Archive for the 'Toy Design' Category

Toys, Working!

Mental Blocks

I want to rework the basic block. I like proven interfaces, and I also like blocks. Imagine you’re holding one such block in your hand. It’s a two-and-a-half-inch cube made of translucent squishy plastic. And it’s lit up from the center by an RGB LED, which is currently glowing blue. You turn the cube onto another of its faces and the light coming from within changes to yellow. Turn it again and the light turns red. I mocked up the basic effect with tilt switches.

I also cast a prototype block in silicone. It looks great.


Colors are fun, but what I’m really interested in is how several of these blocks interact, and even more importantly, how kids perceive and interpret that interaction. Little kids don’t understand things logically, they understand them intuitively, and I want to create a toy that lets them imagine and figure out relationships that would otherwise be too abstract for them to understand. Say you’re still holding your blue block and I have one in my hand that’s red. We bring them to within a certain distance of each other (ideally 1-2 feet) and suddenly they both turn the same shade of purple (or they both start to blink or one becomes the color of the other or they switch colors…). The point is, when the blocks are within a certain distance, they affect each other.

Now imagine that you’re playing with ten such blocks.

Obviously, you can build towers with them, throw them around, and do all the other things you’d normally do with blocks. But you can also hide your blue block somewhere and have me walk around with my red block till it comes within range of yours and something happens to it. You can also slowly move the blocks to their awareness threshholds—a little tap one way and they’ll change color, a tap the other way and they’ll change back. I’m thinking of giving different blocks different personalities—one freezes all the other blocks, one changes them all to its color, one makes them flash…

Anyway, it’s not hard to imagine ways of playing with them, what’s hard is figuring out how to build them. I’ve enlisted Rob Carlsen as a partner in this undertaking because he’s good at lots of stuff I’m not good at and shares with me the belief that this is a cool idea and that there must be a simple and relatively dumb way of getting these blocks to know about each other and converse. It’s just neither one of us has figured it out yet.

Right now the front runner is infrared. Rob has hacked up an emitter decoder pair that uses the Sony TV remote protocol he found on a site about TV-be-gone. Apparently they’re talking to each other but there are some issues with interference between the PWM and the Atmega’s clocks when coding/decoding. Tom Igoe suggested we use a 555 timer, which we’re exploring now.

Historical Note: I was set on RFID, but after reading a couple of books and looking at costs and effective ranges, as well as many lingering questions about the blocks communicating their particular states to each other, I’m no longer convinced. We’ve also talked about magnets, XBees, photosensors, and the possibility of each block transmitting sound, actually “talking” to other blocks, but that raises questions of annoyance (lots of constant high-pitched beeping) and possible obstructions. Silicone is a great sound insulator. And it would involve writing our own communication protocol, unless we were using DTMF or a modem protocol, but again, annoying. Unless we used hypersonic sound (and then dogs would hate us). We’ve even considered plain old radio. I don’t know much about it, but I know receivers and transmitters are cheap.

Toy Ideas: Blocky Talkies

After hearing so many interesting ideas from my classmates—adult furniture with kid-friendly undersides and crannies, action figure/toy car point-of-view filmmaking for kids—I have an idea which I’ve started to mock up in Flash. I can’t seem to get the idea of glowing blocks out of my head. I know, I know, it’s about as hackneyed an ITPism as there is, but maybe I’ll do it differently!

I sketched up a quick prototype (ok, not that quick) that demonstrates the behaviors of my glowing blocks, namely, that they glow a different color depending on which face is up and that when their color changes, nearby blocks respond by averaging colors with them.

PRESS THE DOWN ARROW KEY TO SPAWN BLOCKS
CLICK ON THEM TO ROTATE THEM
DRAG THEM TO MOVE THEM
PRESS THE UP ARROW KEY TO START OVER

Double hinges are endlessly fascinating

Jacob's LadderWhen thinking about the categories I laid out in my previous toy post, the toy that immediately suggested itself to me was what I knew as “click-clack blocks,” though a bit of judicious Googling revealed that it’s more commonly known as a Jacob’s Ladder.

The principle behind it is the same principle responsible for the Magic Wallet‘s popularity some years back and, in a much more complicated form, for the workings of the Rubik’s Magic. Note the “magic” in both titles. In Yardsticks, a book about childhood development we read for class, Chip Wood writes that younger children are “pre-logical”—they grasp the world intuitively—so when presented with a toy that defies even adult intuition, they’re hooked.

For my first toy, I wanted to defy intuition. I built a Jacob’s Ladder-style toy out of duct tape that works in two dimensions rather than one and combined it with the magic wallet concept to give it a graphical element after watching this:


The funny thing, though, is that even in its conception the toy defies intuition. After painstakingly cutting out and gluing together 16 two-colored craft paper cards and securing them to the toy, they didn’t behave at all as I expected. They neither reversed nor moved between segments. Instead, it was the hinges themselves that changed their configuration so that a given segment might have two parallel strips running along its length in one state and two crisscrossing strips in another!

To take advantage of this in an entirely hypothetical second iteration of the toy, I would probably play with the strips size and ability to hide and reveal portions of images beneath them. I also got some great feedback from my classmates, who suggested:

  • increasing the scale so that the toy becomes more architectural/furniture-like
  • using the toy as an interactive picture frame for portraits of individual family members to help a child envision and reconfigure relationships among people by reconfiguring the frame
  • giving it some puzzle dimension, though I worry that puts it in competition with the nearly untouchable and aforementioned Rubik’s Magic

In the course of my research, I also stumbled upon kaleidocycles, a book of which I had as a kid though I’d forgotten all about them. They’re also counterintuitive and magical, so I made a series of them as well.


I want the toy that I eventually develop to tap into the fascination that both the paper toys and the double hinges elicit. I also really like this idea of envisioning relationships that came up in the discussion of the duct tape toy. Hmmm.

Thinking About Toys

I’ve been thinking more about games than I have about toys recently, which I intend to remedy right now. Every Tuesday for the last seven weeks, I’ve sat in a room with twelve or so other people talking very seriously about what makes a good toy. I thought I remembered all my toys and knew for sure which were my favorites, but the conversation dredged up fond memories of toys I’d all but forgotten. My blue plastic Cinexin projector, for instance:

My other favorite toys included Magia Borrás, my Exin castle, my venerable STX 4X4 Scalextric, Lego Technic, Star Wars figures and vehicles, Transformers (especially Optimus Prime and a tank/plane triple changer whose name eludes me), and the contents of my toy bucket taken as a whole. I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but those are the ones I remember playing with the most.

And they all share at least one of the following characteristics that set them apart from sucky toys:

  • They put you in control
  • They gave you a grown-up ability
  • They allowed you to hide or disguise yourself
  • They lent themselves to the invention of stories
  • They caused something to happen or move
  • They impressed or surprised your friends, mom, or other adults

Which is why, I think, there aren’t that many new toys. Sure, Toys R Us in Times Square is brimming with an amazing assortment of toys, but most of them are just repackaged, rebranded, carefully gendered versions of a dozen or so archetypal toys: the doll, the science/discovery toy, the vehicle, the teddy bear, the puzzle, the art/creative material, the noisemaker, the building block, the board game, the bicycle, the costume, the ball, the tent, the weapon, the “learning” toy, the miniature [insert adult locale or situation], and the videogame.

Which is also why I stuck close to a traditional toy when I started designing.