I remember being introduced to the concept of robotics in a rousing late-night viewing of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Understandably, that initial impression had me tensing up as I passed every blonde-haired, blue-eyed pre-teen. Luckily, I grew out of it, considering that robots are everywhere nowadays—running races with kids, swimming in our oceans and even creating data-fueled art. Now, French design duo Ultra Ordinaire have developed a toy that also fits the bill, a kind of three-dimensional coloring-book template with an element of littleBits-like interactivity.
In a world where things drone operators say in the moment of a crash go viral, the inner workings of robots remains relatively opaque to kids (and some of us adults too). According to designer Nathalie Bruyére, Play Communs is a kit that's more about "designing a simple interface to bring kids closer to the technologic [sic] world" than designing a robot. Along with her fellow designer Pierre Duffau, she "was inspired by very simple construction toys such as Kapla's or LEGOs, but also by Bruno Munari's drawings and books."
The kit consists of a clear Plexiglass body with two LED lights; a servo motor; an electric transformer; a pre-soldered, preset card; a cardboard model and the instructions for the assembly with tips on how to personalize the character. The motors animate the arms, body and head of the character. "People are often wary of robots as they don't get the way they are working," Bruyére says. "The robot is therefore transparent to make it understandable. Usually such toy systems are hidden in boxes, closed and opaque when in reality, they are very simple and easy to handle."
Since the Mongol bow we've seen a lengthy list of advances in long-range killing. Guns, machineguns, artillery, bombs dropped from planes, and Germany's famous V-2 "flying bomb," which is featured in many a World War II documentary.
But here we look at a lesser-known Wehrmacht design, which was not a bomb that flew, but that could be driven. It started seeing battlefield action in 1942. Roughly two feet tall, three feet wide and five feet long, the Goliath resembled a miniature tank, but one that had a long cable trailing behind it. This cable was over 2,000 feet long and had a real, live Nazi at the other end of it, driving the Goliath with a joystick like some deadly Atari game. When the "pilot" got the thing to its desired position, he pushed a button, and the 130 pounds of explosives inside the Goliath went KABOOM.
Wonder, curiosity, exploration—all spot-on descriptors of a child on the verge of forming an opinion of the world. Yet these are the things that designer Christina Kazakia thinks kids are missing out on, thanks to technologies that keep us inside and constantly distracted. "There's less opportunity to learn more about yourself and the natural world that surrounds you," she says. "Lack of curiosity, lack of risk-taking, lack of wonder, lack of imagination. The outdoors is a wonderful stimulation and provides all of these things while giving children a sense of independence." Her solution? A new toy called Stick-Lets.
Stick-Lets aren't a "tear open the packaging, turn on, tune out" kind of toy. Their function is simple: In order to use the system, kids have to scavenge a group of sticks to use the connectors with, the end result being a fort of some shape or form. The silicone connectors come in different sizes and can be stretched to fit larger sticks and other materials. And, of course, they come in a number of child-attracting colors with equally amusing names: Pardon My Purple, Huckleberry Blue, Birch Bark White, Grasshopper Green, Starfish Red and Kazakia's favorite, Monarch Orange. Kazakia has been working on the idea since it was conceived in her graduate studies at Rhode Island School of Design, but now she's taken to the crowdfunding world to help bring kids a dose of fresh air and creative inspiration. Why? The project's tagline says it all: "Because nature misses us."
"Building forts was a common childhood memory for many adults and parents and sticks are found almost everywhere—so I thought designing a joint to connect sticks would be rather universal and understood by families," she says. "My research informed me of the fact that kids enjoy finding sticks and playing with them. Sticks trigger kids' imaginations! It seemed like the perfect material to work around." The hope is that after kids have had a few go-arounds with Stick-Lets, they'll gain a little more appreciation and engagement with the nature that fuels their fort-making.
Just this past week, a team of schoolchildren and workmen in Hungary, Budapest have given us an update to a question we've all wondered at some point in our lives: How tall could you possibly stack a set of LEGOs? Answer: 34.76 meters (around 114 feet). The previous record clocked in at 34.4 meters (112 feet, 9 inches) and was put together by a group of Delaware students back in 2013. The building began on Wednesday, May 21 and it was declared the new record holder the following Sunday. The entire structure is made up of hundreds of thousands of LEGO pieces and sits in the shadow of the area's famed St. Stephen's Basilica.
To celebrate such an occasion, you had better believe there was a worthy tower-topper. The building team's finishing touch: a Rubik's Cube. Fitting, since the puzzle's inventor—Ernö Rubik—hails from Hungary. Check out this newscast highlighting the hubbub:
Ping pong tables seem to be having a moment. What was once a gaming set-up hidden away in the basement for the occasional game or two around holidays when family get-togethers run rampant and often, is now taking the front seat in office design. I even took a spin on a concrete version being shown at last week's ICFF. The You and Me table is the perfect solution for those offices looking for a completely functional work space with a "members only" way to solve all of those tough corporate decisions over an after hours game of ping pong.
The table—thoughtfully designed by the Antoni Pallejá Office for RS Barcelona—features a discrete side drawer that houses the paddles, balls and net. When it's closed, there's no trace of the table's alternative—and I'm willing to bet, more popular—use.
Recent graduates Maeve Jopson and Cynthia Poon are on a mission to make toys for all children. The design duo co-founded their studio, Increment, under that premise and launched an Indiegogo campaign this past Tuesday to bring their first inclusive product, a set of stackable rings, into production.
What started at a collaborative degree project at the Rhode Island School of Design developed into a full-time pursuit after graduation last June. In Providence, Rhode Island, the Industrial Design graduates worked with local specialists, teachers, parents and kids at one of the country's leading schools for inclusive learning, Meeting Street School. There, they met Megan, a little girl who became their inspiration.
In addition to blindness, Megan lives with other impairments including low muscle control, which severely affects her balance. Her parents challenged the students to design and develop a toy their daughter could use with her friends. "Most mainstream toys simply don't consider children with disabilities," says Jopson. "Especially as the world becomes more inundated with flat screens that require specific fine-motor skills, many children are unable to use the toys that their friends have."
Richard Balzer isn't shy about his avocations. In fact, he shares them all online for the world to enjoy via his Tumblr page. His biggest vice: optical toys of the late 19th century—which, when scrutinized, resemble experimental media than toys. One of the oldest gadgets, the Thaumatrope, dates back to the early 1800's and consisted of two different parts of a drawing painted on either side of a card. By spinning the image using two strings (one at each end of the card), the two pictures become one as the images flip (the most well-known of these being a bird in a cage—see below).
Look familiar? These could be considered the very first animated GIFs. Balzer goes more into detail on the science behind the toys (this is only a small excerpt from Balzer—check out his website for more insight):
There was a period ... when scientific experimentation based on the phenomenon of 'the persistence of vision' in which the brain retains the impression of an object for a fraction of a second after its disappearance, creating the possibility of apparent motion. These devices thrilled and delighted generations of people. Optical toys were the creation of scientists concerned with understanding the functioning of the eye and brain.
File Under: Real Reasons to Have Kids. If you're not already familiar, littleBits is a source for super simple snap-together electronics. They operate on a kid- or idiot-friendly design that uses magnets to connect function-specific Bits to each other in endless modular ways. In addition to basic components like motors, sensors, LEDs, switches, usb power sources and inverters, they also batch up kits for the lazy and excitable. The one that got my motor going this week: Space Kit! Among other projects, this kit can help you build a satellite dish, learn how to measure particles in the atmosphere, and make a totally cool "robotic space arm" called THE GRAPPLER:
Let's be clear about two things: 1. I am a tech luddite; 2. I, coincidentally, grew up broke playing with sticks and rocks, and galdang it I liked it. Resultantly, I view expensive high tech toys with both skepticism and romanticism. That in mind: I covet this toy series, I want it to get funded, I'm begging my mom for one, and I would like to subscribe to its newsletter.
TinkerBots are reconfigurable, programmable, kinetic toys. The block-based sets use a central "Power Brain" cube that provides power and an arduino-compatible microcontroller. Snap in a variety of mobile and immobile pieces and expand your robotic object in a myriad of ways. Depending on the set, you can control a vehicle by bluetooth, mobilize an animal, teach it new moves, add proximity sensors and grabbing claws... They tout the capability of being a "living Lego" set, and have even designed in actual Lego compatibility. They're a little less versatile than that plastic block titan, but hey, baby steps. More importantly, you get a little modular robot with no wiring or programming needed. One of their goals is to adapt the system to use as a quadcopter. Teach your progeny about programming and the sinister future of drones in a single go!
Wang I Chao creates much more than toys. The Taiwan-born, New York-based designer chooses to focus more on the creative potential of the user than the features of his toys. That's not to say his creations are boring by any means—on the contrary, his abstract inspirations bring a greater element of imagination to the experience. We chatted with him about three of his designs that caught our eye: "Shadow Monsters," "The Red Nose Circus" and "Belly Button Chair." Learn what he has to say about the playtime, making toys for kids and adults and how The Little Prince inspired his designs.
Core77: What's the most important aspect, in your opinion, to making the well-designed toy?
I Chao: I think a well-designed toy should be fun and inspirational. For me, the most important aspect of a toy is its ability to spark creativity. We can't learn this type of thing through a textbook, so it's best we play and find our creative sides naturally.
How do you see your own designs fitting into the modern world of toys and playtime?
It's my goal to design toys that enable our artistic talents. I regard my design as a framework to guide and contain users' inspirations. The framework uses storytelling to invite users into the games and at the same time, it sparks their creativity and imagination by encouraging them to make their own tale.
Aesthetics is an important and subtle influence in artistic inspirations too. When considering this, I pay great attention to the quality of my sculptural forms, and also engage them with character. The toys are not just designed for children, but also for grown-ups who enjoy novelty as well as aesthetically beautiful objects. From playability, story, to sculpture quality, I wish to design artsy toys that can be appreciated by users of all ages.
Play is educational... some times more than others. Help your junior (or senior) get acquainted with the reality of food origins using a model tuna that breaks down into its sushi composites. The set comes with the necessary sword and cutting board, and will run you around 300 cold briny dollars (on sale now for as low as 29,400 yen!).
But you can't put a price on learning, particularly learning about something as delicious and ecologically decimated as large fish. Designed by Kazuyoshi Watanabe, the owner of a wholesale fish vending business in Tokyo, and put out by Hobbystock, this thing is more grisly—or at least more true to life—than your standard Playskool food offerings. And I respect that. Particularly because this thing is as ingeniously put together as the fish itself, with hidden cuts and neatly removable parts. (For the dedicated fish fancier, the produced "cuts" include akami, toro, chutoro, otoro, no tuna salad.)
This video has been making rounds since it hit the web last week, a pitch-perfect DIY success story: A dutiful dad hacked an open source 3D printer to create a robot opponent for his air hockey-loving daughter. Jose Julio started by building a standalone air hockey table out of plywood and old PC fans; the robot is made from standard RepRap parts—"NEMA17 stepper motors, drivers, Arduino Mega, RAMPS, belts, bearings, rods, printed pieces"—and software that he programmed from scratch. The overhead PS3 EYE camera is calibrated to detect the speed and direction of the high-viz puck based on consecutive frames at 60Hz (he originally intended to use a CMUCAM5, but it's not yet available).
Indeed, Julio has also seen fit to document the entire process in both his native Spanish and in English, so those of you looking for a project can try your hand at crafting a better bot.
Playgrounds are meant for fun, not broken bones and tetanus shots. Looking through the archives, images of, say, poorly fused metal monkey bars might seem more suited to heavy industry than family-friendly recreation stations. Recently, I came across a park that makes me wish it were socially acceptable to barrel down communal slides past the age of 11. A design featuring massive owls and wooden bugs at the Kristine Slott Park in Stockholm from Danish design firm Monstrum (pictured below) set me off on a search for the coolest playground equipment. From giant literature-themed jungle gyms to climbable monsters made of reclaimed material, here are four playgrounds you've got to see whether or not you have kids in tow.
Most of us who like building things loved Legos as a kid. There were just a few gripes: Inevitably you'd build something and run out of a particularly-sized piece, or you wished for different colors, or two pieces would become stuck together so badly that scientists at CERN couldn't separate them.
Well folks, the future is here. Google has teamed up with Lego to release Build with Chrome, a free, browser-based version of Lego! (Works in Firefox and Chrome, I've not tried Safari.) You select whatever sized-piece you want and drop it into your construction with mouseclicks. It's 3D, so you can rotate the build platform by dragging. You can change colors at will. And in the tutorials at least, the supply of pieces is unlimited.
Now I know that a large part of Lego's appeal is the tactility, and the empowering feeling a child gets from constructing something with their grubby little mitts. But at least your pops isn't going to step on one of these in the living room, accidentally teaching you, at perhaps too tender an age, words like "#*$&%@!!!"
You may remember Oobleck from your elementary school days when you were learning the difference between liquids and solids—it's an easy-to-make rebellious mixture that insists on being both. It's a non-Newtonian fluid, which means its ability to resist infiltration is based on the speed of an object hitting its the surface; toothpaste, blood, shampoo and (notably) ketchup are common examples. And, as demonstrated in a video by The Discovery Slow Down, it's not just a for kids. If only we had known the possibilities as we sat in our 9-year-old bodies carefully eying up the mystery mix, we probably would've had a much better day at school.
Check out this video showing all that Oobleck has to offer:
Long gone are the days of shooting stretchy rubber bands from the crook of your hand, obviously. Ukrainian designer Alexander Shpetniy has created a model that'll give you second thoughts about the damage the stretchy bands can do. His design, Rubber Band Machine Gun (RBMG) may look like some sort of strange, modern sculptural piece, but it's actually a pretty intimidating rubber band shooter that might be a bit more pain-inflicting than the usual finger shooter.
The fully automatic device is made of CNC-cut plywood and comes in three different finishes: light wood, black and burnt wood color. While the natural finish of the design is a welcome change from the plastic rainbow-hued toys we generally see in this genre, its capabilities are the real points of interest.
Here's a holiday project for those of us DIY-inclined and prone to self-supergluing/mixing up the salt with the sugar. These iconic ornaments, Legoized by Chris McVeigh, are available in build-it-yourself kits. If your house is already replete with plastic stackables, his site offers tons of free downloadable "recipes," too.
From the app-based Nickster to the electronic building blocks of Littlebits, toys are making leaps and bounds in cool factor. Launched this morning on Kickstarter, Toymail is the latest and greatest new digitally-enhanced plaything. In short, they're walkie talkie-like characters with the ability to relay messages from parents/grandparents/friends to the child who owns the toy. How it works: Anyone who downloads Toymail's free app can leave a message on one of the toys. Users dial in a toy/child to send a message to, talk into the phone (just like leaving a voicemail) and push send. The receiver is alerted by an animal noise—if their Toymail is a pig, it oinks when a message is received—and can respond directly to the message by pressing a button. The video below shows the toy in action:
Cofounders Gauri Nanda and mother-of-three Audry Hill were looking to create a toy that brought kids and loved ones together. "I started asking myself, 'Could toys be made to evolve every day and what would that look like?'" says Nanda. "I felt that it was time for toys to feel more like they do in Toy Story and Pee Wee's Playhouse, so that they never become boring or obsolete. So that they would grow as the child does."
Sketches from character development and prototyping the toys.
You couldn't make it up: According to a 2001 Times article, aerospace engineer was Lonnie G. Johnson had been working on technology for a $1.6 billion-dollar spacecraft when he accidentally discovered a children's toy that is now his claim to fame. Tasked with "preparing an interplanetary spacecraft for its atomic battery" at his day job, he was working on a side project at home one night when he turned on a faucet hooked up to one end of a "prototype cooling device" with a metal nozzle. "'I turned and shot into the bathtub,' he recalled. The blast was so powerful that the whoosh of accompanying air set the bathroom curtains flying. 'I said to myself, Jeez, this would make a great water gun.'"
Indeed: Johnson had just created the precursor to the Super Soaker, which has since generated a over $1 billion in sales for Larami, now owned by Hasbro. He made headlines yesterday for winning 7.3% of that sum in his claim against the RI-based toy company, a handsome purse for a deserving beneficiary who would be an immensely successful engineer and inventor even without a mainstream claim to fame.
Hailing from Mobile, Ala., Johnson (b. 1949) took to math and science at an early age, eventually taking first place in a science fair as a high school senior and earning several scholarships. Upon completing his master's degree in nuclear engineering at Atlanta's Tuskegee University, the born-and-raised Southerner spent his late 20's moving westward, young family in tow, including a stint in Albuquerque before he ended up in Pasadena, working for the Air Force and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory respectively. By day, Johnson was responsible for integrating the nuclear power plant in the Galileo; by night, his DIY experiments nearly cost him his marriage... until, of course, that fateful evening in 1982.
I don't know about you, but I still find it shocking to see toddlers walking around with smartphones. Instead of scoffing, Steve Cozzolino saw opportunity. At a fateful dinner party, Cozzolino noticed that eight out of nine children were playing around on some kind of digital device (including a set of 1-year-old twins on an iPhone). At the time, he was in the process of creating Nickster, a physical toy set (inspired by his son Nick) on a Kickstarter mission, which now consists of a physical toy set and a themed app to teach kids basic principles of building, matching shapes and counting. But it was in these digital mavericks—who could barely walk but could tap and swipe—that Cozzolino realized that saw the future of play: In order to be engaging and relevant to today's youth, he needed to create something with a digital component. "What's most unique and innovative about the Nickster Playland app is that it connects children back to physical toys," Cozzolino says. "It encourages them to not just play in the digital world, but also have fun with their toys."
The toys and app don't just stop teaching after a few lessons. "What's nice about the app is that it allows us to build upon the toys by creating an endless number of color and shape combinations and added levels of difficulty, all opportunities to learn more," Cozzolino says. "For example, the Sequence Train toy is 1-4 while the Sequence Train app is 1-5, 1-10 and the complete alphabet."
At a quiet studio in Kansas City, three creatives sculpt and mold prototypes for toys. Filmmaker Anthony Ladesich's mini-doc, "The Secret Story of Toys," looks at artists Jason Frailey, Adam Smith and Adrienne Smith as they carve everything from Terminators to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
In the molding area you'll see similar equipment to what was seen in "A Look Inside a Moldmaking Shop," but Ladesich's narrative focuses much more on the actual creators as they explain the joys—and agonies—of scratching out toys from scratch:
This may be the best videogame ever invented. In 1995, the illusionists Penn & Teller created "Desert Bus" for the then-popular Sega Genesis console. The first-person driving game requires you to drive an empty bus from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas along a desert highway. The drive takes eight hours and it must be completed in real time; there is no pause button.
Even better, the steering alignment on the bus is off, so it constantly pulls to the right. In other words you can't take your hands off the wheel. The bus maxes out at 45 m.p.h. and all you'll see is the dull desert scenery, the odometer slowly turning over, and the clock ticking by in real time. There are no other cars on the road, nobody else on the bus with you, absolutely nothing to provide narrative interest. And if you go off the road, you get towed all the way back to the beginning—purportedly for repairs, though the steering alignment problem remains—and you have to start all over again.
Should you successfully complete the entire drive, you get one point. One.
So, why on Earth did they create this game, and why have you never heard of it? Obviously the game is a satire, and some of you may recall that in the mid-'90s, there was an anti-videogame-violence movement. "Desert Bus" was Penn & Teller's joking response to this. "It's a boring job that just goes on and on repetitiously, and your task is simply to remain conscious," Teller told The New Yorker. "That was one of the big keys--we would make no cheats about time, so [videogame opponents] could get a good idea of how valuable and worthwhile a game that just reflects reality would be."
As for why you've never heard of it: Sadly, the completion of the game's development process coincided with the demise of Sega's Genesis platform. Imagineering, the videogame company working with Penn & Teller, went bust shortly thereafter. Only a handful of review copies exist.
Amazingly, a group of die-hard gaming geeks got their hands on one of these copies, and a working Sega Genesis console. In 2007 they set up an annual charity, Desert Bus for Hope, that took donations for miles driven in the game. Proceeds would go to Child's Play, which donates videogames and consoles to children's hospitals around the world. The take has been impressive: While the first-year run only took in $22,000, the haul for last year's event netted $443,630, pushing the total to over one million dollars.
This year's Desert Bus for Hope is slated for November 16th. If you want to get involved and need to practice, but don't have a Genesis, you're in luck: "Desert Bus" can now be downloaded for iOS and Android.
Building blocks taught children to stack things. Legos teach kids to build objects systematically. Now a company called littleBits wants to push building blocks to the next level by integrating electronics, teaching children that they can achieve more sophisticated results by combining a series of predetermined components with specific technological functions. And they're easy to snap together, via magnets that prevent incorrect connections.
Electronics are everywhere. People now produce, consume and throw out more electronic gadgets and technology-enhanced products than ever before. Yet, engineering is mysticized, electronic objects are black-boxed, and the creativity of today's designer is limited by the tools and materials available to them. With the democratization of technology and the DIY revolution gaining more momentum, creativity with electronics will explode when they can be used as (and combined with) other materials.
The Power Wheels Barbie Jammin' Jeep is a battery-powered toy car that two children can ride in. Though the exterior is plastic, the $250 thing actually has a steel frame. Perhaps that's why a group of guys in Alabama Arkansas, collectively called Barbie Jeep Racing, have selected the Power Wheels line of vehicles—which include kiddie-sized knock-offs of Wranglers, Toyota FJ Cruisers and even an Escalade—for some seriously twisted downhill racing.
They start off by breaking the drive train so that the wheels can spin freely, letting gravity propel the vehicles to speeds—and down terrain—they were never meant to handle. Then it's Jackass meets Fisher-Price, as you'll see in this video:
Of all the different types of industrial designers we cover, it's exhibit designers and toy designers that get the shortest shrift; there simply aren't many of you lot giving out interviews. But now Lenny Panzica, a Hasbro product designer has stepped up for a Gizmodo interview explaining the design process behind the latest Transformers toy. (Panzica, by the way, is a natural fit to design the dragon-inspired "Predaking" robot; the dinosaur enthusiast has degrees in both archaeology and toy design.)
You'd think something as sophisticated as a transforming robot would be worked out almost exclusivly in CAD, so I was surprised to see how much of it is done on good ol' pen and paper: