Power Eco-Pods

Power Eco-Pods
Tangible Interfaces for Systems thinking learning
Key words : Physical computing, screen prototyping, Tangible manipulatives, children, play, learning, nature
Skills used: Physical prototyping, Flash prototyping, Illustration, game design, interaction design
First Power Eco Pod Prototype

Wind Power Eco-Pod


Sun Power Eco-Pod


user testing session in a primary school, in Banchette, Piedmont , Italy
Power Eco-Pods OverviewPower Eco-Pods is a TUI-controlled system which mimics the growth of a flower. The system is comprised of control devices connected to a display screen. The control devices represent the elements of nature, such as the wind and the sun’s. The display screen presents an ecosystem which contains wind, rain, the sun’s light and a flower.

Children can manipulate each of the devices by a movement characteristic of the natural element it represents: waving the wind pod violently, for instance, activates an internal windmill. As children use the manipulable, they can see the results of the action on their controller device as well as on the display.

A group of children is encouraged, as a game, to physically enact the role of the elements whose pod they hold. Their combined effect is shown on a computer screen as the gradual growth (or death) of a flower, accompanied by other monitoring graphics, in a simulated ecosystem.

Design process

The challenges I was facing in the design process were both on the physical domain as well as the digital one. On one hand, I had to design an intuitive screen based interf ace that will allow exciting game play. On the other hand, I had to design physical experience that will reflect the natural elements, both in the way they would be controlled and the way they represent the elements on the screen. Lastly, both digital and physical experiences had to create a seamless playful environment that allows children also to learn.

I started with the design of the manipulable controllers. I selected to use the shape of an egg for all my tangible exploration. This shape embodied the relation to nature, had a basic shape and had a direction. By unifying the language, I was hoping to concentrate on the design of the interaction rather than the shape. An egg seemed to fit both the nature of my exploration and the form.

I wanted that the Power Eco-Pods would interact with the children on three forms. The first was the direct feedback from the device as a reaction to their action. The second is allowing control over the screen interface and the third was getting feedback from the screen to the device.

I designed the new Power Eco-Pod to have more control over the elements they control. The sun Power Eco-Pod now controlled the sun position (left, right, forward and backward) and light intensity. The child does this by holding and covering the pod, thus “energizing it”. The pod reacts to this action by generating light and generating heat, transmitted by small pins. By moving the pod to the sides, the sun moves as well. The child controls the wind man by using the wind Power Eco-Pod. This pod controls the wind man’s position as well as the wind intensity. To this device I added rotation indicators, so as the child rotates the device, an appropriate LED blinks.

The display interface 

The power Eco Pod interf ace allowed children to influence the growth of the flower and the other elements. The water, light and flower status are displayed periodically on the event window. The goal of the playing team is to keep the flower alive as much as possible. The challenge becomes more complicated as they have to work together and not disturb each other in this task. Another issue, which challenges the team, is that if they produce too much sunlight or too much rain they have to ask for their teammate for help, to dry the land or water the flower.


Erica, nine and a half, draws a volcano that erupts once every hour, and shows the timeline. Other children presented other concrete objects, especially natural elements, to suggest time passing.
Booklet with drawings that talks about some children meeting an astronaut that landed on a planet without clocks. The aim of this study is to explore children’s perception of time.
Secondary user testing

I conducted a second user test in a primary school, in Banchette, in two sessions of eight children aged 6 at each time. Patrizia Lo Cigno again accompanied me.

The aim of that session was to explore the value and properties of the physical and screen interf aces, as perceived by the children, in relation to systems thinking. The children were extremely intrigued by the new pods, as some of them knew the old version. We explained the goal and allowed them to play, in teams, and attempt to grow the flower. Although the prototype had several operational problems, the children kept asking to play, attempting to make the flower grow. When a team succeeded, the entire room burst out in screams of joy.

After the children had played, I asked them questions regarding the game, usability, mapping of the interf ace and understanding of the icons in the status window. I also asked them questions regarding the relationships between the natural elements, the influence they had on each other and on the flower.

Their answers indicated that:

  • I should increase the interf ace reaction to the children’s actions
  • Mapping an action, when supported by both the physical object and digital interf ace, helps the child associate and map the connection between the different mediums
  • The challenge of the physical operation enhances the digital activity
  • The children understood how to use the Power Eco-Pods, but better response in the pods could allow more intuitive interaction
  • Despite the resemblance between the status icons and the main interf ace, after the first explanation the children used them to learn what the flower needs and act upon that.
  • The children understood very well how the wind, sun, flower and rain are interconnected. They also understood that the ecosystem is always changing as a result of their actions
  • The Power Eco-Pods gave them and the class an opportunity to converse about systems thinking concepts and provided a real example to learn from, through play.



The work on the Power Eco-Pod lasted six weeks in which I was able to create “just-enough” prototypes for children and adults, and observe how they interact with the different systems aspects. From the user research I conclude that Power Eco-Pod enhances both the learning experience and learning systems thinking at an early age. The game allowed children to play in a contextual environment, in condensed time, and explore hands-on the mechanism of systems thinking. Doing so with tangible devices allowed them be a part of that system and internalize systems thinking concepts in a concrete way. 


Done with Wiring


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