Musical blocks integrate blind, sighted children at play

A multidisciplinary team of Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students is developing a sensory play toy utilizing protyping tools in the Brown Design Workshop.

Equipped with background research concerning the visually impaired community and a desire to create change, industrial design major Rosa Park from the Rhode Island School of Design signed on with Design for America looking for a team. Her topic “Increasing Literacy Rates in Blind Children” was one of several January 2017 projects accepted in the Brown/RISD program that uses design to approach complex community challenges. The then-sophomore knew she wanted to create something with societal impact, but she lacked specificity. Meanwhile, four Brown University students, with backgrounds in electrical engineering, biomedical engineering, cognitive science and classics signed on for the project, based on the pitch and project description provided by Park. No one in the group knew any of the other members.

Fast forward a full year: The group of five became six, has capitalized on their complementary skill sets, and are on the verge of creating a product that has the ability not only to integrate sensory play between sighted and blind children, but with technology that could be of interest to the music industry.

“Our initial intent was to increase literacy rates for braille,” said Anya Hong ’19 (classics). “Braille is declining at a very fast rate. It is one generation from being removed. We knew early on that we needed to find ways to incorporate the visually impaired into the community, if for no other reason than to give them independence.”

The spring semester was spent enhancing Park’s initial research, with an overarching thought toward design. Surveys, interviews with educators, site visits to public schools that serve visually impaired children, and developing a connection with the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts were key research factors for the group. “I think one of the biggest things we began to understand was that the visually impaired learn part-to-whole, whereas we learn whole-to-part,” Park said. She used a water bottle as example. A seeing person sees the whole bottle, and then considers the lid, the label, the shape. A visually impaired person must first tactilely investigate the lid, the label, and how the pieces fit the shape to understand it is a bottle. 

“What we learned by being at Perkins was that these students feel very isolated,” said Matthew Lo ’18 (biomedical engineering). Park added, “Cognitive abilities of visually impaired students at Perkins tend to be at different levels. We decided to concentrate on the student-student connection. This topic of integrated play seemed to be a good fit.

“When you begin to do research, you quickly realize that technology utilized for the visually impaired community is often classified as assistive technology, not technology on its own. There’s a foundational bias in that. We thought it should be an equal playing field, and that all children should have the same access to interact,” said Park.

When you begin to do research, you quickly realize that technology utilized for the visually impaired community is often classified as assistive technology, not technology on its own. There’s a foundational bias in that.

Rosa Park RISD Class of 2018

“By focusing on the auditory and tactile aspects of play that tend to be neglected as kids get older, we wanted a design that would engage visually-able students, while being equally accessible to their visually impaired peers,” said Monica Alves ’20 (electrical engineering).

With the spring semester winding down, and a direction taking shape, the group was ready to begin prototyping in the fall. “We knew we wanted a simple design where complexity was determined by the user,” said Michelle Basta ’18 (cognitive science), referring to the prelimary forms of the building blocks that play notes when connected.

The group found themselves carving out space in the Brown Design Workshop, but decided they could use another engineering team member. Enter Iyad Owen-Elia ’17.5 (mechanical engineering), who was returning to campus to complete his degree, and had previous experience with Design for America. 

“We sat down to build, and realized we needed a lot of materials,” Owen-Elia said. “So we applied for and received several grants.” Among those grants were a Brown Design Workshop Maker Grant, as well as funds from other places in the university, including the Swearer Center.

“We had to get more specific about components, what would be feasible in a semester of protyping. There were choices to make about what exactly could go into the block. The BDW really became our meeting place,” he said. “We probably spent more time there – on the electronics equipment – than any other group during the semester. Even though Matt was a BDW mentor, I think the rest of us were mistaken for mentors multiple times,” Owen-Elia joked.

The prototype results are Melos, auditory building blocks designed for a collaborative play opportunity for blind and sighted children to compose music together. The name comes from the Latin noun melos, meaning song, tune, strain, a melody or hymn. 

“This could be appealing to aspiring music producers,” Owen-Elia said. “The core technology covers a wide range of music creation, and a new way of building a song. We designed Melos to inspire either casual social play or individual composition sessions.” 

The Melos will continue to croon next semester. “There is still testing to be done, in the field to see what kind of interactions we get with the blocks,” Park said. “We’re hopeful this will open more possibilities, and more iterations of the Melos. I love that I’ve learned so much from working with this group. It’s never easy to get involved in a project at this depth with a group that comes from different schools, with different majors, but everyone has both contributed to the whole, and taken away knowledge they didn’t have before. It’s rare to find a project that is so interdisciplinary, with a group of people who are so passionate about it.”