The prompt
In this hackathon sponsored by Bose and Autodesk, we were required to design a product which helps children learn how our ears work
Our challenge
To come up with a product for children under 10 years of age, that helps them learn how our ears process sounds
My role
User Interface design, User Experience design
Time
Day-long hackathon

The process

Our team of 4 began by whiteboarding the goals of the challenge and what we can build to meet them in the most effective way. We thought about the spatial qualities of sound and how our ears help us delineate different frequencies. We discussed the Doppler effect and how it may be used to explain sound to children. We even found ourselves asking fundamental questions like, “Why do we even have two ears instead of one?”.


The underlying principle
As hair cells inside our ear move up and down on receiving an auditory stimulus, microscopic hair-like projections (known as stereocilia) that perch on top of the hair cells bump against an overlying structure and bend. Bending causes pore-like channels, which are at the tips of the stereocilia, to open up. When that happens, chemicals rush into the cells, creating an electrical signal. The auditory nerve carries this electrical signal to the brain, which turns it into a sound that we recognize and understand. [https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/how-do-we-hear]


Ideation
Here are some ideas we discussed:

1  An ‘Interactive sound box’ or ‘Sound wave visualizer’ that uses auditory cues enclosed inside the box to explain how we hear 
2 A virtual reality ‘Tiltbrush for sound’ 
3 An app that employs Dora the Explorer to encourage children to tap on different objects and understand why they sound different
4 A musical instrument that uses the above principle to engage and also blends in with their natural environment 

Thinking about the constraints helped us understand that our sponsors are looking for a product which can be quickly brought to the market and provides real value at an economical price point. In keeping with this decision, a virtual reality ‘Tiltbrush for sound’ idea was rebuffed due to its intangible nature.

Apart from being a product that engages and delights the child using it, we agreed that it also needed another, very important quality to achieve the said goals: tangibility. The quality of being tangible lends differentiation amidst the sea of glass slabs.  Thus, we decided against the app in favor of a musical instrument.

Our prototype

A 3D rendition of Earie created using Autodesk Fusion 360

1  Earie is an interactive musical instrument on which a child can play notes by picking the inner hairs (fibre optics), the sound for which is output on their headphones
2  By virtue of looking playful, it invites children to pick the fibre optic hair on the inside of the cone, and understand how sounds are processed by our ears
3  It can also react to music being played on the attached wireless headphone which causes the hair to move in a similar way as they would inside an actual human ear
4  Since it also doubles up as wireless headphone charger, it stays in children’s eyesight and incentivizes them to play with it from time to time

accompanying mobile app

How the mobile app may work

Potential next step​​​​​​​
Guitar hero like functionality where LED enabled stereocilia light up in response to a song being played on the phone and prompt the child to pick the appropriate stereocilium in order to gain points on the mobile game.

Other projects I've worked on