Cuddle Buddies are a pair of IoT dolls that can sense and reciprocate one another’s inputs via WiFi. They each contain a series of LEDs and a vibrator motor, and will react whenever the other is pressed. They come as a pair, and are aimed at children with separation anxiety.
Context: School of Visual Arts, Smart Objects course, Internet of Things project
Cuddle Buddies are built around the concept of nonverbal communication. In this case, they use the gesture of a hug to nonverbally communicate a sense of longing and affection to a distant recipient. Unlike a text message or an email, a Cuddle Buddy can transmit feelings instead of merely words.
The dolls have input switches in each hand as well as their chest. When pressed, these input switches send a signal via WiFi to an internet-based program called Adafruit IO, which then sends a command to both dolls to trigger a specific action. The dolls each have LEDs embedded in their hands (blue on the left, red on the right), as well as a small vibrator motor in their chests. The outputs are triggered in this way: if one squeezes the left hand of the blue- eyed doll, for instance, a message is sent to IO, which then triggers the blue left-hand light to flash on the left hand of both dolls. The same gesture can be done on the left hand, right hand, and chests of either doll to the same effect.
Although these dolls are essentially communication devices, they haven’t been designed to function like a set of walkie-talkies or replace the role of a cell phone. The Brothers Bonded are more personal than that. The dolls aim to communicate the feeling of missing and thinking about a particular person when they’re far away, but do so in a way that preserves the sincerity and intimacy of those emotions. Much like a hug or a kiss, the dolls convey affectionate gestures in nonverbal ways. The experience is personal, with gestures only being seen or felt by the doll’s respective owners. The moment is fleeting, with no way to record or “share” the event. Finally, the gesture is intentional, since only the pair can activate one another’s gestures. In these ways, the Brothers Bonded are very much an analog experience facilitated through digital means.
The form itself is also integral to the experience. They were designed as plush toys to encourage users to touch, hold, and embrace them in an intimate way. While they could have easily taken the shape of a teddy bear or some other animal shape, they were made to resemble small children to help embody the sincerity of the gestures being communicated through them. Moreover, by being anthropomorphic, they can be altered to resemble the other person who is far away, contributing to a sense of intimacy and authenticity.
Cuddle Buddies were essentially 3 projects in one: software, hardware, and form.
For the software, I began by sourcing a segment of code from a similar Arduino project on the open source coding website, Instructables. I then heavily modified the code to account for multiple devices, added LEDs, and a vibrator motor. Once the doll-specific interactions were wirtten out, I set up the inputs to upload into a deticated IO feed hosted online. In this way, whenever an input on either doll was triggered, the information was sent to a web-based host, which then sent the "then" of an if/then statement back to each doll, which in turn triggered one of the 3 outputs.
For hardware, I wired 3 unique inputs (two buttons and a force sensitive plate), 3 unique outputs (two colored LEDs and a vibrator motor), a lithium-polymer battery, and a micro-USB cable to a fully soldered breadboard connected to a Feather Huzzah for each of the two dolls. I assembled each "hand" with an LED, button, and power and ground cables and did the same for the force plate and vibrator motor in the chest, taking care to label each wire so I could solder them correctly into place after.
Finally, I constructed the plush form by drawing a fabric pattern on a piece of paper, cutting the fabric, sewing the pieces inside out, hand stiching the pieces together, and strategically applying polyester stuffing to either diffuse light, conceal hardware, or protect the delicate motherboard.
Getting the vibrator motor to finally work was definitely the biggest challenge throughout a constant barrage of challenges. Probably 1/4 of the entire amount of time spent on the project was spent trying to get the motors to work. With this, I learned several things: first, to accept the struggle. I knew going in this would be difficult for me, and it turned out being even harder, but I think I was able to handle the late nights and frustration better because I had accepted it beforehand. Second, that you can go much further when you’re not going alone. I’m entirely new to the world of hardware and software, and I’d have never been able to execute my designs were it not for the help or kindness of teachers and classmates who were much more skilled than I and willing to help.
Oddly, I didn’t mind the unceasing tedium of sewing, soldering, or coding. It was the troubleshooting that I found difficult. At any point, I didn’t know if I was dealing with a hardware or software problem—or both. I was such a novice that I didn’t know what questions to ask when something went wrong. Much of this project, for me, was a process of learning how to troubleshoot. I learned about software and hardware in reverse: I began with problems and worked my way backwards. Most of what I now know about circuitry, code, and sewing I know because I first tried something, failed, and went through the process of learning why. Often, this process repeated itself over and over. I found it took a lot longer than it should have because in many cases, I was repeatedly making a mistake on a variable I didn’t even know existed. In these cases, it took the help of someone else to show me where I had gone wrong.
In terms of concept, I was incredibly inspired by the sense of magic and judicious use of technology in Tickle Me Elmo. I was also inspired by the walkie talkie and it’s closed-loop method of two-way communication.
As far as the metaphors of sentimental objects and nonverbal communication, I was inspired by my summers as a camp counselor, where I sometimes witnessed my little ones miss their parents and cherish things like stuffed animals and letters from home as emotional reminders of their far away loved ones.