Today’s Toy Building Blocks Are Computing Components That Inspire the Maker Movement

Out of the box electrical components are helping you eliminate the complicated and time consuming steps involved in creating interactive products and maybe learn something in the process.

Legos.  Erector Sets.  Lincoln Logs. Tinker Toys.  These are building blocks for fabricating something that may have previously existed only in the mind.  As the folks at Meccano (owners of the “Erector” trademark) like to say, “If you can’t have it, build it.” And at their core, these toys not only spark imagination, they break open the wonders that come from making things your way with your own hands.

Although the advent of Lego building blocks precede the arrival of the Internet of Things (IoT), the two share the concept of “connectivity.” While today’s tinkerers and inventors, from steampunks to robot builders and beyond, often start by using an array of ready-made components to build a digital contraption or computing device, it’s not unlike how kids fit together Tinker Toys to create house or miniature town.

2Printoo

Companies are racing to build and supply software and hardware pieces that that novice and experienced makers use to build things that digitally communicate, often autonomously, with other things and the world around them, enabled by computing components and internet connectivity.  These “Interactive Building Blocks” represent a springboard that Makers use to dive into their imagination to make something real and often unique.

Most of the components now available for creating programmable, connected objects blur the line between hobby and product development.  While all are intended to facilitate out-of-the-box creation of responsive, internet-friendly objects, some are positioning themselves as platforms for retail-ready wearables and IoT devices while others seem content to fire up the imagination of armchair engineers for in-home enjoyment.  Both sides of the fence draw on a fundamental truth quickly leaking from the leading edge of the technocurve to the broad bell of widespread adoption: If it isn’t autonomous, it isn’t happening.  Read another way, these kits are giving your Erector set more get-up-and-go.

4TinkerBots

Kinematics’ Tinkerbots is a collection of snap-together modules that can be programmed directly or via an Ardruino-compatible interface.  The “pivot,” “twister” and “grabber” can be built out with passive components, like Lego pieces, for example. Then they can be controlled by the “Power Brain” which supplies both the energy and the microcontroller to turn cars and insects into self-propelled robots. For example, the Basic Wheeler Set allows Makers to build their own Bluetooth controlled car.

A custom software app lets you operate your creation using a smartphone or tablet. With the onboard Ardruino platform, Makers of all ages can enable more complex functionality including responses to light and motion.

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Printoo, a collection of connected “building blocks” by Portuguese company, Ynvisible, puts previously unseen or unattainable tools into the hands of everyday Makers. This set of ultralight, flexible circuit boards and collection of third-party printed sensor modules allow Makers to turn out paper-thin series of controllers that use Ardruino programming to direct devices from smartphones or tablets. You can even turn on the internet via Bluetooth connectivity to carry out IoT experiments.  Printed on a thin plastic substrate, the modules plug into each other. You can add layer function on function without adding weight, and Makers can even use conductive paint to draw circuits between components.  Demo projects ranging from cooking timers to remote-controlled blimps.

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Mbient Lab’s MetaWare puts tiny controllers into the hands of Makers focusing on the wearable market.  The heart of MetaWare’s kit is a development board no bigger than a quarter. It has essential inputs and outputs already built in like an accelerometer, RGB LED and button along with Bluetooth connectivity.  It has its own Android and iOS software developer kit (SDK) so whatever wearable device you create draws intelligence directly from your smartphone.

The Maker alphabet still starts with Ardruino and the path it has blazed for device hackers and tinkerers is bright and broad. But the door opened by this flexible, open-source microcontroller has been quickly thrown wide by the imaginations of the Maker community, leading to new kits and components that are quickly putting smartphones in the hands of the minifig, so to speak.

The ‘Maker’s Manual’ spotlights the do-it-yourself Maker Movement and how new computing technologies are helping democratize the creation of things once limited to craftsmen and professionals.  This 10-week series from PSFK and iQ by Intel will explore trends and feature interviews with artists, inventors and entrepreneurs who are turning their ideas and dreams into reality.

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