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:
The Museum of Modern Art and open hardware startup littleBits are pleased to unveil a new collaboration, on display in the windows of MoMA Design Store locations in Midtown and Soho as of today, April 9, 2013. Developed in conjunction with brooklyn design studio Labour, the "4’-tall kinetic sculptures [are] made of wood, cardboard and acrylic, [brought to life] with 'Bits' measuring less than 1 inch square."
Although littleBits have been billed as "LEGO for the iPad generation," founder Ayah Bdeir notes in her TED Talk (embedded below) that the transistor has been around since 1947—predating the the iPad by over six decades. Rather, the modular bits comprise a full ecosystem of input/output functionality, such that littleBits cannot be classified strictly as a construction toy or an electronic one. Bdeir elaborates:
The idea behind littleBits is that electronics should be like any other material, paper, cardboard, screws and wood. You should be able to pick up 'light,' 'sound,' 'sensing,' etc., and embed it into your creative process just like you do foam and glue. We sit at the border between electronics, design, craft, art and mechanical engineering, and we are constantly negotiating those boundaries. I believe the most interesting things happen at the intersection of disciplines and the borders need to become more porous for us to see the most incredible uses of electronics in the world. littleBits is a library. We now have three kits and over 35 Bits and are working on the next 30, so this is literally just the beginning.
We had the chance to catch up with Bdeir, an interactive artist and engineer by training, about the past, present and future of littleBits.
Core77: I understand it's been roughly a year and a half since you originally launched littleBits. Have you been surprised by the response? What achievement or milestone are you most proud of thus far?
Ayah Bdeir: The response has been incredible. When I first started the company in September 2011, I knew that we already had fans who were waiting for the product, but I had no idea the response would be what it was. We sold the first products on our site on December 20th of that year and we sold out within 3 weeks of starting. [In 2012, we grew over] a series of events: we won best of toyfair, I gave a talk on TED that got a great response, we had a documentary on CNN and at every juncture, demand shot up. It was really incredible to see people from all over the world, parents, teachers, kids, designers, artists, hackers getting excited about littleBits for different reasons.
I think my most proud milestone is that despite all I heard about the toy industry being competitive, jaded and without mercy, we won 14 toy awards in less than eight months (including Dr Toy 10 Best Educational Products, Academic's Choice Brain Toy, etc)—in some cases, we bested some of the most popular toy companies in the world.
Well, it's hard not to be flattered by this one: at the end of a post about Samuel Bernier's recent 3D-printed IKEA hack, I idly mused that he should join forces with fellow DIYer Andreas Bhend of Frosta remix fame. It so happens that Andreas did read it, and the two actually acted on my suggestion to get together and "collaborate on a series of IKEA hacks with bespoke 3D printed parts and instructions..."
Andreas, a student from Switzerland, was only a short train ride from Paris, where Samuel works at le FabShop, a 3D printing startup. Even though they didn't know each other (nor do I know either of them, for disclosure's sake), they accepted the challenge and came up with a couple projects during a two and a half day charrette: a child's sled and a balance bicycle. Samuel shared the whole story:
This project has a lot of improvisation into it. When they decided to work together, Samuel and Andreas still didn't know what they would do. Andreas had made his marks with the IKEA's Frosta, a 10€ stool that was inspired by Alvar Aalto's classic. Samuel, on his side, was famous for his use of affordable 3D printing. The idea for a Draisienne came from thin air. Or maybe the wheelless bicycles that young children ride on Paris's sidewalks inspired Samuel. Few details were decided when Bhend brought the stools to Paris. The assembly, the wheels axis and the final proportions were all left for the imagination.
All these choices were made while manipulating the industrialized parts. The only tools they had were a drill, pliers, a metal saw (not appropriate) and... a Makerbot Replicator 2 (from le FabShop). There was a debate about what colour to choose for the printed parts. Since yellow didn't have enough contrast and blue was a little bit boring, they chose orange, a reference to Bernier's Project RE_.
Although it seems that we've been soliciting your opinions with a simple "Yea or Nay" quite a bit lately—regarding this and this, for starters—we just as often herald instances of "hell in a handbasket" to connote examples of design or specific products that confound us. And while I'd surmise that a new product called the Automee S is an example of chindōgu, the fact that it will reportedly available for 1575 Yen (about $17) next month seems to be at odds with the spirit of 'unuseless design.'
Unfortunately, the product page is in Japanese, so we're relying on New Launches' translation regarding details and specs. They write that "the little one has three tires for maneuvering and two made of paper which do the cleaning. The onboard sensors prevent the Automee S from falling off the edges and also lets it clean the entire surface evenly."
New Launches also notes that it takes four minutes to clean a phone and eight to clean a tablet, which makes it good for 45 and 22 complete cleans on a single AA battery.
Andre Cassagnes, the man who invented the Etch A Sketch, has passed away.
In the 1950s Cassagnes, a French electrical technician, was installing a light switch at the factory where he worked. The switch plate had a protective decal on it, which Cassagnes removed. That decal attracted bits of metallic powder by-product present in the factory, and Cassagnes noticed that when he made pencil marks on one side of the decal, the powder gave way to the pencil tip and the marks showed up on the other side.
After observing this electrostatically-powered accident, Cassagnes spent several years harnessing this phenomenon into a handheld device. At the 1959 Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany, he pulled the sheets off of his L'Écran Magique ("Magic Screen.") A transparent plastic sheet was lined with aluminum powder on the inside, and a joystick controlled an internal stylus that could be dragged across the screen, inside the device, to create lines. The "drawing" could be erased by shaking the device up, which redistributed the powder; small plastic particles mixed in with the powder prevented it from clumping up unevenly.
An American company called Ohio Art paid Cassagnes $25,000 for the rights—a princely sum back then—and called him in to work on a revised design. Interestingly enough, the form factor was altered to resembled the hottest home appliance of the day: The TV set. Cassagnes' joystick was replaced by two knobs below the screen, and the entire device was rebranded the "Etch A Sketch Magic Screen."
But while we ourselves wander around a three dimensional wonderland, our avatars remain stuck in the second dimension. Even if, like Miis, they seem to be free, they can never quite leap from the screen and into our hands, at least not without considerable effort.
For all those avatars itching for entree into the real world, we now have MixeeMe, a new startup that allows you to create a cute, custom avatar of yourself, your friends, your nemeses or anyone else you know and get a real live 3D printed version in the mail a few days later. It's the brainchild of designers Nancy Liang and Aaron Barnet, two Yale grads who wanted to make a dream into reality.
"When I was little had this idea that if you could become an action figure you're successful, you made it in the world," explained Liang in a Skype interview with Core77. "I sat down at Google Sketchup, figured out how to make circles and cubes and put them together. After 5 hours, I uploaded my character model to Shapeways, and found that it would be too expensive to print. The modeling process was a shit show, basically."
Frustrated with the options for designing simple 3D objects, Liang took to the web and worked with Barnet to research and develop simple 3D tools. "I decided that only do I want to make action figures, I want to make it easy for others to make action figures of themselves or their friends," she noted. After exploring the different options, they decided on a simple interface that let customers focus on creating, rather than the technical specifics.
Henry Hargreaves is a photographer who made his way to Brooklyn via his home country of New Zealand, but he's dabbles in Duchampian diversions in art and design as well, such as "Deep Fried Gadgets," a series of photos of the very same. He's back with a similarly conceptual project called "Game Over!":
Taking games from my childhood I wanted to strip away the color making the games themselves useless but draw the views attention to how beautiful and sculptural the forms themselves actually are.
Of course, Hargreaves hasn't quite stripped away the color, as each composition is a study of monochromatic boards and pieces set on backgrounds of the same pastel color. Besides the fact that each of the games is instantly recognizable, I was also interested to see how a lack of color cues hinders or altogether obviates gameplay. Connect Four becomes an abstracted distribution curve; the jigsaw puzzle is demands superhuman sensitivity to infinitesimal variations in size and shape.
Mr. Potatohead, on the other hand, becomes a sculptural version of the unmistakable toy, a work of Pop Art to the Minimalist mini-sculpture of the Rubik's Cube, which is unsolvable precisely because it is unscramble-able.
Just when you think you've seen it all with Lego, along comes this guy. A Japanese Lego builder going by the YouTube handle "talapz" has rendered both Todai-ji and Kinkaku-ji, two World Heritage sites and famous Japanese temples in Nara and Kyoto, respectively, in Lego. But the crazy part is he designed the structures to be collapsible, like a pop-up book.
Tim Jahnigen is a multicreative, Dean-Kamen-like inventor who has created "systems and technologies with patents pending in a diverse range of industries, from construction and banking to science and medicine." In recent years he turned his attention towards what initially appeared to be a smaller problem: Redesigning the soccer ball.
During the last World Cup we looked at the soccer ball's design history, and complained about the pure evil that is the Jabulani. But Jahnigen was interested specifically in soccer balls as they're used in developing nations. Your average Adidas will last just fine in the back of a minivan or on the well-manicured pitch at Springfield Middle School, but dirt tracks in Darfur and rocky fields in Afghanistan chew the balls up in no time.
So it was that Jahnigen observed a documentary about kids in Darfur kicking around, rather than a ball, a rough sphere of garbage tied up with twine. It was their only option, as balls donated to children in situations like these simply cannot withstand the rough terrain. "The millions of balls that are donated go flat within 24 hours," Jahnigen toldThe New York Times.
After doing research he discovered a materials company called PopFoam, whose tagline is "Soft Toughness" and whose titular product is made from EVA (ethyl vinyl acetate). As the company describes it, "PopFoam will improve durability, tear strength, tensile strength, flexibility, color availability, chemical resistance, cold weather resistance, sound protection and abrasion resistance while offering the cushioning comforts and the complement of design ascetics [sic] to your products."
However, Jahnigen calculated that tooling costs to produce PopFoam in a spherical, soccer-ball-sized shape would cost a small fortune--about $300,000, money that he didn't have. Here's where it gets a little crazy: The multi-talented Jahnigen is also a music producer, and counts Sting among his list of buddies. When Sting, no stranger to charitable giving, heard about the project, he insisted on funding it.
This week saw the emergence of the first International UN Day of the Girl Child, which is intended to promote the empowerment of young girls around the world. One obvious way to do this is to encourage their access to education. Because of this, we thought it was only fitting to celebrate the development of a toy that is meant to promote the education of girls and more specifically, their learning in science and math.
Debbie Sterling was discouraged by the stereotypes that suggested that boys should play with Bob the Builder while girls were left to dress up Barbie. With 89% of male engineers in her program at Stanford, it was obvious that there was a gender gap in the field. But more notably, Sterling was aware that there was a significant gap in the formative space of play. Because of this, she was motivated to spend a year of research with over 100 children in order to develop GoldieBlox: a construction toy for girls.