“You can use it with our app!” may have been the most-heard phrase at Toy Fair in New York this year. Using a phone or other device to control a robot is a great use of the technology that’s already a part of your household. But the value of adding a digital dimension to a physical plaything like a doll hasn’t always been clear. Here are some examples of toys I discovered this year that seem to be getting it right:
Bloxels calls itself “the most kid-friendly video game creation platform, ever.” It lets you build levels, characters, and objects using colorful plastic cubes like pixels on a grid. Once you’ve created your design, you capture it (using the Bloxels app and the camera on your phone or tablet) and it appears in your game. It’s kind of a physical version of Minecraft, where everything from trees to coins to platforms are constructed of 13-bit pixels.
You can animate your creations, type in text, and make power-ups and hazards. And you can use Codeboard mode to start programming your own games inspired by Pong, Breakout, and more. Bloxels costs around $50, with team and classroom packs available. The website promises a version for PC and Mac desktops and laptops as well.
Thames & Kosmos is well known to Makers for their high-quality chemistry sets for kids. Their new game Happy Atoms teaches you about the molecular structure of chemicals using a set of 52 atom models representing 16 different elements.
Originally designed for high school chemistry students by Schell Games, which received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop it, Happy Atoms is being marketed for ages 8 and up. To play, you create molecules by joining atoms together using rubbery magnet-tipped free electrons arms, which connect to empty magnetic bonding sites on atom spheres representing the outermost electron shell. The iOS app lets you photograph and identify your molecule and learn more about it. The app also takes you on guided quests to discover new molecules, and lets you track your progress. No release date or price is available yet.
Thames & Kosmos also has its own video game toy/app combo, Code Gamer. The toy consists of a gamepad with four plug-in “sensorbots” — Kelvin the temperature gauge, Decibels the sound meter, Lumen the light scale, and Newton the touch sensor. Using the sensorbots, players can work their way through 15 game levels on a tablet. There’s also a Level Editor that lets you design and share your own levels. At the same time, the levels teach players how to code the Arduino-based gamepad to configure it to their own specifications. Coming Fall 2016 at around $150.
MakerBloks are electronic components — variable resistors, rocker switches, infrared sensors, buzzers — that attach to each other to form circuits using magnets, much like littleBits. However, the MakerBloks pieces are enclosed within hard plastic boxes. You don’t see the wiring, but they are much more durable for use with younger kids. The pieces are color coded and marked with actual circuitry symbols. MakerBloks automatically sync up with your digital activity book. The associated app is a digital storybook about Gabi, a curious young girl who lives in MakerCity. Kids use their blocks to help Gabi and her neighbors solve puzzles and challenges via a Bluetooth connection. MakerBloks was a ribbon-winner at Maker Faire Bay Area in 2015, and is available for pre-order at $125, half the regular price.