Fathers of invention

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am


It's one thing for creative types to dream up products for children. But designers who are also parents or keen observers of youngsters' behaviour can take the process to another level. Not only can they draw insight from direct experience, many have personal guinea pigs who can provide instant feedback when testing prototypes.

Consider Raymond Li Kai-yip, who has led a double life for the past seven years. By day, he worked as an architect. By night, he turned inventor, sketching out ideas for child safety products. Most were inspired by his livewire son.

'Since my son was three and started walking, he's been very mischievous. I've witnessed many horrifying scenes with him sticking a finger in the hinges when someone is about to shut the door,' Li says.

'Like many parents, we bought foam door stoppers. But most don't work. They can prevent children from jamming their hands in the lock side, but not the hinge side of a door. Whenever you want to close the door, the stopper has to be taken out. But you sometimes forget to put it back.' Li set about devising a solution. His task was given added urgency when his brother, an emergency ward doctor in Taiwan, told him tales of frequent finger injuries among children.

The result is the Smart Door Stop. The device comprises a dumb-bell-shaped component attached by an elastic band to a main panel fixed to the door. When the door is opened, the dumb-bell slips automatically into the gap at the hinge to prevent sudden closure. A simple pull action will release it so the door can be closed completely.

Li won a gold medal for his clever idea at the Invention and New Product Exposition in Pittsburgh in 2005. But it took many modifications and six prototypes before he launched the product last month through his company MumOpto.

While Li's architectural training helped in executing his ideas, it's the lively antics of his son, now 10, that have provided a constant source of inspiration for his safety gadgets. The boy's previous penchant for vigorous rocking in his chair prompted Li to develop a gadget to prevent hyperactive children from overturning their seats and injuring their heads. A roller-based device that locks on to the legs of a chair, it acts by diffusing forces that lead to toppling.

Yeung Kwok-lam is another entrepreneur who knows what a household with youngsters requires. Since setting up his baby products company Plastmetic more than 30 years ago, he has built much of its range around the needs of his three children. Although all are grown up now, he says such needs haven't changed much over the years.

New technology and materials have enabled his team to better address consumer demands. A folding bath which earned two prizes at the Hong Kong Toys and Baby Products Awards 2012, for instance, testifies to this.

'Space is usually limited in a bathroom, yet so many bulky items are kept there such as bath basins and laundry baskets,' says Yeung. 'So we came up with a collapsible bath which is only 5.5cm thick when folded and can be stored behind the door or hung on the shower head.'

The folding bath includes safety features such as anti-slip legs and a heat-sensitive plug that changes colour from white to blue if the water reaches 37 degree Celsius. That prevents children from being scalded. The base can be adjusted to a slight angle, making it handier for mothers to bathe their children.

Elton Leung Yu-man has yet to become a dad, but the products designer reckons he makes up for that with a keen eye. A pacifier in the development pipeline at his innovation company Green Bulb is one example.

The idea came to him during a 14-hour flight to Toronto, when he sat near a baby who would not stop crying because the low air pressure was causing it discomfort.

While grown-ups are able to swallow or blow their nose to relieve built-up air pressure in the skull, Leung says, babies can't do that.

'The mother was very clever and started distracting her baby with a musical toy. It worked, but the other passengers in the cabin could also hear the high-pitched music.

'It was a night flight and many were trying to sleep.' Keeping that in mind, Leung turned his mind towards creating a musical device that could soothe babies without disturbing others. Anything with earphones was out, he decided, because it might affect sensitive infant eardrums.

He eventually came up with a pacifier with an attached music player much like an iPod or mp3 device. Adopting bone-conduction technology often used in hearing aids for babies and communication gear for scuba divers, the device sends sound waves to the jawbone and then the inner ear of the child sucking on it.

Leung has patented his design but the device is still being tested and it may be some time before he can secure the capital to bring his invention to market.

The designer, who has developed styluses for portable gaming consoles and tablet computers, says one of the main challenges in inventing baby products is ensuring it can be used safely.

Li and Yeung, who must conduct a variety of tests to meet regulatory standards, concur. 'For a product to be successful, it not only has to be safe but also give parents the confidence that it's safe. There shouldn't be any cables or electronic parts visible, for instance,' Leung says. 'When developing a product, you need to know what end-users want and keep thinking about how it may work for them. But I'm lucky as my friends are always supportive and are willing to let their kids try out my products.'

Additional costs from conducting laboratory tests and the like have made it harder for Leung to realise his concept. But he is heartened by positive feedback from his friends' children, who have been dancing and swaying as they suck on the tuneful pacifiers.

Retailers' enthusiasm for his device at a trade show in London in October also encouraged him.

'These retailers are in the front line - they are always in contact with parents - and they say parents have great need for something like that,' Leung says. 'I'm convinced of that, too, especially now that more parents are taking young children with them on trips.'

For the educational game developers at Starwish Little Prince Studio, it's an omnipresent challenge to strike a balance between delivering fun and learning. 'Instead of forcing kids to work on exercises and worksheets, which they may easily forget without regular revision, these games encourage them to review topics in their curriculum,' says general manager William Chan Lok-pan.

Over the past year, Starwish project director Cheung Wai-hung and his young programmers have tapped into the popularity of motion-sensing play to create games for schools based on Microsoft's Kinect technology.

One title, Bear! Freeze!, sets quizzes on Chinese, English, mathematics and liberal studies - with a difference. Presented with multiple-choice questions, children must strike a pose that corresponds to the correct answer instead of ticking a box.

The Candy House game also helps reinforce lessons and builds mental and physical agility. Players face a screen where an avatar stands amid falling candy that carry numbers, English words or radicals of Chinese characters. Students advance by getting the avatar to grab appropriate pieces of candy to form a Chinese character or solve a maths equation.

The games have proved very popular with students and teachers alike in trials at schools.

Players are required to apply what they have learned in class. They also get to move around. That's something of a relief for desk-bound students.

Teachers welcome the games, too, because questions can be modified so the activities can complement lesson plans. 'The force-feeding approach [to education] is obsolete and students are encouraged to take the initiative. So these games grab children's attention and give them greater motivation to learn,' Cheung says.

'Players get instant feedback so that they know straight away if they've got the right answer. The games also provide positive reinforcement - they can earn crystals for purchasing items to decorate their characters, for instance - just as the teacher might reward them when they answer correctly in a traditional lesson.'

Chan and his young colleagues are confident that they have a good grasp of what children, parents and teachers want. They have since secured the licence to develop Kinect games. With a Windows version of the technology set for release in Hong Kong this year, they are looking forward to bringing the fun factor into other settings, too.

Li can also expect to broaden his scope for helping to ensure a safe environment for children. Encouraged by a recent deal with a Japanese baby brand to adopt the MumOpto range of child safety products, he has left his job in architecture to focus on the venture.

'Designing safety devices was something I did for my son at the start. But as an an architect, I'd often work through the night on proposals that are simply rejected or spend a lot of effort on one project that just benefits a property developer. So I thought I would use that energy to do something that can help a bigger group of people,' Li says.

'Looking back, it was the right thing to do. My son has just started playing the violin. If he had severely injured his hand in a household accident, he wouldn't have been able to take up the instrument.

'There must be children who are safe from injury because they are using a well-designed product - not just one of mine. I'm happy that my gadgets can be of help.'