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Sensory Play




Bluetooth Sharing

Light Projection


Empathy has been designed to improve the lives and well being of children on the autistic spectrum through sensory play. All children on the autistic spectrum possess different symptoms, however many share the inability to engage themselves within social & domestic environments. This colourful toy helps children to feel relaxed, whilst prompting the child to think & engage. Empathy was inspired by the needs of children on the spectrum to help build confidence & life skills in understanding the world through senses.


The toy's colourful and textured surfaces are designed to inspire children to learn through sensory interaction. Children on the autistic spectrum find it difficult to communicate verbally and through motion in these environments and require an aid of comfort to regain control as identified in the research conducted during this project.


The aim of this project was to create a toy-like product that suits the needs of the child - the toy had to be easy-to-use, comforting, fun, colourful & inspiring. By following the product design process, this product was able to take form through detailed primary & secondary research, conceptual development & prototyping.


The research findings helped to identify the needs of the end user. The initial set of concepts were inspired by looking into what current or similar products are available in the market. The most popular products found were soft, flexible toys that featured musical and light projector aspects that could be controlled by squeezing or pressing buttons.   

Primary Research Findings

Children on the Autistic Spectrum find it difficult to socialise with others who attempt to interact. As a result the individual feels unhappy.

Primary research into current communication aids helped to visualise what solutions currently service the market, as well as capturing key terms that best described these aids. The autistic spectrum has been said to be so diverse, making it difficult to pinpoint all individuals as sharing the same symptoms. Visual & emotional communication skills were found to be one common trait shared, allowing for a focus point of the project.

Cariad Interactive are group of dedicated researchers and students that research into new methods of improving interaction for multiple causes & different age ranges.  The research and interactive design group collaborated on the project to help the product service a need. 

The following word cloud captured key terms suggested by the public during questionnaires and interviews for research. Emotion, stress & social terms presented. These terms produced the final requirements for the project brief, and a focus point in which a product could be a solution.

Initial Concept Development

The initial development of this project was focused on research findings & looking at existing solutions such as toys that are flexible, musical, projected light by squeezing or pressing buttons, & personalised environments such as tents that enabled personal space from stressful situations. Below are a sample of initial concepts.

Further Conceptual Development

The initial concepts were shared & discussed amongst project collaborator Cariad Interactive, who were able to provide extensive insight into what solutions could be combined & taken forwards into further design development. Below are a sample of further developed concepts.

Initial Prototyping

Prototyping enabled  3D physical models to communicate the needs for the design concepts. The prototypes had to follow from the research findings & design specification: Fun, Interactive, calming.

The shape provided a comfort grip for users. Moulded grips could be used as buttons to trigger interaction as a potential concept.

This prototype was designed to simulate the ability to separate a toy and interact with parts of its structure. Each external component would interact with the central mechanism, producing music and lights.

The 'Squeeze & twist' concept has been modelled from a cylinder shape. When compressed the sides form a curved form. The thought process behind the 'squeeze & twist' was to encourage the mind to explore sensory stimulation & interaction. Using LED's to create calm lighting, this would be one design element that had to be encompassed in the final concept. 

The cylinder design performed well when slots were cut into the design, allowing the user to 'press' these in allowing light to escape. This worked well for light projection and was taken further into development. Mood lighting works well in 'escape rooms' that children on the Autistic Spectrum find relaxing when exposed to stress.

The smaller cylinder device was a stronger design ergonomically, allowing the user to retain a better grip. The ability to 'personalise' the product by threading items such as plastic toys and colourful string was factored into the prototype, as research shows that children on the Autistic Spectrum love the ability to personalise items with such objects.

Initial CAD development

The following designs were inspired from conceptual development and prototyping. The strongest features found from the public were integrated into these CAD designs. Producing these designs helped to collect further findings for the final design.

Inspired from initial concept development, this drum like shape would fold open to expose an interactive surface. Hitting the surface would generate lighting.


The cylinder design features multiple surface areas that would be pressed to create lighting whilst prompting sensory interaction. The object is presented in a selection of calming colours.

This concept was inspired during prototyping a cylinder shape with exposed slots. When pushed together the objects slots would expand, allowing light and music to travel through.  


Detailed Conceptual Development

Research findings found the tall cylinder design presented the best style and potential in incorporate multiple features. Detailed designs of this concept can be found below. 


To achieve social sharing and prompt interaction between child and adult, the device was further developed so that it could be divided into two halves. If the product could be divided, this would motivate the child to overcome the social barrier. 

Research image 1_edited.png

Detailed Prototyping    Phase 1: The external design

The cylinder models would be the focus shape of the product; this shape was found to be the easiest to hold, press buttons and softest looking design. A large & small model were produced to identify how candidates would pick up and interact with the object. The ability to divide the object into two halves was well received for its feedback, where as the larger design required a larger hand span to grasp and press the object. This serviced a mature user well but wouldn't be fit for purpose for the target user. The smaller design was taken further at this point.


Model concept 1

Model concept 2

Detailed Prototyping    Phase 2: the central button

Children on the autistic spectrum are found to have very attention to detail and learn quickly through problem solving. To encourage problem solving and engagement, an idea to create a central 'locking button' to help the child to understand when the product is corrected reconnected. The following designs show what the central button could look like. The combination of idea 1 & 7 were the most popular and were taken further into development.

Button design 1

Button design 5

Button design 2

Button design 6

Button design 3

Button design 7

Button design 4

Button design 8

Detailed Prototyping    Phase 3: test jigs

The final prototyping stage of the project was to make a functional product. This could be achieved by outsourcing existing prototyping technology, programmable software and components to perform lighting, sound and vibration. Arduino was selected for the project with its ability to service all of the specification requirements. With its programming software the test jog was able to fully operate with the use of trigger switches. These would be hidden behind each of the external buttons. The texture of the button had to be 'squidgy, fun and soft'. Balloons were found to be an inspiring tool for this process, particularly the material. The findings from running tests were fed into the final stages of design.


Arduino circuitry would be encased with each unit to allow the prototype to physically operate. LED's, power sources and textures were considered at this point of the design before final development.


Detailed CAD development

Producing detailed CAD designs were produced to show how the model would feature the Arduino prototype circuit, rechargeable battery source and wiring. All collected information from the product design process has been applied to this stage of the products development. The development of the buttons, branding, features & colouring can be found below.

Test jig 1_edited.jpg

Top | Bottom component to house internals

Test jig 5_edited.jpg
Test jig 7_edited.jpg
Test jig 3_edited.jpg

Centre components to house buttons & wiring

Centre piece with textured ends

Final Prototype

Detailed Prototyping required all research & design elements to combine into a suitable solution to solve the product brief. Various manufacturing techniques were used during the during this phase including the lave, laser cutting, milling machine & CNC cutting. Below are a sample of detailed prototypes.






Each component required another part for the second device when separated.

Final Concept

Empathy has been designed by & for children on the Autistic Spectrum. With its multiple features in design, Empathy truly caters for the needs of social interaction. Below are final CAD designs featuring Empathy's Features & benefits, Bill of Materials, In context use & its collaborative partner, Cariad Interactive.

Designed for interaction

Empathy can be separated into two to allow for social interaction with the use of its textured colourful buttons

Fun colours & design

Calming colours used throughout the design & simple yet versatile style for all

Lighting, Music & Vibration all at the flick of a switch

The prototype has been fitted with Arduino circuitry and is a fully functional prototype

Award Winning Design

Empathy was nominated & awarded for its design need & concept at the Industrial Elektra European Electronics Awards in 2014. The category was for rising star new engineer of the year

Elektra Award Winner Image.jpg
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