Smiling our way to an inclusive classroom

10 weeks CIID, 2017

Special Thanks
Arunima Singh, Matt Visco, YeeMun Ooi, Bjørns Internationale Skole

Shortlisted for IxDA Awards 2019
Showcasing at Dubai Design Week 2019

With technology seeping into the lives of children at an alarming rate, the impact it has on a child’s social and emotional competency is one of the most concerning and debated issue for parents and educators today.

The project began with an interest in flipping this debate by exploring ways of using technology in engaging and playful ways to help children become self aware and more emotionally present. Casting a wider net, the larger goal of the project is to bring the transformation within the classroom. With more self aware children, I believe the class has the potential to address bigger challenges of inclusivity and empathy.

Geared to achieve an inclusive learning environment in the classroom, ÜPP came to life as a family of whimsical characters which use the gentle power of smiles to nurture a shared experience of empathy, kindness, and compassion among 6-8 year olds.

How it works

Each child begins the year with a ÜPP character that collects smiles from its surroundings. Each character is synced with a matching cloud which is placed in a glass jar in the classroom. With every caught smile, the synced cloud slowly floats upwards serving as an abstract representation of the mood and morale of the students. The continuous movement of the clouds in the glass jar encourages students to look beyond their own self and become mindful of their surroundings. 



The technology

ÜPP uses it's core technology (facial expression recognition and machine learning) in a non-obtrusive yet playful manner which features in the connected ÜPP characters the children wear. As the children go about their day, the character catches expressions through its in-built camera. Every time a smile is recognised, using machine learning a signal is sent to the cloud jar, where the corresponding cloud rises a certain height using a pulley system. (See attached schematic)

Actionable data
ÜPP completes the loop through a companion app for teachers. The app delivers a cumulative analysis of the day such as statistical and time-based data of the rise and fall of clouds and a graph with an overview of the day. The graph helps the teacher understand parts of the day that can be revised for maximum participation.

The data allows the teachers to get an overview of a particular child's week and analyze it in comparison to the class average. If the teacher finds concerning patterns, they can take desirable actions.

The app becomes a tool for the teacher to understand the class dynamics and be able to see invisible emotional and social patterns within the classroom.

Design challenge

How might we tap into positive emotions to talk about other complex emotions around us?


Research & prototyping
Starting from giving valuable insights to co-creating, teachers, parents and children were active participants throughout the process. To further understand children, emotions, social skills and inclusivity, over 70 hours were spent doing desk-research.

One of the key observations during a day spent at Rygaards International School was how much non-verbal communication facilitates engagement, new friendships and teamwork among children. 

Prototype 01

Sensing Smiles

A clip-on badge that detects smiles from its surroundings and triggers a gentle vibration as feedback. The child receiving the smile cannot see who it's coming from, they can only sense it.

I wanted to know if we can feel smiles? What does catching smiles mean to children? How does it make them feel?

The children sensed smiles and unanimously said it made them happy. Not being able to see a smile wasn’t a deterrent in feeling it. There is a positive association with the word smile and we are conditioned to feel happy when we see or sense a smile.

I realised I introduced tech too soon and some part of the exercise got lost in the magic of how it works rather than how it makes them feel.

Prototype 02

Pocket of smiles

A paper pocket for each child containing smiles (chopped pipe cleaners) and a jar for the classroom to collect and store the smiles for later exchange.

To understand if we can create a shared experience around smiles? Can we make smiles physical? Can this exchange alter behaviour?

The session triggered conversations about acceptance, reconciliations and belonging. The children instantly began exchanging these smiles as peace offerings or as mood enhancers or as gifts. They recognized feelings around them and took steps to alleviate them. Making smiles tangible and exchanging helps discuss difficult topics.

The teacher noted children’s sharing behaviour while they shared the smiles they had in the glass jar. An insight into children’s social behaviour helps the teacher understand the class dynamics.

Prototype 03

Smile Catcher

A programming sketch using facial expression recognition and machine learning to catch smiles

Intrigued by the conversations in the last session and to add longevity, feasibility and scalability, I wanted to know if we could use technology to catch smiles? And if we could recognize micro-expressions as inputs?

Technology to capture expressions can be made robust with time. Distance and placement of the camera to recognize a smile, types of smiles, number of smiles recognized as input were some logistical concerns. Also, being mindful of not quantifying the smiles while using technology became a design principle.

Prototype 04

Say Cheese

Two smile catchers whose cheeks glow when they receive a smile as visual feedback using batteries, LED lights, buttons and some magic.

For the camera to recognise smiles, it's required to be placed at a certain distance. This prototype tested its placement as a badge and also assessed the need for visual feedback when the camera receives a smile.

Visual feedback when a smile is received is a distraction. Also, it might quantify the smiles received. The placement of the smile catcher was ideal for the camera to recognise facial expressions and worn as a creature by the children. 
Working Prototype

ÜPP user testing

Based on the feedback from the last prototyping session and adding an element to visualise the smiles collected, I tested the final prototype to gather some insights from the children.