother of two children, allowing a perspective where everything perfectly aligned together. Thus, an intergenerational project was conceived – weaving the daily experiences of seniors, children and parents together, aided by meaningfully designed technology.

What role does our mBot play in the project?
The mBot is essential for prototyping the behaviour of the Storybell. For example: When a child feels like listening to a story, they need to grab the ring handle of the Storybell and shake it. This action will alert the entire community of Storytellers by receiving a call on their iPad. While waiting for a Storyteller to pick up the request, the Storybell moves up and down impatiently.

In other instances, it is the Storybell—finding a child in its home, circling impatiently around them, waiting until the child places the Storybell near a wall—prompting the child to sit, and listen to a story, when there is a high availability of Storytellers willing to read. The Storybell is designed to be a social robot. The mBot is the necessary tool for quickly prototyping different behaviours and allowing experimentation.


Prototyping the Storybell with the mBot (source)

Was the ‘Storybell’ robot inspired by anything in particular, what was the process like of creating it?
The Storybell went through different iterations. It was important to keep the spatial dimension of a read aloud experience, without simply translating it from analog to digital and flat.

The tool for children to interact with seniors was initially a doll that was triggered by the natural playing behaviour that children convey. From there, it became a self-living entity that children could interact and relate to. I’m curious to see how children will make sense of the robot and its community-depending behaviour!

I was influenced by a Nordichi workshop I attended in 2016, ‘The Future of Books and Reading in Human-Computer Interaction’, where I presented the first version. At the time, people referred to it as a social robot, but I did not yet understand the possibilities of the doll. I focused on how the child could request a story, and shaking a bell seemed like a natural way to do it – that’s how it became the Storybell. There remains lots of work to do in terms of its physical appearance, affordability and its coding.

Have you tested the robot with potential participants yet and if so, how have they reacted?
Not yet, this is 80% of the project. I have created a video scenario with my son to quickly freeze my design. The plan is to test the interaction between several children and the robot during remote reading aloud sessions. The aim to collaborate with libraries is because they could assist with the process of reaching parents and children willing to participate in the research.

Is there a particular audience that you imagine will find this project especially useful?
I think it could be most meaningful for retired seniors, young busy parents and their children. It might be a win-win-win situation for three generations. Beyond that, I believe it could be useful for everyone.

What kind of impact are you hoping this project will have on those involved?
The Storytellers project aims to foster intergenerational relationships – beneficial for all involved. The project aims to enable a community ecosystem, leveraging on:

– The aspiration of seniors to be useful to society and create something meaningful for the younger generations.
– The desire of children to listen to stories, as well as the psychological developmental benefit of bonding with people of various ages.
– Assisting parents who often appreciate help with caring for their children.

The best I could hope for, is parents interacting with the preferred readers of their children from time to time – remotely checking up and caring for each other.•

In the following months we’ll be catching up with Laura again to see how the project is progressing. Don’t forget to follow us (facebooktwitter or instagram) to keep up to date!

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