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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.


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