Published Dec-18-09

A baby toy activity center that Twitters. Twoddler combines a popular infant activity toy with the social networking service.

Bart Swennen, Gert Vos, and Johannes Taelman, Belgium

The Story:

Twoddler Governments in Europe are now actively looking to web 2.0 tools and open innovation to improve public services. There is a growing body of opinion in Europe that says that the development of IT applications to benefit the general public should not be left in the sole hands of government institutions. And who better to come up with ideas than the end users?

Open Innovation Competition

The Interdisciplinary Institute for Broadband Technology (IBBT) in Belgium wants to stimulate innovation in information communication technologies and so it created an open innovation competition called the INCA (Innovative and Creative Application) Award. The idea is to engage citizens and interested parties to collaborate on open innovation projects to benefit the common good.

The organization has the funds to invest in innovation, and in March 2009 it offered up 20,000 Euros ($30,000 USD) in total prize money to individuals or teams who could develop new ICT applications (information communication technologies) that would meet the needs and challenges of people living in Flanders. The scope was broad; basically it could be anything involving web services, widgets, mobile or stand alone applications. Above all, the organizers wanted to prove that it is possible to develop something new with little time and little money. “We have proven at least that a limited investment into the Flemish entrepreneurship can lead to exponential economic and societal return,” said a spokesperson for the IBBT.

Big Winners

The winners were Bart Swennen, Gert Vos, and Johannes Taelman who shared the 5,000 Euros ($7, 000 USD) first prize check for an application they called “Twoddler”. It allows children who cannot communicate verbally to converse through a creative combination of hardware and software. It is a prototype device that wires up a popular Fisher Price activity toy to a Twitter account.

The toy is augmented with pictures of family members and friends, and when a child touches an image the software captures sensor data and selects a predefined text that is related to that sensor information. For example, if a baby plays with a part of the toy that has his mother’s picture, a Twitter message will be posted that could say “I miss mommy and look forward to playing with her this evening.”

Although Twoddler might prove to be an amusing diversion for parents it’s unclear as to what benefit a child might derive from its use, other than being just another toy to play with. However, the potential does exist for the innovation to be of use to adults who are not able to communicate verbally.

Open Innovation Success

Whatever its merits the committee was significantly bowled over by Twoddler, and the contest demonstrated to organizers that open innovation is a viable route for ideas that can benefit everyone.

Other ideas that picked up awards at INCA and maybe developed further included: StartComputer - an easy-to-use touch screen application to teach the elderly and disabled how to use computers. And there was a telephone voice application linked to real-time train arrival and departure times in Belgium, which lets callers know if their train will be at a station on time.

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