How it all started
Not that long ago,I was trying to teach my infant son how to speak Mandarin and grew frustrated by the lack of toys on the market for this purpose. Many of the toys I came across had translation errors and were made with cheap materials that I knew could not withstand the abuse a child would inevitably inflict on it. "You know those ABC wooden blocks that every baby has?" I asked my husband, " Why can't there just be a Mandarin version of that?" He thought it sounded like a great idea and encouraged me to make it myself. I pitched the idea to my longtime friend Tracy and she was eager to jump in and help. Like me, she is the child of Chinese immigrants and married a partner who doesn't speak the language. She had been looking for a toy just like the one I described.
Admittedly, there was a certain level of hubris involved. How hard could it be to make wooden blocks? Turns out, pretty hard. Especially when neither of us comes from a toy background. It's been a steep learning curve with a lot of trial-and-error. One of our biggest challenges was trying to figure out a way to teach users proper Mandarin pronunciation. Initially we thought about directing people to our website where you could click on audio clips and hear the words being pronounced, but there were downsides to that method. It felt clunky and cumbersome, like an extra step you had to go through. Then Tracy's husband suggested printing a QR code on the block that you could scan with your phone which would play the audio clips. We've all seen QR codes and, well, they're not exactly very pretty. So I reached out to my friend Kelly who is a genius web development guy about designing a custom QR code and he suggested utilizing augmented reality instead. This technology allows a cellphone's camera feature to recognize the face of the block and trigger the audio pronunciation and animation. It was an elegant solution that took a LOT of testing but here we are a year and a half later, awaiting the shipment of the first toy in our product line: Machi Blocks.
We can't wait to get these in people's hands!