For Lyssa Neel, a startup world veteran and only the 10th woman to earn a PhD in computer science from MIT, the idea of making wearable tech toys for little girls had at least three central arguments going for it: her young daughters.
Like other girls their age, they sit on the peripheries of technology and science. Women make up over half of the country’s workforce, but of the almost 11 million STEM jobs available in the United States now women hold less than a quarter of those positions. Getting them interested in STEM at a younger age is crucial, especially since girls, as a study by the Girl Scout Research Institute has put it, tend to “lose interest in math and science during middle school”—an interest that already starts lower compared to boys.
Could it, Neel thought, have something to do with the toys they have to play with?
Traditionally, chemistry sets, Erector sets, and other engineering and science toys were aimed at boys only. “For a long time, it was very unusual for women to work in male-dominated tech fields, so these toys were marketed to boys, and girls got the baby dolls and the kitchen sets,” she says.
With Linkitz, the company she cofounded in 2012, Neel aims to undo that. Last week it debuted its first product, a modular, programmable wearable toy for kids, and for girls especially, on Kickstarter.
Linkitz is embracing an idea that everyone from the White House to Verizon has identified: Tackling the gender gap in tech begins with getting girls interested in science, math, and technology at a younger age. But of the toys that are currently marketed at girls, “many do not encourage the development of spatial or problem-solving skills, or promote confidence with technology as central themes.”
As for the wearable, modular design, her daughters also provided a bit of valuable market wisdom. “Most little girls like to make jewelry.”
“My idea was to take something that young girls already like to do, something they were familiar with and good at, and add a tech spin that would both educate and inspire this next generation,” she says. “I thought, if we add technology to that behavior, that is something that girls will feel confident to try, and while they’re doing it, they will experience assembling and programming electronics.”
Of course, the launch of “the first wearable for kids”—last week, through Kickstarter, where early kits will sell for $50—follows closely on the heels of the launch of another landmark wearable, and the excitement it’s reignited around strapping computers to our bodies.
“That was serendipitous,” says Neel, but admits the timing doesn’t hurt. “Children want to emulate parental behavior, so with the launch of the Apple Watch, we expect that their little girls may want Linkitz even more.”
It was the autumn of 2012 when Neel initially sensed a “tsunami” of interest in girls and tech, and saw an opportunity for tech toys that sparked imagination. “No one was doing anything like it,” she says. Some interactive toys have emerged in recent years that are more imaginative: robot playsets like MOSS and Ozobot, Tangible Play’s Osmo iPad peripheral, and GoldieBlox’s playsets, which are also aimed at girls. But most kids’ devices on the market don’t inspire creativity or social interaction, she says. There are a number of wearable gadgets for kids too, including fitness trackers like the iBitz, and toy-like devices like the Moff Band, which translates kids’ hand and arm motions into imaginative sound effects.
“There are thousands of apps for kids, but passively swiping and tapping at a tablet doesn’t promote the best toy experience, which involves exploration, imagination, and creativity.”
The Linkitz system that she developed with her cofounder Drew Macrae, a former silicon architecture engineer at Intel, consists of a central programmable hub and modular “links” that plug into it. Each module has one hardware capacity—a microphone, a speaker, an accelerometer, a communications array. The links are used almost like super-smart Lego bricks—plug one link into the central hub, and it will carry out its program.
The accelerometer link, for example, will invite a child to play a game of Simon Says on its own. But plug in an additional link into the hub—adding the speaker module to the accelerometer, for instance—and the Linkitz transforms into a musical instrument. The more links they add or combination of links they create, the more “devices” kids can engineer. Combine a microphone link with a radio link, for example—or with a planned Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link—and you get a walkie-talkie for communicating with friends. Together the hub and its modular links can be worn on the wrist like a smartwatch or on a pendant like a necklace.
“Right out of the box, there is an element of discovery and exploration,” says Neel. “What happens when I connect the motion and light? What happens if I move this link another way? What if I exchange the light for the speaker?”
Neel says the simple plug-and-play architecture of the Linkitz hardware is imperative for on-boarding a 4-year-old. After all, not many children have the patience or cognitive abilities to read an instruction manual to find out how something works. Children learn and remain interested in something through a process of discovery, something that Neel hopes Linkitz’s modular hardware can empower.
The simplicity of the hardware is purposely designed as only a “first step.” Once a child gets used to forming new wearable devices by rearranging modules, they can take their newly acquired engineering skills a step further and actually write new code that tweaks the behavior of the various modules, using a forthcoming app.
But how do you teach 4- to 8-year-olds how to code when they are only beginning to learn how to write?
Neel and her team turned to Google. Specifically, they honed in on Blockly, an open-source programming language developed by Google that allows coders to drag and drop virtual objects with textual labels on one another to form scripts. Blockly and other languages like it have been shown to be, says Neel, “great for kids aged 9 and up, but they aren’t as good for kids who are younger.”
With Blockly as a scaffold, the Linkitz team created a simpler programming language that eliminates text altogether, relying solely on pictures and audio cues, which can be dragged and dropped to form scripts, allowing kids to tweak the existing behavior of Linkitz modules or create entirely new ones.
How children will respond to wearable, educational technology—and what effects it might have on them—remains unclear. “Children’s toys, and especially ones that encourage learning, shouldn’t be seen as corrective; they ought to be seen as challenging children,” says Isabel Pedersen, a professor of social science at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who studies wearable technologies. “Put another way, children using toys are agents (who are learning, narrating, designing, composing, discovering, etc.), rather than the objects of toys put in front of them.”
Soon, Pedersen’s lab will use prototypes of Linkitz and a handful of kids to study what wearable technologies mean to children specifically, and how they shape their thinking about technology generally. “We want to hear what they think, feel, fear, create, imagine, predict about the technologies that we give them now or the ones they make for us, or that we all presuppose for the future,” she says. The study, funded by Pedersen’s grants, will be used to inform forthcoming versions of Linkitz.
As for proof that toys can shape both aptitude and preference for STEM subjects, hard numbers are scarce, admits Neel, which is why she believes Pedersen’s study is so important. “There are not many longitudinal studies asking these kinds of questions–the most promising is the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents And Children. They probably have the data to prove the link, but they haven’t made it all publicly available yet.”
Apart from the questions over efficacy, there are financial ones. How big is the wearables market for kids? Given that electronic toys currently represent a 32% stake in the $83 billion toy market and that wearables for kids is an entirely new vertical in the toy space, Neel says, “there’s lots of room to grow.” (In just four days, the project’s Kickstarter campaign has already raised over $30,000 of its $95,000 goal.)
Still, for Neel and her team, the profitability of wearable toys isn’t as important as the educational benefits they may bring and the interest in the STEM fields they can generate among young girls. As a U.S. Department of Commerce report says STEM jobs will have grown by 17% in 2018 compared to 9.9% for non-STEM jobs. Furthermore, STEM jobs bring in an average salary of $65,000 compared to $49,500 for non-STEM jobs. Meanwhile, studies have confirmed that girls get less encouragement in STEM from parents and teachers, and that this can impact their behavior and preferences in later years.
And as the century carries on and more and more professions require skilled STEM workers for fields as diverse as farming to robotics to entertainment, the demand for highly skilled workers with STEM experience will only grow.
“Traditionally, one of the purposes of toys is to let children practice grown-up tasks: so you have these little tool benches and doll carriages,” says Neel. “Girls want more than just kitchen sets and baby dolls.”