‘The Village’ – toy design for VR

Izabela Duszenko

VR Project Involving Character and Narrative design Driven by a Unique Perspective of Children’s Imagination

The following blog post is about a project exhibited during a Festival of Play at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, July 2019 , in collaboration with Juliette Coquet, Sindi Breshani, Dimitri Menexopoulos, Anna Tuhus & Feiqi Wang. ​​​​​​​

We were asked to design a VR experience for children based on findings from the Playing the Archive research project and a historical form of play to be a part of the Play Festival. This was a wonderful opportunity for us to study and understand a little more about the changing nature of play for children over the generations and what the effect of fashions, materials and technology could have on our informative years.


Place (Village) by Rachel Whiteread, V&A Museum of Childhood, London      ​​​​​​​

Firstly, we had to find an inspiration for our project from within the Museum of Childhood’s collection and eventually we decided on the amazing Rachel Whiteread collection of around one hundred fifty dolls houses, a perfect example of the traditional. The main element that attracted us to these dolls houses was the desire to find out ‘what goes on inside’. These magical miniatures are just like an empty page waiting to be filled with narrative, recognising this we realised this approach would be an excellent starting point to use for our response to the brief. Using a dolls house as the subject for VR content also allowed us to be playful with scale and create new imaginary environments.​​​​​​​ What could we find inside? Who are we going to meet? What has happened in this place? In order to answer these questions and create an immersive digital space we had to leave behind our adult preconceptions and enter the creativity of a children’s mind.

Entering a Child’s Imagination- Primary School Workshop     ​​​​​​​

We decided to experiment at this point by including children in the concept development, to base elements of the design for the project purely on their imagination via interactive workshops, creating together with pupils narrative and characters for the VR experience. During these workshop children were given a paper miniature of one of the houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood collection and asked to create a story of what is happening in and around the house.

Their narratives were surprising, abstract, funny and exactly what we needed. The children expressed their ideas through drawings and three dimensional models, with the help of prompt cards and tokens designed by Sindi Breshani. They included a king who built the village a long time ago to protect his family from a witch, who cursed the village creating a solar eclipse. The children also mentioned a dictatorship, this surprising suggestion from the children though a slightly negative part of the narrative we considered perhaps a result of the current political situation, something that children witness nowadays. Other characters designed by children included a calculator man, a scientist, fireflies, dragons, a gecko and a rooster, some we would  never have thought of as adults, or considered occupants of a doll house. This only proved to us how creative children are and how right we were to use their input, they gave us the basis for a unique and wonderful narrative to be built upon by the team.  After the pupil’s imaginations had taken us on their fantastical journey, we looked at the results and the team decided to take four of their characters forward for the project: The Witch, The King, The Calculator Man and The Scientist. ​​​​​​​ 

The following images show children’s design of The Witch, The King & his family, The Calculator Man and The Scientist. Miniature houses designed by Juliette Coquet.

A pupil creating the character of The King & his family ‘…a long time ago there was a king who wanted to help his family…’
The Witch
The King & his family
The Calculator Man
The Scientist

The Rabbit Hole

A major design consideration was to divide the experience between digital and physical elements. With the use of VR, a digital world was created that was inspired by children and rendered by Juliette Coquet. In the VR village the user is able to enter the houses virtually and learn the history of the Village through a narrative that the user can only hear once inside the individual homes.

Each house represented a particular character and this was expressed through a collection of different approaches, narrative, melodies and ambient sounds composed by Dimitris Menexopoulos. The physical element was to create the characters in the form of a more traditional toy for children to play with. The aim of adding these familiar objects was for children to connect with a character and get to know them in a tactile manner before entering their houses in virtual reality, this could make the transition from physical to virtual smoother, and involve children in the narrative who were waiting to use the VR unit. The toys became an important part of the ‘Rabbit Hole’, this way, the approach into the virtual world happened both through a more traditional interaction, something that they already know and are more familiar with.

Creating the Characters- Making the Toys

The most important aspect for me, is for a child to connect to any toy I design and to have fun playing with it. When making prototypes I usually try to play with them myself, working out how a child would handle the item. Whilst building The Calculator Man the idea came to me to add a little object or accessory to the toy. In our lives the objects that we are surrounded by come to represent us, with this in mind I carefully studied the narrative created by the school children and created for The Calculator Man a playful little calculator, which much to my delight was recognised by many children during the V&A Play Festival as a baby calculator and started many new conversations between the children about family. The story that stayed with me concerned ‘The Scientist getting married to The Calculator Man and now they have a baby’.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ It was important for me that the two approaches to the experience both digital and physical were coherent, working well together for the user, therefore I decided to use a recognisable video game low poly form in which to render the toys. This approach received good feedback during the Festival of Play. Another aspect I noticed that was interesting, was that because of the toys angular shape, children would stack the characters on the top of each other creating their very own totems, this seemed to me to be an instinctive desire for building and constructing.

My design interpretation of The Witch, The King & his family, The Calculator Man and The Scientist

When designing The King, the children’s narrative became an important aspect… ’A long time ago there was a king who wanted to help his family’. I created four smaller characters to accompany the King, creating a family unit. Each of the king’s children had to be an individual, slightly different in shape and size with similar characteristics. When thinking of colours and how the characters would look, I needed to adhere to the children’s design ideas and suggestions, for instance ‘the king doesn’t have a body’ and ‘he needs big gems on his boots’, even little details such as ‘you need a giant purple wart on the witches nose’.  The idea for little legs and little arms of characters came from one child’s suggestion ‘I need a head and some tiny legs and two tiny arms.’ These details may seem minor, but I considered them important as they were the whole point of the children’s input and in turn the project itself. ​​​​​​​

 During the design process I tried to play with the toys and create short scenarios like: ‘The naughty King plotted with his family a kidnapping of the Calculator Man’s baby’. Emotional expression also became important to the design of the characters, I had to ask myself questions such as ‘how do the characters feel and how do they make you feel?’ This can be built into the toys with the size and form of the eyes, the mouth, cheeks and perhaps a smiley face for children to connect and to feel safe. When designing The Scientist and The Witch I wanted to be as close as possible to the colourful characters designed by the children. The witch had a green face and dress, purple hair and orange patterned tights, I was given a complete colour palette by the children and it worked perfectly. The Scientist had a wonderful, oversized bunch of blue hair, the gender was nonspecific and together with a darker skin tone, with inclusivity in mind.
The project for me was a wonderful opportunity to combine a lively children’s workshops with digital and toy design, an experiment in tapping directly into their imaginations and turning the results into a unique product, literally allowing children to lead.

The Scientist
The King & his family
The Calculator Man
The King

More of Izabela Duszenko’s work can be found here.

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