Tamara Schembri of Toybox Labs is making waves in a new field of software development

Interview Meagan O’Connell / Images Syrenne Anu, supplied

One of several organisations that call 107 Redfern Street home, Toybox Labs makes software for use in academic and scientific experiments. They’re one of only a handful of companies working in the field, and their work has helped shed light on everything from childhood language development to visual perception and optical illusions. We sat down with co-founder Tamara Schembri to learn more about her work, and why this budding field of software development is so exciting to be in. 

How do you describe what you do?

I make custom commissioned software for researchers and academics.

What are your values with your work?

Toybox Labs has two main goals; first, to make it easier to use research tools, and second, to allow people to share and reproduce experiments. A lot of processes in scientific research are really technical and it would be much more efficient to carry them out through software. You can do more research with less. We hope that when the barriers to entry are lowered, this will help more people to do important research quicker and more efficiently. 

Where do you draw inspiration for your designs? 

I typically start thinking about a specific thing that the client wants to do but they are unable to do. Or, I look at what has already been done and try and find ways that would make the process easier. For example, right now Toybox Labs is working on a platform to help people conduct all kinds of experiments, but experiments in psychology and social science in particular. Our challenge at the moment is that it is hard to create something that will please everyone, so we’re dedicating a lot of time to working this out.

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One of Toybox Labs’ apps used in a language experiment to test children’s knowledge of plural forms. Photograph: supplied.

What do you love the most about what you do?

I love the idea that I’m actually doing some good in the world. I’m not necessarily helping people directly, but I am helping others help people. 

What has been a career highlight so far? 

I would say it was developing an app that helps people who have trouble accessing one-on-one speech therapy. Normally, in order to do speech therapy you have to go into the speech therapist’s office and work face to face, but this app allowed people with hearing and speech impairments to engage in some form of speech therapy from a distance. This is great for people who live far away from urban centres or have mobility issues.

What do you hope to be working on in 5 years?

I’m hoping to release a piece of software that I am working on for 2020. It’s a platform called Experimaker that allows people to make their own experiments. It’s an experiment builder, essentially. Hopefully in five years I will be adding cool new features to the application, and expanding the accessibility. Maybe we could even have features on the application for artists, as well as scientists. If the software has features for art, this could allow both artists and scientists to experiment with the boundaries of their fields.  

What is your favourite thing about your office?

It is really awesome here! It’s a really good location, there’s lots of space, and the people at 107 Projects are cool. It has a good vibe!

What makes you feel creative about the work that you do?

I’m doing things that are pretty new and unique. In a way I am kind of a failed artist, but there are parts of art and design in the work that I do. I think it’s pretty cool to meld art and coding together in a way that hasn’t been done before. 

You said it’s pretty unique – just how big is your field?

It’s really small. I know of one other company that specialises in custom research-based software in England, and there are lots of people who have hobby projects, but this is an extremely new field. At the moment, it’s common for academics who want some type of software for their experiments to just do it themselves, and that’s not a sustainable way to do things. I started out as a student by helping a colleague with a project like this. I noticed the need for a company focussed on academic software, so I tried to do this with Toybox Labs.

What have been the challenges of developing a company in a field that hasn’t really existed until now?

It’s a little bit like doing research in a way. You’re never guaranteed that something is going to work, because you’re not working off an established template. So it can be difficult. But that’s just part of it – you always find a way to make things work out.

What’s next for Toybox Labs? 

Right now I’m locked away in my office but in a couple of months, once Experimaker is in a more usable state, I will be going to visit universities and talking to people who might want to use the software. Hopefully I will be able to get feedback on it! //

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