One Man’s Quest To Build A Baby Book With Brains

Regular readers will know that Hackaday generally steers clear of active crowdfunding campaigns. But occasionally we do run across a project that’s unique enough that we feel compelled to dust off our stamp of approval. Especially if the campaign has already blasted past its funding goal, and we don’t have to feel bad about getting you fine folks excited over vaporware.

It’s with these caveats in mind that we present to you Computer Engineering for Babies, by [Chase Roberts]. The product of five years of research and development, this board book utilizes an internal microcontroller to help illustrate the functions of boolean logic operations like AND, OR, and XOR in an engaging way. Intended for toddlers but suitable for curious minds of all ages, the book has already surpassed 500% of its funding goal on Kickstarter at the time of this writing with no signs of slowing down.

The electronics as seen from the rear of the book.

Technical details are light on the Kickstarter page to keep things simple, but [Chase] was happy to talk specifics when we reached out to him. He explained that the original plan was to use discreet components, with early prototypes simply routing the button through the gates specified on the given page. This worked, but wasn’t quite as robust a solution as he’d like. So eventually the decision was made to move the book over to the low-power ATmega328PB microcontroller and leverage the MiniCore project so the books could be programmed with the Arduino IDE.

Obviously battery life was a major concern with the project, as a book that would go dead after sitting on the shelf for a couple weeks simply wouldn’t do. To that end, [Chase] says his code makes extensive use of the Arduino LowPower library. Essentially the firmware wakes up the ATmega every 15 ms to see if a button has been pressed or the page turned, and updates the LED state accordingly. If no changes have been observed after roughly two minutes, the chip will go into a deep sleep and won’t wake up again until an interrupt has been fired by the yellow button being pressed. He says there are some edge cases where this setup might misbehave, but in general, the book should be able to run for about a year on a coin cell.

[Chase] tells us the biggest problem was finding a reliable way to determine which page the book was currently turned to. In fact, he expects to keep tinkering with this aspect of the design until the books actually ship. The current solution uses five phototransistors attached to the the MCU’s ADC pins, which receive progressively more light as fewer pages are laying on top of them. The first sensor is exposed when the second page of the book is opened, so for example, if three of the sensors are seeing elevated light levels the code would assume the user is on page four.

Opening to the last page exposes all five light sensors.

The books and PCBs are being manufactured separately, since as you might expect, finding a single company that had experience with both proved difficult. [Chase] plans on doing the final assembly and programming of each copy in-house with the help of family members; given how many have already been sold this early in the campaign, we hope he’s got a lot of cousins.

So what do you do with an Arduino-compatible book when Junior gets tired of it? That’s what we’re particularly interested in finding out. [Chase] says he’s open to releasing the firmware as an open source project after the dust settles from the Kickstarter campaign, which would give owners a base to build from should they want to roll their own custom firmware. Obviously the peripheral hardware of the book is fairly limited, but nothing is stopping you from hanging some sensors on the I2C bus or hijacking the unused GPIO pins.

If you end up teaching your copy of Computer Engineering for Babies some new tricks, we’ve love to hear about it.

44 thoughts on “One Man’s Quest To Build A Baby Book With Brains

    1. That’s common for small things going overseas. I can’t buy most indie projects because of the shipping costing most of or more than the cost of the item. It’s usually that way because they choose an expensive method that has predictable pricing worldwide. Until realistically priced shipping is used, lots of sales will be lost in this way.

  1. Interestingly enough, babies don’t understand formal logic – or very much of it. Small children also find it very difficult to understand false beliefs, so two NOT gates in series makes no sense, or is irrelevant, because the child doesn’t “look” what’s going on inside the system – they don’t think about what’s happening between the two NOT gates. The light goes on when you press the button and the rest is just nonsense scribble. Some logical propositions simply don’t exist, such as distinguishing XOR from OR when given a choice between two objects. If there’s cake AND ice cream, why can’t you always have both?

    The logic of the situation is not what’s under consideration at all – small children are rather more interested in the concrete sensible reality and disregard anything else because they’re not yet able to think about it. They’re still learning what is the difference between thought and internal reality versus the external, so they’re ill-equipped to think beyond what’s immediately apparent.

    1. Yeah, I’d be very interested to hear what development experts think about a book like this. Being very logical and technical, I’ve struggled sometimes with my 3 kids. Thankfully there are books like The Whole Brain Child out there that help adults understand how kid’s brains are developing. As you say Dude, and from what I’ve learned through experience and reading expert’s work, I don’t think a book about formal logic is going to be very useful for small kids. They might be able to memorize the pattern, but they aren’t going to actually ‘get’ it. Kind of like how my 4 year old can ‘read’ a couple of books. He can’t actually read yet, he just has the words memorized.

      1. That’s why it’s important to talk to babies in a normal voice, using normal language. Never talk to an infant or toddler in “baby talk”. You’ll just be hindering their learning of language.

        1. On the other hand, I’ve also heard that some aspects of “baby talk” like elongating vowel sounds (bayyy-beee) actually help develop language skills, which is not too surprising in the “I assume we started and kept doing it for some reason” department. I don’t remember if that finding was specific to a single language or not. I’m any case, 1: a combination/variety of kinds of speech is probably best, and 2: parents are often too tired to care what strangers on the internet think is best for child development 😉

    2. On Reddit, the creator of the book has said the final copies may ship out with a pack of stickers that replaces “Babies” with all sorts of things. Nerds, hackers, teenagers, adults, etc.

      Point being, its called a baby book because that’s who he initially designed it for, but obviously it has a wider appeal and nothing about it is strictly for infants.

    3. There’s abundant correlation between talking to your child using complex construction and adult concepts with higher IQ test scores later in life. This should happen even before your child can speak; in other words, if a 6-mo old child is in a highchair while you’re doing the laundry, you should interact with the kid as if they’re an adult. Ask them if they like this or that shirt, if the color’s faded, and so on.

      The kid won’t understand or be able to respond, but they’re building neural pathways of everything they’ve seen, and this gets trimmed around age 5 to set the IQ going forward. IQ is basically the brain’s guess for how complex the environment will be, and is developed and set between birth and age 5.

      As an example, Tiger Woods’ dad had him in a high-chair while practicing his (the dad’s) putting. Tiger assimilated some of golfing at a very young age, and as a result has become world-class at it.

      In fact, 6 week-old kids prefer their native language, indicating that they hear some of what’s spoken in the uterus. They can distinguish between the general sound (timbre? sibilance? character?) of their own language and others, even though they cannot understand or respond in any language.

      Kids given this book won’t understand it, but they’ll make and keep neural pathways describing it. If the parents keep giving the child logic or engineering or sciencey toys, and if the child chooses to pursue this, they will become world-class in it.

      Studies in STEM fields correlate with success in life, so this is a way to increase your child’s chances of success.

      1. My parents tell me they taught me a book about birds form cover to cover and I could identify every one of them as a toddler. Did I become an ornithologist? I can’t remember anything of it, nor can I recognize birds any more than the next guy.

        There’s a thing called childhood amnesia, because the concept of the self has not yet been fully formed – and the hypothesis is that you can’t form self-referential memories before you have a proper concept of self, so you can’t access any of your memories or thought processes that occurred before the point. If they’re still there, there’s no way to bring it up because it doesn’t relate to anything.

        1. That sounds a lot like an anecdote, and it’s also beside the point of my post.

          My post was pointing out that brains develop to handle the complexity that they encounter, and there’s a lot of research supporting this.

          That you could remember a book about birds is probably what got you to higher intelligence. If your parents didn’t do anything else about birds – if they weren’t interested in birds themselves, for instance – and you personally didn’t have a proclivity to like birds, there’s no reason to suspect that you would have taken up the subject.

          I think I mentioned “if the child chooses to pursue this” in the post. Did you choose not to pursue birds, and could that explain why you don’t remember anything from that book?

          Kids younger than 12 months clearly don’t understand or use speech, yet there’s good evidence that speaking to them from that early age and before will lead to higher intelligence.

          Chances are that exposing them to the workings of logic, like the one in the OP, will strengthen their intellect. Even if the child doesn’t remember the experience.

      2. I hate it when people, especially the kid’s parents, talk to infants and young children in “baby talk”. Makes me want to tell them they’re hindering the kid’s learning of language and harming their overall mental development. How can they learn to speak properly when they’re spoken to in numbskull?

        1. Also, most of the words that infants pick up first are isolated utterances, or words that appear in isolation and typically at the ends of sentences. This is also a feature of “mother talk”, like saying “Look at the doggy, look at the doggy, dogggyyy.”, rather than, “See that dog over there.”

          The child starts with not understanding or separating sounds into words, and speaking normal adult speech gives few clues where one word ends and another one begins. If you want to make it harder for the child to learn speech, that’s the way to do it.

  2. maybe use reed contacts instead of the light sensor to determine the currently opened page?

    two per page, always in the same positions A and B, and one magnet in the cover on A and on in the back on B.
    Assuming the magnets are strong enough to trigger all A or B reeds respectively.
    -> make the position B reeds normally closed -> if any B reed is closed the book is open.

    1. Publishing. Printers do not like to glue magnets on things. Not in their repertoire. Expensive additional operation.
      Punching holes is barely acceptable. Printing black dots or no dots is much better.

      1. The hole punching with light sensor thing is fairly well established. We have a bunch of books published/sold by Hallmark that can record and play back someone reading each page, and they use that basic technique: a line of holes that extends by 1 on each further page, photo sensor in each one. Much easier for kids to handle on their own than pushing each page’s symbol on a button pad like some other talking books, too. I assume Hallmark probably has an asic for their specific purpose by this point (a bunch of sensor inputs, big eeprom for voice that supports a lock switch). I don’t remember if I can see what the photo sensor is, though I’d be pretty surprised if they were using ADC on it: I’d suspect they probably have the circuitry tuned to work on a plain digital input.

  3. An interesting idea. Fingers crossed it works out. Unfortunately no babies in sight here.
    I would have preferred to have for example 5 bottons on the bottom or around it
    the big hole in the page (self) defines which function is executed, by which button is pressed.
    And the left hand page seems to be unused now,
    and could have ample space to tell a little story what the function does, for the parent to read out, like
    WIRE the road to walk from A to B and switch the light on
    AND – mom and dad have to agree I can have a sweet – only then the LED will light up
    OR – mom or dad have to be there to lplay with me.
    XOR – only mom or dad can sit in the same chair
    LATCH – I have to memorize if …
    and to repeat later what it means, when speaking has started – OR might be easier to learn than mom and dad …
    And as shown here already in the past,
    Burkhard Kainka had done the next level already, his TPS, to build a 4 bit emulated microprocessor,
    and you can play with the Emulator that Wilfried did.
    You can even just play with it on paper
    Or do a lot of reading on our facebook page

    The pages in this book we will have to implement as examples for TPS
    and I hope, the board is prepared, so you can solder in or connect to the 328 somehow for further experiments later …

      1. Go ahead Chase, it was aimed in your direction.
        I used them in one of my books already in a similar way, explaining the basic logic.
        If the text on the left page is formatted well – people can stick on top other stories
        and in other languages and it would be for the whole world, and the parents will learn the lingo as well.
        A nice offer on your website as a service later,
        or for parents to show what they have done.
        I assume people will help with the transations.
        One question I have:
        does the FlipFlop keep the information if switched off.
        Should do if you open the book on this page again next …
        As well please make sure in a later PCB version that there is an interface possibility to re-use the board for other uses, even if just as the holes to add a header,
        for example as the hinted microprocessors for babies, TPS would be good option.
        A link to the book to do it on paper I gave in my post.
        or contact me directly

        1. Most kids products I’ve seen these days have ask batteries behind not just a screw but often a silicone gasket too. I assume somebody got upset when they used a Duracell, it inevitably leaked, and kiddo got “battery acid” (not actually acid) on their hands. I hope it was that harmless, anyway.

  4. > He says there are some edge cases where this setup might misbehave, but in general, the book should be able to run for about a year on a coin cell.

    Not sure how saleable the book will be if it runs on coin cells. In Australia there’s been an issue with toddlers sometimes picking up and ingesting coin cells, causing serious injury and in some cases, death. Ever since a few high-profile cases of this happened, there’s been a big push to ban coin cells from all consumer products, starting with children’s toys.

    I can understand why the form factor is attractive in this case, but maybe a AAA cell battery holder in the spine might be a safer option.

  5. An alternative to having the staff assemble each book could be a separate SKU containing all of the materials as a kit. That would give older kids and their parents something to put together for the younger sibling, and learn even more in the process.

    1. I was thinking it’d be a bit more appealing to older kiddos (e.g., as baby grows up and finds it in the attic) if instead of a black-box AVR, it actually used real logic gates, laid-out in sections matching the page drawings, a key/chart on the circuit-board’s opposing page. 1-gang low-voltage TTL chips are a thing, now.

      Older sibling’s assembling takes it to the next level!

  6. Testing for user interaction every 15ms seems odd to me. The Atmega328 has an 8 second watchdog timer for a nice long sleep. It can be woken by an interrupt from a change in value on a pin (button press etc). It would be a great way to save battery – I have done it myself.

    Also a plus one on the danger of button batteries, esp the CR20** style. And did I hear magnets? A plus one for them too.

  7. If you’re doing it right, the kid won’t even know about up and down when you first show them books. That’s the beginning of reading, showing them that one way is upside down.

    Then they’ll be fascinated by the pictures, flipping pages too fast to read. Luckily most books at that age are familiar stories, so you can tell the story without reading the words.

    Eventually they realize there are words on the page, and they have meaning.

    It may be later when kids read by themselves, but it all starts early when you introduce books to them.

    And later still, they read because they want to. Stand back then, because it’s a major step, they get independence. And if you’re lucky, they’ll read a lot.

  8. We have the science for babies series, and I had to double check to make sure they weren’t made by the same person because the cover looks the same. That might be a fail point as far as copyright goes. My problem with those books is that they always start the same way, then make huge jumps in understanding without any description. What I like about them is that they put her to sleep quickly, and she does remember the repetitive phrases like, “This is a ball.” My main hope is that they make her familiar and comfortable with the ideas, not that she comprehend them completely. I often reinforce the concepts by saying things like, “Ahh, gravity! It goes down,” or whatever. I think this could be good purely for exposure and familiarity. I’m not sure any parent with a 2 year old will expect he or she understands the concepts. After 2 years, you get a better idea of what to expect and how fast they develop.

    Anyway, it has potential, but the page reading system isn’t going to work well. Fingers, dust, food, or stickers will cover the holes and it will be wrong as often as not. The concepts won’t be learned, bit they’ll be observed. They’ll be comfortable at a later date. Things will click and those clicking moments are when interest grows.

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