This year’s Toy Fair in New York featured several products I thought of as “programming plus” — toys that were screen-based but tied to components in the physical world. Here is a sampling:
There’s not as much building involved in the new Mover Kit from Technology Will Save Us as in some of their other kits — the electronic boards just snap together, no soldering required. But once it’s put together, the real creation starts. The Mover consists of a microcontroller board and another board that snaps on top with eight RGB LEDs, an accelerometer (motion sensor) and magnetometer (compass). The boards fit into a watch-like case that can be worn on the included snap wristband or lanyard.
What makes the Mover Kit so enticing is the software that comes with it. By plugging the Mover into their computer, kids can program their own apps to trigger different lights for different kinds of movement. One example invented by a child tester: a toothbrushing app that shows a particular color sequence after the Mover senses a tooth-brushing motion for the specified number of minutes. The Mover can be used to design active games like obstacle courses, or set goals like a FitBit. But the possibilities really are endless — Iron Man Arc Reactor, flashing bike light, light saber. The Mover Kit costs about $75 at the Technology Will Save Us website.
SAM Labs has been around for a few years, but this was my first encounter with their Bluetooth-enabled electronic blocks. And judging by their Curious Cars kit, I was quite impressed. The SAM blocks look somewhat like littleBits — each switch, sensor, LED, or motor resides on its own little module. But instead of building circuits by snapping them together, the blocks (which are housed in sturdy-looking casings) each connect wirelessly to one of the SAM apps. Building circuits is then a matter of drag-and-dropping icons into position. Software blocks let you create logic gates or connect to social media. All kinds of motorized toys, room alarms, or even smart wearables can be assembled by attaching the blocks to creations made of ordinary crafts materials. It’s a quick-and-easy way for kids to build their own IoT toys, responsive to the environment and to their commands. SAM kits start at about $140, with individual blocks starting around $30.
Many of the “programming plus” offerings were specifically designed to integrate with a toy most kids already own — Lego bricks. MeeperBOT is a Bluetooth-enabled robotic car base with a Lego-compatible top, wheels, and axles that lets you build up and around the vehicle to make demolition derby cars and other fun designs. The companion app has a virtual joystick control mode that lets you drive the MeeperBOT around the room. But there’s also a drag-and-drop programming language so kids can write routines to control their bots. The Java code that underpins the command blocks is displayed on the screen as well, to give kids a peek into how computer programming works. MeeperBOT is aimed at ages 5-12, so it’s a great way to enhance the Lego experience for kids who are just getting into brick building. The basic vehicle runs about $55.
The IdentiToy clear plastic toy brick baseplate sits atop any tablet. Children build their own Lego vehicles or characters, and then bring them to life using the IdentiToy app. The app lets you design an animated background for your Lego creations. You can even add sound and special effects — flames shooting out of your Lego rocket, or waves behind your Lego boat. The app is free, and the baseplate (about $10) gives you a place to build around your scene. On the IdentiToy website, it appears that the baseplate is the first part of an interactive system that the company is working on, with modules that can be recognized by the app and integrated into the scene. No word on when those will be available.