Maker Faire NYC. We were there, and we took to the stands to explore who on hand is making life better. We spoke with teens and the well-traveled, each tackling issues of access. HugMatch is a toy for visually impaired and sighted children ages 2 through 5. Designed by recent graduate Chloe Koo, the game enables children with different sight capabilities to play together, side-by-side, improve their social skills and train their audio and tactile senses.

NIN: Talk to us about HugMatch. How did the idea start?

Chloe:   Growing up with an uncle with a disability, and volunteering to help disabled people, inspired my passion to do a project for them. I always aspire to create something that is emotionally rich and grounded in meaning as a designer. I also believe that inspiring surroundings can have a positive effect on people's lives.

I have a background in graphic design and I've been always curious about designing for people without sight. To find out what can help visually impaired people, I visited and interviewed people from schools and societies for the blind in New York and New Jersey - St. Joseph's School for the Blind, Lighthouse International, Helen Keller Services for the Blind - Through research, I learned that between the ages of 2 and 5 is the most important period of development. After 5 years of age, the fingertips' senses dull, so, exposing 2-5 year olds to a variety of fundamental experiences is essential.

I saw the different style of toys that they've got, and so I tried designing Hugmatch to focus on the things the visually-impaired children lack, such as the understanding of an object, communication skills, and social interaction with peers. The senses of touch and hearing are also the senses that the visually-impaired develop more than non-visually-impaired peers.

How hard was it to get real feedback from the kids as to what you were designing? Or was it just a case of just waiting to see if they smile and continue to play?

Chloe:   It was really hard to make a connection with the visually impaired people, because there aren't many visually impaired children. So, it was really hard work to visit many communities for the research. I could interview visually-impaired adults and some children and their teachers, and physical, occupational and speech therapists. 

And, finally, I got each doll. 18 baby dolls and 2 mother dolls. Each toy has different sounds and different fabric textures, too. Two or more players simply put the mother dolls around their chest and find the baby dolls with matching texture. The players can find out if they’ve got a match or not by listening to a sound while closing their eyes. The first player to find the right baby doll wins. When the dolls match, it says, “You did it!” And if they don’t, it says, “Try one more time,” with vibration. 

I believe, by hugging dolls, the children can experience how people exchange and express their love for each other.

Who was the first person to try them?

Chloe: A visually impaired adult. He got several ideas to me. He was happy with it. He started laughing and was, like "Awesome!" He was also the one who told me about the time period, the ages when the sense of touch develops in the fingertips. 

How did that make you feel?

Chloe:   It made me so happy. This is the first product that I have created that gave me a stronger belief in myself. Actually, when I went to the Helen Keller Service for Blind. There were ten children around, all visually impaired. When they are playing with this, they smile. That makes me also smile. I was really happy to see the children like that.

Is there an opportunity to replicate this? It seems so hand-crafted right now, which is great, as they have so much personality. But, how will you make more?

Chloe: If I have a chance, then I definitely want to make more, but since this was my graduate school thesis project, and I just graduated university two months ago, it's hard to find time to develop it further. I will definitely find time to develop this more in the future.

You're a recent college graduate? So... where are you now?

Chloe: I'm a UI/UX designer [user interface/user experience designer] at Amazon-Audible

Let's talk more about your inspiration, your uncle. Is he blind?

Chloe: He is not. He has another disability.



So that gave you the original awareness around this issue. Have you done other things to help different communities?

Chloe: Actually, I did some volunteer work for helping disabled people in South Korea.

And it's all because of your uncle?

Chloe: Yeah. Because, in South Korea, it makes me sad, because when we go to restaurants and some other places, they didn't like it. We are customer, and I don't know why they are like that, but it makes me keep helping disabled people.

What’s something that's seen as being impossible now, but that you would want to make not impossible?

Chloe:  I have to think about it ... There are lots of disabled people who are lonely, seniors, and sometimes babies without their mom and dad. So, I would like to volunteer for them, keep them happy, too, - it would be better than them being alone. I would like to help more than ten, more than a hundred people, to help bring people a world experienced through your heart with your eyes closed and ears opened. 

Click here to find out more about Hugmatch!

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All photos by Elliot V. Kotek for NotImpossibleNow