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The PenPal Project

The PenPal - a portable communications device for children aged four to six - was designed and prototyped at Stanford University in the context of the 1994 Apple Interface Design Competition. The PenPal enables children to learn by creating images and sending them across the Internet to a real audience of friends, classmates, and teachers. A built-in camera and microphone allow children to take pictures and add sounds or voice annotations. The pictures can be modified by plugging in different tools and sent through the Internet using the PenPal Dock.

The limited symbolic reasoning and planning abilities, short attention span, and pre-literacy of children in this age range were taken into account in the PenPal design. The central design philosophy and main contribution of the project was to create a single interface based on continuity of action between hardware and software elements. The physical interface flows smoothly into the software interface, with a fuzzy boundary between the two.

The PenPal project received awards for "Best Hardware/Software Integration and User Involvement" and "Best Presentation" as well as a distinction in the ID Magazine annual competition (student category.)

Presentations and Publications
Scenario Presentation One of the first class assignments was to understand the target user group (in this case children aged four to six) and how the product could be used. Various scenarios were generated showing different tasks that could be performed with the PenPal device.
Final Presentation This final presentation summarizes the design steps the team went through during this project: (1) understanding the users, (2) developing usage scenarios, (3) prototyping key interaction elements and (4) conducting usability tests. It got the team selected to go present its work at Apple Computer.
CHI Presentation After the competition was over the PenPal project was presented at the Conference on Computer Human Interaction '95 in Denver (the corresponding conference paper is available below.)
Memory Card Insertion Designing the PenPal: Blending Hardware and Software in a User-Interface for Children, in Proceedings of the Conference on Computer Human Interaction (CHI '95), 1995, pp. 511-518.
PenPal Prototype
2MB Shockwave movie
In order to understand the issues in merging physical and screen interfaces, a software prototype was developed and tested. To model the physical interactions, a touch-screen was taped onto a computer monitor and a large-scale cardboard mock-up of the PenPal was taped on top of the touch-screen. The cardboard mock-up included the main hardware features of the PenPal: two tool slots, and a coaching button at the top of the screen. The software was controlled through a combination of behind-the-scenes manipulation by a project member and of direct user interaction with the touch-screen.