2017 New York Toy Fair: Hackable Toys

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As a Maker educator who works with teachers, librarians, and parents, I get asked a lot about what learning toys and kits I think are worthwhile. That’s why I love to stroll around Toy Fair in New York and see what new products are on the horizon. This year’s fair offered a lot of tempting possibilities, which I’ll be sharing in a series of reports over the next few days.

Among the playthings that caught my eye were several that were just asking to be hacked. Of course, it’s mostly adults who have the skill (and the funds) to add rocket power to a model cars or weaponize an RC robot. But for the products below, motivated older kids can probably get into the act as well, with a little adult help.

At first glance, ZoZbot looks like a standard off-the-shelf robot. But it’s actually a robot platform that’s meant to be hacked. Its omnidirectional wheeled base resembles a retro flying saucer, with a dome windshield that can be removed so you can insert a figurine or snap in a 3D printed character of your own design. As creator Ken Miller explained, future plans call for accessories such as an independently-controlled camera, cannon, or claw. But he also plans to make the CAD files and specifications available, so you can create your own on a 3D printer or laser cutter.

ZoZbot is designed to use in games, and its DIY stadium will also be customizable, with files and parts available to build your own passive or motorized modules. Think miniature golf or pinball gates and obstacles. The bot can also push tennis balls and other objects around for games adapted from soccer or billiards. To control it, you download the ZoZbot app to your phone. (Controller apps are appearing on many tech toys this year.) Zozbot should be available soon.

An exception to the integration of screens and robots, the Primo Cubetto was inspired by Logo Turtle robots but styled after the most high-end wooden preschool toys. And it’s Montessori approved, fitting in with the principle that young children learn best with their hands. Kids control the movements of the box-like two-wheeled robot with a matching board that looks a little like those toddler shape sorters — no screens, wires, or joysticks in sight. The board is actually a programming platform, and the colorful shapes represent commands. Children fit the command pieces into holes along the board’s queue to program Cubetto to move forward, backward, right or left. To bring it to the next level, a function piece allows the user to designate a pattern of moves that are repeated whenever the function piece appears. There are even “inverse” and “random” command pieces that can be used to add even more complexity.

The set also includes an activity book and soft checkerboard maps covered with squares in different patterns. The activities challenge kids to follow the patterns and end up on the correct square. All this attention to design makes Cubetto perfect for pre-readers.

Cubetto has been used with ages three to seven. But then what? “Don’t tell anyone,” Primo CEO and Co-Founder Filippo Yacob confides, but you can open Cubetto up and access the technology inside. At the heart of Cubetto is an Arduino Leonardo that can be programmed using standard Arduino languages and even Scratch. The company foresees customers adapting the hands-on coding language and board to control almost any kind of connected device, from smart lamps to drones. It will be interesting to see if the first hacks come from parents or seven-year-olds. Cubetto retails for $225, and an extra Adventure Pack is available with additional maps and story books.

Watching the Actev Arrow Smart-Kart go through its paces around the obstacle course in the lobby of the Javits Center, it was hard not to think about the Power Racing series at World Maker Faire New York. What could those guys do with this baby? As it turns out, a lot. For starters, the Actev can hit 12 mph right out of the box, compared to the Power Wheels standard 5 mph. It’s easy to replace the body with one of your own design.

But the Actev had another hidden advantage — GPS control. For parents, the Actev app allows them to control both the speed and the range of the Smart-Kart. They can even hit the emergency brake if needed. For a hacker? Well, one tech-savvy fan in California is working on creating his own fun-sized autonomous car. Stripped down, the Arrow Smart-Kart goes for $1000, with a Formula racecar body extra. It is expected to ship this spring.

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Kathy's latest books for Maker Media include Fabric and Fiber Inventions, Musical Inventions, and Edible Inventions. She is also the author of Paper Inventions, Making Simple Robots, and other books full of STEAM activities for kids and other beginners. When she's not busy writing, Kathy presents workshops for students and educators at schools, museums, libraries, and makerspaces throughout the Northeast. Visit her at Crafts for Learning.

View more articles by Kathy Ceceri
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