Design

Technically Speaking: Toys, Technology, and the Joys of Tinkering

May 6, 2015

A decade ago, Steven Johnson countered conventional wisdom with the audacious proposal that electronic media consumption is a beneficial societal force in Everything Bad is Good For You. Johnson makes a thoroughly convincing argument that an all-you-can-eat diet of TV and video games is actually good for people’s problem solving skills and overall IQ. Still, some will always be wary of too much technology, and more recent initiatives like Gever Tulley’s Tinkering School seem to encourage a return to hands-on experience and inventive play. Today, some trends try to reconcile these directions—tinkering with the inner workings of the diode and microchip world all around us. Ironically, other trends use invisible technology to encourage communication through playful interactions.

Modular Synth Kit | UncommonGoods

Modular Synth Kit
Developed by MIT Media Lab alumna and TED Fellow Ayah Bdeir, our Modular Synth, Space Science, and Smart Home kits offer an addictive introduction to the world of electronic components. By connecting the color-coded, magnetized modules like a brick building toy, you can create some awesome mad scientist devices and learn about the principles of technology in the process. The array of modules includes power, input, output, and wire (splitter or mixer) units, incorporating light, sound, sensors, and mechanical functions. Technical as this inventory may sound, the modular dimension provides a system that can be learned in minutes, and facilitates multi-media mixing of light, sound, and motion for limitless invention. Avowed “disinformationist” Reggie Watts shows just how much fun you can have through his improvisation with the Synth kit.

Modular Smart Home Kit | UncommonGoods

Modular Smart Home Kit

For those who may not even know they’re interested in electronics, Ayah’s invitation to play is enticing: “we’re trying to make [these modules] as accessible as possible and as instantaneous as possible, so you can see the results.” In her commitment to democratizing technology, she echoes cyberspace-defining writer William Gibson observation that “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” For that matter, the culture behind these kits features an open source component, encouraging the sort of tool and material innovation fostered by Tulley’s tinkerers. Ayah comments on this aspect of her system:

We started to lose this ability to play with technology as technology started to become more finished and closed…[our goal] is to demystify technology…the magic of electricity is everywhere around us—it’s beautiful, and we have to contribute to it and be creative with it.

Still not convinced that a focus on the inner workings of electronics is a good idea? Allow us to introduce Milksop the Bear, a toy-meets-digital-communication critter that’s designed to divert kids from the inevitable pull of grown-up social media. He’s the invention of Guari Nanda, also a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, who comments “there are so many apps today that isolate kids from family…we wanted to create one that does the opposite.” Through his Wi-Fi connection and custom app, Milksop allows adults (mom, dad, grandma, grampa) to send messages to his kid companion. When Milksop grunts to say “you’ve got mail,” the messages are delivered in a whimsically modulated voice. Then, kids can respond by recording a voice message that’s sent back to their adult admirers through the app. No screen, no typing, no direct contact with the pitfalls of too much technology. Milksop utilizes kids’ natural tendency to have conversations with their toys, applying electronic components, code, and the cloud to connect generations, rather than giving kids too much screen time too soon. At the same time, parents can choose to use Milksop’s gentle take on cloud-based communication as their child’s first introduction to the digital world.

Milksop Bear | UncommonGoods

Milksop Walkie Talkie Mailman
UncommonGoods’ family of techie toys also includes Richard Upchurch’s curiously cute Zoots, Lil’ MIB, and Loopy Lou. Each handmade gadget is part instrument and part pet robot, combining analog electronic components like those of Ayah’s kits within handmade, wood housing detailed with familiar, interactive buttons and switches. In keeping with their old school controls, Richard’s designs are kept deliberately simple, in that their recording functions are limited and ephemeral. Richard explains the reasoning behind this decision:

While we live in a culture of saving everything (voicemail, emails, social media feeds), I feel it’s important to celebrate the impermanence of things, to cherish the moment you’re living in. Take that moment, create within it, laugh, play, build a memory; then move forward into the next moment. It’s here that I find myself encouraged by the creative timing without being inhibited by comparing the past to present. This creates a space that allows us all—kids and adults—to play and create without inhibition.

From their handmade wood bodies to their whimsical, silkscreened “faces,” Zoots, Lil’ MIB, and Loopy Lou share the mission of Ayah’s modular bits—to make electronics accessible and endearing. For more on Richard’s easygoing but innovative approach to designing and building technological toys, follow along with our recent tour of his studio.

Lil Mib | UncommonGoods

A look inside Loopy Lou
Whether the future (or the unevenly distributed present, according to William Gibson) is shaped by products that encourage or discourage a direct interface with technology remains to be seen. Maybe a measure of both approaches is best. Going forward, 3D printing technology promises to continue the reconciliation of media and material, circuitry and stuff, bringing replicator-like integration between the physical and digital worlds. If it’s going to be this much fun, we say “make it so!”

Check out more tech toys! | UncommonGoods

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