Computer Laboratory

Technical reports

Augmented Reality interfaces for symbolic play in early childhood

Zhen Bai

September 2015, 292 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted September 2014 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Jesus College.


Augmented Reality (AR) is an umbrella term for technologies that superimpose virtual contents onto the physical world. There is an emerging research focus on AR applications to improve quality of life for special user groups with diverse levels of age, skill, disabilities and knowledge.

Symbolic play is an early childhood activity that requires children to interpret elements of the real world in a non-literal way. Much research effort has been spent to enhance symbolic play due to its close link with critical development such as symbolic thought, creativity and social understanding.

In this thesis, I identified an analogy between the dual representational characteristics of AR and symbolic play. This led me to explore to what extent AR can promote cognitive and social development in symbolic play for young children with and without autism spectrum condition (ASC). To address this research goal, I developed a progressive AR design approach that requires progressive levels of mental effort to conceive symbolic thought during play. I investigated the usability of AR displays with the magic mirror metaphor to support physical object manipulation. Based on the progressive AR design approach and preparatory usability investigation, I designed an AR system to enhance solitary symbolic play, and another AR system to enhance social symbolic play. The effectiveness of each system was rigorously evaluated with reference to psychology literature.

Empirical results show that children with ASC 4-7 years old produced more solitary symbolic play with higher theme relevance using the first AR system as compared with an equivalent non-AR natural play setting. Typically developing children aged 4-6, using the second AR system, demonstrated improved social symbolic play in terms of comprehending emotional states of pretend roles, and constructing joint pretense on symbolic transformations using specially designed AR scaffoldings.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Bai, Zhen},
  title = 	 {{Augmented Reality interfaces for symbolic play in early
  year = 	 2015,
  month = 	 sep,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-874}