Creative coding: the making of Hackaball

Hackaball is a responsive ball for children that can be programmed to make games, teaching basic coding and computer skills. Created by digital agency Made by Many, it started out as a studio assignment and has since raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter. We spoke to Made by Many’s Rachel Mercer and Richard Ling about the product and process of developing it.

Hackaball is a responsive ball for children that can be programmed to make games, teaching basic coding and computer skills. Created by digital agency Made by Many, it started out as a studio assignment and has since raised over $200,000 on Kickstarter. We spoke to Made by Many’s Rachel Mercer and Richard Ling about the product and process of developing it…

Aimed at six to ten-year-olds, Hackaball is a small computer system made up of a vibrating motor, lights, a battery, memory to store sounds and a speaker, encased in a transparent plastic ball. The ball is covered in a silicone membrane and can allegedly withstand being kicked, thrown and dropped.

Using an accompanying app, children can download a series of pre-made games for the ball or create their own games and functions – for example, by selecting sequences (such as sounds and lights) to be triggered in response to simple actions such as kicking, passing or bouncing the ball. Made by Many says children have also used it to make ‘Magic 8’ balls, whoopee cushions and alarm clocks.

To fund the project, the agency launched a Kickstarter campaign and has already received more than double its funding target with three days to go (you can view the campaign page here). The agency expects to ship the product by Christmas, and is now in talks with UK retailers about stocking it in high street stores.

Hackaball design sketches

As senior strategist Rachel Mercer explains, Hackaball was created in response to an internal assignment, set almost two years ago, to make a connected product. “Hackaball came out of that process because at the time, we were doing a lot of work in education and learning [Made by Many had launched a Skype platform to deliver talks and lessons to pupils in schools around the world, and an online learning service for people in developing countries with TED],” she explains.

While there are already a number of products aimed at helping teach children about coding – from Kano’s computer kit to Technology Will Save Us’ DIY Gamer Kit – Made by Many felt these were often too complicated for younger children and parents or teachers who are unfamiliar with the basics of programming.

Early prototypes

“I think Hackaball fits a really interesting gap in the marketplace,” says Mercer. “Most of what we’ve seen falls into two camps – there are a lot of applications which teach the basics of coding but are very much tethered to a screen and not very hands on, or you have really interesting products like Kano’s, which are hands-on, but it’s a much steeper learning curve to put them together. We felt there was an opportunity to make something a little more accessible and very open…it encourages children to use logic and follow sequences, but also use their imagination,” she adds.

The product was tested on dozens of schoolchildren of varying ages, says Mercer, with the studio making between 50 and 100 prototypes before deciding on a final design. The first was a rudimentary model of a sensor duct taped to an Arduiono board, followed by a series of more sophisticated 3D printed models, which have been tested and refined over the past six months. Packaging and casing was developed by Map, a industrial design consultancy founded by Barber and Osgerby, which also worked with Kano.

“There were a lot of different aspects we had to test, from the ball itself (whether it was robust enough, and the right size for children to hold in their hand) to how we would accommodate a range of literacy levels. A six-year-old’s reading ability is completely different to a ten-year-old’s, so we created a series of icons for the app to denote different kinds of actions, such as kicking or throwing the ball,” adds Mercer.

“In prototypes, we also made sure to include animations – in an age of things like Minecraft, children have really high expectations of what they interact with on screen, so a lot of our testing was aimed at gauging those expectations so we could meet them in the design of the [Hackaball] app,” she adds.

Mercer and product manager Richard Ling say the studio also spent a lot of time developing ways to ensure children would continue playing with Hackaball over a long period of time.

“We wanted to add a bit of value for parents – to make sure it wasn’t just something children would play with for a week and never pick up again, so we added features like the ability to share programmes you have created, and rewards for children the more they play with it, as well as levels,” explains Ling.

“The idea is that the ball can grow with the child, they can start out using it to play and as they get older, use it to learn about hacking hardware. We’re also testing what adults can do with it too, and looking at making it compatible with Arduino down the line,” adds Mercer.

With its funding target reached, Mercer and Ling say Hackaball should be on sale by the end of this year. The studio has also received donations on behalf of schools and universities interested in using it in lessons.

As the success of Hackaball, Kano’s computer kit, Raspbery Pi and the DIY Gamer Kit has demonstrated, there’s huge demand for products that can help teach children about coding and computing in a fun, hands-on way, and it’s great to see one that’s accessible to younger children, as well as parents and teachers who might feel intimated by some of the more complex products on sale. As Hackaball can also be programmed for group activities, it encourages social interaction (and exercise) as well as logic and creative play.

With coding now on the school curriculum, and most kids having a basic command of iPads and laptops by the time they start full time education, it’s little surprise Hackaball has generated so much interest. For Made by Many, too, it’s a great way of showcasing and promoting the company’s work, with the potential to generate enough income to fund future self-initiated projects or follow-up products.

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