Posts about toys

MudWatt: Make Power From Mud!

Keegan Cooke and Kevin Rand created MudWatt kits as a way to engage kids/students with science. From the website:

We want to show kids this brighter side of STEM, to empower them to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. Because let’s face it, there are plenty of problems in the world that need solving.

Unfortunately, our experience in school wasn’t unique. In 2011, less than one-third of 8th graders in the U.S. were deemed proficient in science. Today, 70% of the fastest growing careers are in STEM fields. The supply of STEM education is not meeting the demand.

Most of the world’s mud contain microbes that produce electricity when they eat. That is the engine driving the MudWatt. Colonies of special bacteria (called shewanella and geobacter) generate the electricity in a MudWatt.

The electricity output is proportional to the health and activity of that bacterial colony. By maintaining these colonies in different ways, you can use MudWatt to run all kinds of great experiments. Thus the MudWatt allows kids to engage with science, using their natural curiosity to experiment and learn. Engaging this too-often-neglected human potential will bring joy to those kids (as kids and as grown-ups) and benefit our society.

With standard topsoils, typical power levels are around 100 microWatts, which is enough to power the LED, buzzer, clock, etc..

Related: Arduino, open source hardware (Introduction Video Tutorial)Teaching Through TinkeringAwesome Gifts for the Maker in Your LifeQubits Construction Toy

Arduino Introduction Video Tutorial

Arduino is a very cool open source programable hardware engineering initiative. It is great for kids and adults who like to learn and create electronic devices. The Arduino Starter Kit is a great education gift for those interested in such things.

The video explains how to build a basic circuit with the Arduino board, and how to use each of the basic components such as LEDs, switches, and resistors. See more videos on related topics. Massimo Banzi, the co-creator and CEO of Arduino, and seen in the videos, also has a book: Getting Started with Arduino.

Related: Schematics of Electronic CircuitsEZ-Builder Robot Control Software

Roominate: Inspiring Artists, Engineers and Visionaries

Roominate is a cool new toy created by 3 engineering students aimed at giving young engineers a way to learn, experiment and create. The 3 women used kickstarter to get the funds needed to launch their product. They raised $85,000 (the goal was $25,000).

We’re more than just a toy company. We want to inspire your daughters to be the great artists, engineers, architects, and visionaries of their generation. We intend to give them every tool to reach that potential.


Bettina Chen: CalTech BS in Electrical Engineering, masters in Electrical Engineering from Stanford.

Alice Brooks: MIT BS in Mechanical Engineering, currently at Stanford pursuing masters in Mechanical Engineering design.

Jennifer Kessler: Bachelor degree from University of Pennsylvania, currently an MBA student at Stanford.

This is yet another example of entrepreneurship shown by Standford students. The USA is hugely benefited by Stanford (along with a few other schools: MIT, Caltech, etc.). There is little a country can do that is as helpful economically as encouraging the type of entrepreneurship Standford does.

Related: Awesome Gifts for the Maker in Your LifeFootballs Providing Light to Those Without Electricity at HomeGirls Sweep Top Honors at Siemens Competition in Math, Science and TechnologyFix it Goo

Get Your Own Siftable Modular Computers

I posted about Siftable Modular Computers early last year. Recently I have seen ads for them on my management blog, so I decided to see what progress had been made.

The price is a steep but they do seem cool. A Sifteo pack of 3 cubes, plus software, 2 games… is $149. They also require Mac or Windows software. no straight Linux 🙁 Each extra cube costs $45. They started shipping (at least in the USA) on September 30th.

Even though it doesn’t say it is available for Android or Linux here is a video from the recent Android open conference by David Merrill

I do agree that the idea of using these cubes that are in our physical space that we manipulate is very cool. And the idea of intelligent play I very much support. But they need to reduce the price and make them available on the best operating system (Linux/Ubuntu) – which is also open and free. They have also released a software development kit for those interested in creating games for the device. I wish them well.

Related: Teenage Engineer’s Company Launches Safety StairOpen Source for LEGO MindstormsZubbles, Get Your Colored BubblesArduino: Open Source Programmable Hardware

EZ-Builder Robot Control Software

You can get EZ-Builder Robot Control Software and try this out yourself.

Not a programmer? No problem! The EZ-Builder application allows non-programmers to easily build robots using advanced functions of the EZ-B Robot Controller. It is a Microsoft Windows application that gives you remote and scripting control of your custom robot design. Within the application, you add Controls that mimic your robot’s configuration. There are many controls for speakers, iRobot Roomba, HBridge, Servos, Cameras, Voice Recognition, Joysticks and more! There is even an easy scripting language so you may create short animations, interactions or initialization routines for your robot.

Using a Dremel, hot glue gun, screw drivers and various other tools, you can begin modifying the toy shell to fit your servos. For wheels or mobility, use continuous rotation modified servos. For arms and neck, use a standard servo. To allow your robot to see for object detection, use a Sharp IR Distance Sensor or a HC-SR04 Ultrasonic Ping Sensor.

Related: Arduino: Open Source Programmable HardwareRobots That Start as Babies Master Walking Faster Than Those That Start as AdultsRobot Built Largely From Old TV Parts

Zubbles – Get Your Colored Bubbles

photo of blue bubblephoto of blue colored bubble.

I first posted on this in 2005: Colored Bubbles. Now you can order your own via Zubbles. Colored Bubbles Have Landed (and Popped and Vanished)

Having solved the colored bubble dilemma, we spent most of 2006 trying to refine our dyes and the manufacturing process. We had invented several completely new dyes and a few derivatives of existing dyes. But the manufacturing process was long, tedious and expensive. It took three days just to make a few grams of each dye. It quickly became apparent that we needed to radically streamline the production process in order to have a viable product.

The complexities of the chemistry resembled a pharmaceutical more than a toy. So I enlisted the help of Gary Willingham, and the Belgium development team, at Fisher Scientific. Fisher is a pharmaceutical chemical manufacturer with the equipment and expertise needed to manufacture tons of our dyes.

Due to the complexities of the chemistry, Jamm decided to stay close to the production process and manufacture Zubbles in the US. The first bottles rolled off the line this week. Jamm presented me with the very first case of Zubbles. And it was a very strange feeling to finally hold the product in my hand—15 years after I mixed my first batch of dishwashing detergent and food coloring.

Being an entrepreneur is a challenge any time. When your product requires complex science and engineering that adds additional challenges. It is great to see this product is now available.

Related: Making Magnificent Mirrors with Math1979 “iPod-like” Music PlayerThe Glove – Engineering Coolnessscience and engineering gadgets and giftsBuild Your Own Tabletop Interactive Multi-touch ComputerAwesome Cat Cam

Qubits Construction Toy

Buy Qubits – The Construction Toy via Amazon). Post suggestion provided through our suggest a post link. Children are naturally curious. We need to provide opportunities for them to do what they would do naturally. This is one nice way to let kids explore the physical world.

Qubits® for Kids by Mark Burginger, architect / inventor

Many of us recognize the name, Frank Lloyd Wright. He was America’s most famous architect. However, did you know that he was closely connected with the construction toy industry? It just happens that his son, John Lloyd Wright invented Lincoln Logs®. John traveled to Japan with his father Frank Lloyd Wright and while he was there John looked at the wooden log foundation his father designed for the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. It caused him to think of a simple system of notched logs that could be used as a toy. After returning to the United States he created the toy sensation – Lincoln Logs®.

You don’t need to be an architect of any stature approaching Frank Lloyd Wright to feel this sense of influence. The inspiration for me came from the same Lincoln Logs that John Lloyd Wright invented. I used to play with them for hours and hours on end as a child. Now as a parent and an architect I feel I should do my part to provide a unique construction toy for children to play with and draw inspiration. The toy that I have spent the last five years developing is coined with the name, Qubits®. This dynamic new entry into the toy industry is gaining popularity with teachers, professors and of course – children all over Central Oregon. A simple plastic toy that can be built-up using a unique patented modular geometry. It quickly captures the imagination of children who might have visions of becoming architects, engineers, scientist or even nanotech designers.
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The Fall of Spore

image from Spore game

The hype for Spore as it was being developed was grand, and I was intrigued. Unfortunately the compromises I have read about have been disappointing. Seed has written about the development of the game in The Creation Simulation

This was Spore’s central problem: Could the game be both scientifically accurate and fun? The prototyping teams were becoming lost in their scientific interests.

Spore’s decision”‰—”‰to preserve the illusion of life at the expense of the actual facts of life”‰—”‰made for some substantial casualties. First to go in the cute-versus-science war were the extreme ends of the scale”‰—”‰galaxy formation and origins of life simulation”‰—”‰dismissed as being too abstract and dissipated. Next, small and then big laws were shattered and remade. Wright’s determination to represent faster-than-light travel as impossible crumbled in the face of making the spacefaring section of the game enjoyable. Evolution, despite his staunch Darwinism, became a massively telescoped process that depended on the external, deliberate interventions of the players. And so, instead of becoming the ultimate science project, Spore gradually became the ultimate game.

The snag is that Spore didn’t just jettison half its science”‰—”‰it replaced it with systems and ideas that run the risk of being actively misleading. Scientists brought in to evaluate the game for potential education projects recoiled as it became increasingly evident that the game broke many more scientific laws than it obeyed.

I can understand this process and even admit it might be the right choice for those involved. I am just disappointed we don’t have what was imagined (and hyped) early on – a great, fun, learning environment to enjoy and learn from.

The game has an amazingly low 1 1/2 star rating on Amazon with 3,121 reviews (I have never seen anything so popular so disliked on Amazon). Some of the disappointment is in the compromises made but I know a bunch is for the hated digital rights management DRM used by Spore.

Related: The Science Behind SporeProtein Folding “Game”Physics Simulation GameLego Learningposts on software


Stellarium is free open source planetarium for your computer.

Related: Learn Physics with Free Space Flight SimulatorFun Physics Freeware, the Protein Folding Game – the Protein Folding Game

Foldit is a revolutionary new computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research. This is another awesome combination of technology, distributed problem solving, science education…

Essentially the game works by allowing the person to make some decisions then the computer runs through some processes to determine the result of those decisions. It seems the human insight of what might work provides an advantage to computers trying to calculate solutions on their own. Then the results are compared to the other individuals working on the same protein folding problem and the efforts are ranked.

This level of interaction is very cool. SETI@home, Rosetta@home and the like are useful tools to tap the computing resources of millions on the internet. But the use of human expertise really makes special. And you can’t help but learn by playing. In addition, if you are successful you can gain some scientific credit for your participation in new discoveries.

Related: Expert Foldit Protein Folder, JSnyderResearchers Launch Online Protein Folding GameNew Approach Builds Better Proteins Inside a ComputerPhun PhysicsProtein Knots

The site includes some excellent educational material on proteins and related material. What is a protein:

Proteins are the workhorses in every cell of every living thing. Your body is made up of trillions of cells, of all different kinds: muscle cells, brain cells, blood cells, and more. Inside those cells, proteins are allowing your body to do what it does: break down food to power your muscles, send signals through your brain that control the body, and transport nutrients through your blood. Proteins come in thousands of different varieties, but they all have a lot in common. For instance, they’re made of the same stuff: every protein consists of a long chain of joined-together amino acids.

structure specifies the function of the protein. For example, a protein that breaks down glucose so the cell can use the energy stored in the sugar will have a shape that recognizes the glucose and binds to it (like a lock and key) and chemically reactive amino acids that will react with the glucose and break it down to release the energy.

Proteins are involved in almost all of the processes going on inside your body: they break down food to power your muscles, send signals through your brain that control the body, and transport nutrients through your blood. Many proteins act as enzymes, meaning they catalyze (speed up) chemical reactions that wouldn’t take place otherwise. But other proteins power muscle contractions, or act as chemical messages inside the body, or hundreds of other things.

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Open Source for LEGO Mindstorms

Lego Tribot

Open Source Firmware, Developer Kits for LEGO® MINDSTORMS®:

“Most often, innovation comes from the core community of users. Our ongoing commitment to enabling our fan base to personalize and enhance their MINDSTORMS experience has reached a new level with our decision to release the firmware for the NXT brick as open source,” said Søren Lund, director of LEGO MINDSTORMS.

photo: Lego TriBot – a flexible 3-wheeled driving robot with sound, light, touch and ultrasonic sensors – see more details.

Related: Books – Building Robots With Lego Mindstorms and LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Hacker’s Guide – Posts Lego LearningFun k-12 Science and Engineering LearningBuilding minds by building robotsBuy the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit online – $250