Matas Petrikas was one of the first Soundcloud employees. He’d been working there for years when his daughter finally asked him what he did.
“I couldn’t really explain it,” he says. “It made me realize that I really wanted to make things, something you can hold in your hand, something that lasts longer than a digital product. I wanted to give something to my children.”
From this desire, Petrikas started smart toy company Vai Kai with Justyna Zubrycka, an industrial designer who once worked in a wooden toy factory. Together,they arrived at Avakai, a traditonally crafted wooden doll in the style of Russian Matryoshka dolls, but with Bluetooth enabled tech that allows it to respond to touches and communicate with other dolls.
Avakai features simple inputs and responses (which the founders call “superpowers”) that children can adapt to play their own games. Since the dolls respond haptically to their distance from each other, they’re ideal for games like hide and seek or treasure hunts (the figures can be pulled apart to contain a small prize). But the most interesting feature of Avakai is it’s potential for communication, which Vai Kai describes as a “a tin-can phone with a 20,000 meter long wire.”
The dolls have different “moods,” indicated by the color that glows out of a hole on their chest. By stroking the doll’s head, children can change the mood. When the head of one doll is tapped, the other doll plays music notes–changing the mood changes these notes tonality. Though the dolls can respond to each other from a distance of about 100 feet, the accompanying app can control and send messages to the toys from anywhere.
Privacy is an important feature for the Avakai team. There are no cameras or microphones on the dolls, and they don’t connect to the internet. “For us it’s important to create experiences that connect children, not children and marketing systems,” Petrikas says.
The team also put a lot of thought into sourcing Avakai’s materials, wanting to have maximum influence over the design and manufacturing processes.
“I would find factories with huge CNC milling machines,” Zubrycka says. “But I was looking for someone who would be more passionately connected to the project.”
So she found a craftsman in her native homeland of Poland who builds custom milling machines on a project by project basis. “It was a really great experience,” she says. “He’s older, but sometimes he uses non-standard parts like bicycle chains to customize his machines. So really, he’s a hacker.”
Though Petrikas and Zubrycka offer examples of games that the dolls could be used for, they are hesitant to explain too much, preferring to let children figure out their own way to use the toys. “We are not a game company,” Petrikas says. “We are creating opportunities to play.” Avakai is launching on Kickstarter, with a goal of raising $71,000. The dolls are available now for an early bird offer of $77 for one or $145 for a pair. The toys are scheduled to be shipped out in March of 2016.