“I loved Shrinky Dinks as a kid!” exclaimed Michelle Khine, a biomedical engineering professor I met at a weekend summer camp for scientists called SciFoo, held at Google and organized by Nature magazine and O’Reilly Media. Khine explained how Shrinky Dinks toys inspired her to come up with a new nanoscale process that led to her startup, Shrink Technologies.
By creating a design at larger scale and then shrinking it down, Khine was able to find a simple and inexpensive method of making microfluidic channels for what she calls a “lab on a chip.” Her early prototypes were printed on a laser printer and then baked in a toaster oven. One use of this process was to create saliva-based assays for infectious diseases.
We thought about stories like Khine’s as we put together this Toys and Games issue of MAKE. Toys have inspired a lot of makers and spurred some surprising inventions.
Jose Gomez-Marquez had another toy story at SciFoo. The director of the Innovations in International Health Lab at MIT, he’s designing DIY kits for deploying medical devices in developing countries. Much of their medical equipment comes secondhand from developed nations, and practitioners often must customize or hack the devices to repair them — sometimes using toy parts.
“When you need a part, you don’t have access to McMaster-Carr or any parts supplier,” Gomez-Marquez said. “There’s an amazing supply chain for toys, so you can find them everywhere. From a toy helicopter,I can find a rack and pinion system.”
Johnny Lee was also at SciFoo. Lee, who wrote a popular article in MAKE Volume 01 on how to make a $14 Steadicam, now works at Google in R&D. Years ago, he created a novel whiteboard application for the Wii controller. Then he worked at Microsoft on the Kinect platform. He was one of the first to look at game devices as a cheap source of powerful sensors for use in other applications. Once the Kinect was hacked open, developers had a source of sophisticated computer vision technology for lots of unexpected applications. Willow Garage, a maker of telepresence robots, replaced a $20,000 computer vision system with an off-the-shelf Kinect.
I recently enjoyed a 30-course dinner prepared by The Cooking Lab’s Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet, authors of the epic new cookbook, Modernist Cuisine. It’s an impressively large effort to understand and explain the science of cooking and how to use such knowledge to develop new techniques and recipes. The Cooking Lab team works in a kitchen inside a machine shop inside an R&D lab. For this dinner, there were more cooks preparing the meal than people eating it.
One of the last courses was Myhrvold’s take on gummi worms, made from a gel infused with olive oil, vanilla, and thyme. The gel was poured into a mold used for making commercial fishing lures. Eating these candies was a delight, turning us into kids dangling a wiggly worm above our mouths. It reminded me of food-making toys like Incredible Edibles, a 1960s-era Mattel toy whose secret ingredient was called Gobble De-Goop. I remember dozens of molds for making insects with frightening appendages.
This issue of MAKE is full of talking bears, bubble blowers, toy boats, racers, robots, and View-Master 3D slides. They’re all fun projects to make, and they just might inspire you to see the world differently — as something you can shape, mold, shrink, and hack.