University of Sussex
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Tangible user interfaces and social interaction in children with autism

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:54 authored by William John Farr
Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs) offer the potential for new modes of social interaction for children with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC). Familiar objects that are embedded with digital technology may help children with autism understand the actions of others by providing feedback that is logical and predictable. Objects that move, playback sound or create sound – thus repeating programmed effects – offer an exciting way for children to investigate objects and their effects. This thesis presents three studies of children with autism interacting with objects augmented with digital technology. Study one looked at Topobo, a construction toy augmented with kinetic memory. Children played with Topobo in groups of three of either Typically Developing (TD) or ASC children. The children were given a construction task, and were also allowed to play with the construction sets with no task. Topobo in the task condition showed an overall significant effect for more onlooker, cooperative, parallel, and less solitary behaviour. For ASC children significantly less solitary and more parallel behaviour was recorded than other play states. In study two, an Augmented Knights Castle (AKC) playset was presented to children with ASC. The task condition was extended to allow children to configure the playset with sound. A significant effect in a small sample was found for configuration of the AKC, leading to less solitary behaviour, and more cooperative behaviour. Compared to non-digital play, the AKC showed reduction of solitary behaviour because of augmentation. Qualitative analysis showed further differences in learning phase, user content, behaviour oriented to other children, and system responsiveness. Tangible musical blocks (‘d-touch’) in study three focused on the task. TD and ASC children were presented with a guided/non-guided task in pairs, to isolate effects of augmentation. Significant effects were found for an increase in cooperative symbolic play in the guided condition, and more solitary functional play was found in the unguided condition. Qualitative analysis highlighted differences in understanding blocks and block representation, exploratory and expressive play, understanding of shared space and understanding of the system. These studies suggest that the structure of the task conducted with TUIs may be an important factor for children’s use. When the task is undefined, play tends to lose structure and the benefits of TUIs decline. Tangible technology needs to be used in an appropriately structured manner with close coupling (the distance between digital housing and digital effect), and works best when objects are presented in familiar form.


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University of Sussex

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