Build, digitise, customise – we ask the student team what makes their product one of a kind
MoBlocks by ModelUp
Front row, from left to right: Peng Maoyu (ASD), Calvin Hia Qinglin (ESD), Sheeqal Rukirsor Sofyan (EPD)
Back row, from left to right: Chan Terng Tseng Nigel (ISTD), Soh Jun Xian (ASD), Nicholas Witjaksono (EPD)
Not your ordinary toy blocks
Ask anyone along the streets if they know what LEGO is, and chances are they’ll say yes. But while this line of construction toys is an undeniably household brand, a new generation of children are now growing up on an increasing diet of online games that incorporate building experiences, such as Minecraft and Roblox. As fun as these games are, though, there’s a catch.
“The physical aspect of play is very important for children in early development,” Sheeqal elaborates. “They need to use their hands to pick up and manipulate objects. It’s part of their fundamental growth.”
While there are values in these virtual games, the Model Up team wants to limit the screen time of young children aged between four to seven years-old. To that end, they came up with the idea of MoBlocks – physical building blocks that children can play with, with an interesting twist.
“Whatever the children build, we can transfer their designs to the computer screen, where they can add stickers and change the colours of the blocks,” Calvin explains. “They can modify them in any way they want. The beauty of MoBlocks is that you can digitise these physical creations and customise them virtually.”
How it all started
“While brainstorming, we had this idea of combining fun and STEM toys together,’ Maoyu recalls. “We grew up with construction toys, but we noticed that our younger siblings and nephews are now playing online games instead.”
“In games like Minecraft, you can build anything you want,” Nigel chips in. “But Minecraft doesn’t teach you certain concepts that you can only learn through physical play, such as gravity and structural stability. Blocks often defy gravity in Minecraft and that’s not how it is in reality.”
An interview with one of their lecturers, faculty fellow Andrew Yee from the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) cluster, also inspired the team to incorporate the idea of transference – relating what children see onscreen to the physical world.
Laying the first brick
“If you look at it, you’ll think – ‘oh it’s just blocks’,” Calvin laughs. ”But successfully transferring a physical toy block into a virtual space is really a feat. There’re a lot of thought processes behind this simple design, like how we did the wiring, the connections and the coding. And with the Covid-19 situation, there were a few months where we couldn’t even meet, let alone piece this project together.”
One of the earlier challenges the team faced was connectivity – how to build the electronics inside the blocks so that they can connect with one another. This connectivity would allow the computer programme to understand how the blocks are pieced together, and allow the physical design to be translated into the screen.
“It’s interesting that with two EPD members in the team, we actually complement each other,” Nicholas comments. “I’m from Electrical Engineering, and Sheeqal is from Mechanical Engineering, so I worked on the wiring while he was in charge of the housing and contact points. Our prototype actually exceeded our initial requirements – you can connect the bricks in any orientation, and the programme will recognise the connections. That’s only possible because Sheeqal managed to fit all three connections (power, ground and connection) into each bricks’ studs.”
We’re simplifying a lot of the technical explanations that goes into the physical blocks, of course. But while Nicholas, Sheeqal, Maoyu, and Jun Xian toiled over the prototype, Nigel and Calvin had their work cut out for them too.
“We had to get our basics down for the virtual platform,” Nigel says. “We didn’t have any game development background, so Calvin and I went to learn how to use the Unity game engine. We also had to find a bridge that will allow the bricks to “speak” to Unity.”
The Arduino board in the (red) base plate acts as the bridge.
They eventually settled on Arduino as the bridge. Through a series of trial-and-error, Nigel created the codes that synced the blocks, Arduino, and the Unity game engine together.
“It’s still a work-in-progress because there’re still some improvements I’ll like to make to optimise the data translation over to Unity,” Nigel comments.
Building on each other’s expertise
Despite being a multi-disciplinary project, rarely does the Capstone programme see a team like Model Up that consists of at least one team member from every specialisation. Did we also mention that it’s all all-males team?
“It wasn’t planned,” Sheeqal laughs, referring to the gender composition. “It just happened.”
But having members from all four specialisations is crucial to the success of the project. While the EPD team members (Sheeqal and Nicholas) worked on the electronics within the blocks, the ASD team members (Maoyu and Jun Xian) designed the blocks to address the gap of architecture in STEM toys.
“Some of the simple transformation strategies we learnt in ASD are also concepts that children will unconsciously discover when they play with the blocks,’ Maoyu explains. “So we thought, what better way to introduce them to these concepts than through gameplay itself?”
On the digital front, both Nigel (ISTD) and Calvin (ESD) toiled on the Unity system. Nigel focused more on the codes that would digitise the physical designs, and Calvin worked on the data collection portion that would help preschool and kindergarten teachers collate and organise those designs into the children’s portfolios (more on that in the next section!). Thanks to his ESD specialisation, Calvin is also the most finance-savvy member in the team. so he took charge of the financial projections – a requirement for all Entrepreneurship Capstone projects.
Play is hard work
“We interviewed a lot of preschool teachers from different kindergartens”, Jun Xian begins. “According to the MOE’s (Ministry of Education) Nurturing Early Learners curriculum framework, preschool and kindergarten teachers have to create portfolios for the students to share with their parents, and to also facilitate learning.
For example, if a child has a preference for the colour red, the teachers may make a note to encourage the child to use other colours to expand his/her creativity.”
So what is fun and games to the children often translates into time-consuming work for their teachers, who have to take photos of the students’ works, make annotations, and upload the information online. After speaking to the teachers, the Model Up team saw MoBlocks in a new light. It isn’t just an educational STEM toy for children, it can also be a much-needed profiling and documentation tool for teachers.
But enough talk – let’s build!
Armed with MoBlocks and stickers, the children involved in the play test were asked to come up with designs. Unbeknownst to them, of course, was the list of objectives that the Model Up team were hoping to tick off during the session. Maoyu elaborates on one of the more important goals.
“We wanted to validate the idea of customising the blocks. During the play test, the stickers represented our virtual platform, and it made the kids think “how am I going to use this space when I use this sticker?” A child pasted tree stickers near the entrance of the building to indicate a park facing the building front. Another child transformed a space in her design into a mini zoo using animal stickers. These imaginative thoughts wouldn’t have surfaced without the stickers, and convinced us that the virtual platform adds significant value to the overall play experience.
We also want to thank our professors, Prof Bige Tuncer and Prof Malika Meghjani, for letting her children and nephew respectively take part in the play testing. Watching them play with our product was a fun and very memorable experience for us!”
The big break/brick
As an Entrepreneurship Capstone project, the team had to find and secure their own clients.
“We actually called every single kindergarten in Singapore to ask if they were interested in MoBlocks,” Jun Xian laughs.
Their hard work did not go unpaid – two kindergartens, Josiah Montessori Preschool and My Learning Haven, were in the process of sourcing for educational toys when the Model Up team contacted them.
“They even went to Finland and Denmark to find out about these toys, because these countries have one of the best education technologies,” Jun Xian elaborates. “So when they realised we were building these toys right here in Singapore, they were naturally very interested.”
The team has plans to contact more schools to get their feedback before creating a market-ready prototype, and also source for funding to establish a startup with SUTD’s Entrepreneurship Centre.
“Our project may look simple,” Nicholas says. “But it’s really not as simple as it looks. There’re many construction block toys out there right now, but they don’t have this technology embedded in the blocks. We plan to revolutionise the physical block play system with virtual translation.”
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