The Ultimate Storyteller
Team Project | Oct 2019
Saga. The adventure awaits!
Getting your children to bed can be a long process, and sometimes the “just one more story” lasts forever...
Introducing Saga the ultimate bedtime storyteller. Bedtime stories are important for both childrens’ literacy and language development, and their moral development; it’s how we’ve passed on knowledge since the beginning of time. Saga is for the “just one more story”, for the nights when you can’t get home from the office. It’s not just another bedtime story, Saga is a world your kids can explore. It gets kids involved in stories and books through it’s master storyteller’s choose-your-own-adventure stories. Saga doesn’t just read the story to the child, it makes them the story teller, allowing the child to choose what the character should do next with both small decisions to increase their vocabulary, and large ones that have moral lessons attached to them.
User Interviews with 2 children and 3 sets of parents
Interview with Alison Gopnik and 2 of her PhD students
Reading >40 children's bedtimes stories
Naming | Mythos | Page Design | Human Voices | Parent Inclusion | Moral Teaching
From the research, we identified key aspects that informed all design decisions.
For naming the book and project, we wanted a strongly mythical name that was associated with words and stories. We researched the names of old gods in different mythologies and voted between Saga (Norse goddess of poets and stories), Adios (God of knowledge), and Lugh (Irish God of Light and Knowledge). We wanted a name associated with a mythos, but not one that was too well known (i.e. Athena). After a vote, Saga was chosen.
Mythos of Saga
Since storytelling, and the passing down of knowledge, has such an axial role in human history we wanted to acknowledge that by building a specific mythos around Saga. The idea of an old tome, reminiscent of a magical spellbook, was used as inspiration and while in Seattle, a group member visited an old book store to understand the designs more. We decided on keeping to an ancient “tome” vibe for the project and make a physically large book form for Saga as a survey of American Households reported that twice as many children preferred physical books
We wanted the pages to be lit to act a nightlight for kids. Stories carry messages, but they end with a happily ever after (or resolution) so that the children can go to sleep. From a survey of 49 stimuli, children listed “the dark” as the third scariest, with 74% of children aged 4-12 being afraid of the dark; we felt it was important to include lights as a key feature. We took inspiration from the accordion style nightlight books that are sold at MOMA in San Francisco.
We spoke on the satisfaction of being able to flip pages and touch physical objects while reading and had original designs which involved thin acrylic pages that would be sanded on both sides so as to carry light down their length. This was not followed through to execution due to the costing of acrylic sheets and due to the technical difficulty of binding pages together within a mechanical book. The pages became one of the biggest design challenges for the project. The accordion design that made it through to the Final version of Saga was closer to the accordion book lights where we first drew inspiration.
Use of non-generated voices
The key of Saga is that is it a story teller.
A significant amount of time was spent recording the stories for Saga. Based on recent research on virtual assistants and their voices, we decided to preserve the storytelling experience by having natural human voices read the stories. While we are entering a new age for voice interaction, we felt that the current state of voice assistants were not naturalistic in their cadence or emphasis which are important in the storytelling process. We looked into generated speech through deep fake speech editors but were not satisfied with their integration at this time.
This required that Saga’s stories to be read in actual voices which required the recording of audio files. It meant that the kids reading Saga would not be able to name pets/items in the stories which limited the questions and interactions they could have - but we felt that the story options would fit well with what was found in our observations of keeping options closed so that the child wouldn’t get too into the story and not go to sleep.
Inclusion of the parent
There are falling statistics in parents reading bedtime stories to their children; only 87% of parents currently read bedtime stories to their children, with only 1 out of every 3 parents reading daily to their child. With the rise of e-books, the ease of streaming services, and recent shifts in working culture; it’s become harder to maintain story time. In spite of this, the interaction between parent and child for bonding and secure attachment is highly important for childhood development. Consequently, we wanted to create a way for the parent to become involved in Saga’s stories, without creating an additional technological obligation or changing their existing behaviour around storytime.
We did this by creating a companion application for Saga where the parent can add stories they recorded through the application directly onto Saga. This was in part inspired by the family we spoke to about Saga where the children would “refuse” to go to sleep until their dad had read them a story and how the mum had gone so far as to facetime her partner in order to coax the kids to sleep.
We also added a feature where the parent could see the story’s timeline and what decisions their child had made in the story through the app. In that way the parent could ask, and have conversations with their child, about the events that Saga had read.
The bond between parent and child through the process of storytelling was one that we wanted to preserve with Saga, instead of creating a technology that would act as a replacement for the parent.
It was important for us to have a story for each of us to read. We initially thought to base a story on parts of our lives to keep with the “life morals” goal but ended up finding it difficult to create “choose-your-own-adventure” aspects of what our lives could be like if we have done things differently. As a consequence the stories became quite long and complex and so we went back and started writing based on the current structure of a children’s story. We discussed what we remembered from the stories we read as kids and how they all “taught” something; and drew from the stories of Aesop’s Fables and decided that all the Saga stories would center around a moral lesson.
Photos graciously supplied by Dylan Arceneaux (PD), Stephanie Daffara (SWE), Varda Shrivastava (R&D)
The Clever Magician | The Strong Warrior | The Oracle of Life
For story writing we had to keep several pieces in mind. The language had to be simplistic 1, 2 enough to be understood, but complex to support their language development , as well as keeping to a 7 - 15 minute total story time which is the suggested best story length 3.
Keeping with the design system of “moral” stories and the research, we paired three stories with three morals.
The Clever Magician - Knowledge, and Believing in Yourself
The Strong Warrior - Strength, Inclusion and Acceptance of Others
The Oracle of Life - Be Kind
Now, tuck yourself in bed and let me tell you a story,
Of an old kingdom past, and a child destined for glory
This child was like almost every other,
was loved by their siblings, father and mother.
In the far off land of Taelie they grew up so strong
But as with all things in life, nothing every lasts long
One night things changed and the child snuck out
Down a long twisted path they wandered all about
Stumbling into a grove, the child came to a fork in the path;
Right of left, make your choice, you’ll only be wrong by half.
Down to the right is a river with a loosely latched raft -
To the left, a valley sign posted by an old merchant’s staff
This is the moment where you first have to choose
Right or left, make your choice, you have nothing to lose...
Once upon a time in a land, very far away.
Where sun lit up the night, and stars shone all day
It was a wonderful place with mountains so tall
And you could follow the river all the way to a waterfall
There was a king and queen who ruled fair and true
The people were happy and always had something to do
Because the land was green and full of food to eat
And every table there was room for an extra seat
And that, is where we begin our story tonight...
The warrior finally bridged the hill and saw the Oracle.
They didn’t appear as an impressive figure, or have a halo around their head. The clothes they wore was not adorned or made from a precious silk. There was no altar to leave a gift, nor a council table from which they may judge.
The story of this story can be found in the documentation, the inspiration, from here.
1. Berk, L. E., & Winsler, A. (1995). Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education. NAEYC Research into Practice Series. Volume 7. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1509 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036-1426
2. Chomsky, N. (2000). The Architecture of Language.
Saga's voice recognition components is built using Google Cloud's Speech Recognition API.
Currently each story is organised such that they contain a dictionary with “branch” words as keys and a function that plays the audio file associated with that word.
A story gets selected by a voice command dictating what story wants to be heard. Once this has happened the software knows what dictionary to look up possible branches is. So every following branch/option that is told to the narrator, the software will search within that story's dictionary to fetch the proper branch and read out the rest of the narrative. Every interaction is received through a microphone or an FSR (force sensitive resistor) and gets paired with certain outputs driven by servo motors, the neopixel lights, and the speaker.
Whenever a story wants to be heard
Input: the parent or the child presses down on Saga’s gemstone which triggers the FSR sensor.
the gemstone glows rainbow, cycling through different lights lit up by a single Neopixel behind it.
Saga is then in “awake” mode, and asks, through the speaker, in a soothing voice "what kind of story do you want to hear tonight" and then waits for a response.
The Gemstone fades in and out white light while it waits for a response.
When the child talks to saga to start a story
Input: voice audio received through a mic
Servo Motor turns on and opens the book.
Lights flicker Green once an audio command has been accepted.
Saga finds the story to tell and starts telling it through the Speakers.
For each story, the lights shine a different colour. Currently the warrior story is green and cyan, the magician story is blue and purple, and the oracle is yellow and red.
While the story is being told
Output: neopixel lights glow, fading in and out colours related to the story being told. Once the branch is done and the narrator is waiting for a decision, the lights from the neopixels inside the book glow on and off in “breathing” mode signalling that it is waiting for a response.
When the child picks a fork in the story
Input: voice audio received through a mic
Once the fork is an accepted answer, the lights shine green to show confirmation.
Then the lights go back to fade in and out the colors related to the story.
Audio continues to play through the speakers telling the rest of the story.