‘See what the kids do,’ Fabrizio said time and time again, ‘we have to see what the kids think, how they use it’. After months of conceptual development and two weeks of programming we were inpatient to get our avatar to its intended users. So on Friday afternoon, as I walked up to the Mongolian Yurt that serves as the classroom for a group of kids who homeschool in Yingqiao, I was carrying our prototype puppet in my rucksack. The funky puppets short arms protruding from each side giving him away.
DouDou, a warm and friendly kid, is already there and greets us with a lovely smile and ‘hello!’ I take out the puppet, turn on the ipad, and show him the little creature who smiles back. ‘What’s that?’ he asks with the sort of hesitant delight we feel when encounter something new, exciting, and alive. ‘He’s a new toy – do you want to play with him?’ Doudou’s hesitation has evaporated and he’s already directly in front of the puppet looking into the eyes of the avatar. ‘Can you make him laugh?’ I ask. Doudou glances at me, then back to the avatar, his smile expands and the avatar responds, and Doudou laughs in delight, and starts to play and experiment with his new friend.

After a while, shortly before our other students are due to arrive for class, I put the puppet back in my rucksack, only his arms protruding horizontally, and start to prepare materials for the lesson. As soon as Niuniu and Cloris come into the yurt Doudou tells them ‘Marc has a brought a really interesting thing’. The other kids look expectantly and so I take it from my bag and bring it to life before placing it in front of them. Their eyes open in wonder and almost immediately they know how to relate to the avatar. Vying for its attention they share its gaze, pulling a range of faces, twisting here and there, tickled by his responses, and experimenting with his attunement.

This first encounter with kids is an unmitigated success and I soon share the interactions with the team. After our class I let a few other kids play with the puppet for a while, individually and in pairs, and we’re happily reassured – even a little surprised – at how engaging the kids find it. Not only are they excited by the way the avatar follows their emotional expressions and responds accordingly, but the interactions have a very organic quality: there’s a tentativeness, a degree of gradual familiarisation, a kind of warmth, that I can’t remember having seen before when children are looking into tablets. The anthropomorphic puppet, cuddly and cute, surely enhances this, and a child sitting opposite the puppet looks engaged with another being. I excitedly shared the experiences with Jina our puppet master!
The physicality and social quality of how the kids naturally used the puppet and avatar were particularly striking. Not only the way kids got closer to the puppet, held its hand when interacting, leaned in physically to exaggerate their cues, and inevitably touched its face (touch is of course the main traditional means of interaction with these devices!), but the way they played and communicated with it in a group. The avatar seemed to be a new member of their peer circle, a new kid in class, and they all wanted to get to know him, narrated their mutual interactions with him, their successes in evoking certain emotional expressions, predicted what particular behaviours might evoke, and speculated on his tendencies.
Our pilot was a success: the kids – genius collaborators – had embraced our app in many ways, and immediately given us a wealth of stuff to consider and integrate