Hi-tech toy story: How 'connected play' can help inspire the next generation of engineers

6 min read

Gone are the days of plastic figurines or little die-cast cars that, with a little imagination, can drive or even fly around the room. Now, today many toys actually do fly, or perform other similarly impressive physical feats thanks to the inclusion of sensors and motion control technologies that increasingly come as standard.

Sam Loveday, editor of Toy News Magazine, said about the phenomenon: "The toy market is increasingly going hi-tech. With many things now vying for their time – multiple TV channels, iPads, apps, social media – it's often the case that children are also demanding more of their toys. Many now have a smartphone or tablet and they want to be able to connect toys to them and leverage that functionality. It might be to download apps that will change some aspect of it, or having live video steamed back to the controller from a quadcopter. But, overall, the expectation is now much higher that there will be some kind of tech element involved."

Some have adopted the phrase 'connected play' for the hi-tech toys that enable some additional functionality over the base product. A good example that has proved extremely popular in the last few years comes from Lego in its Lego Mindstorms range.

While still fundamentally the same Lego building blocks that we all know and love, the Mindstorm range integrates elements of hardware and software that allow the addition of motors, mechanical actuation, sensors, and electronic control of movement whether it's a cars, a robot, or whatever it is, made from Lego.

Rather innovatively, and in typical Lego style, both the programming software as well as all the hardware follow the same principle of using component building blocks – be it a motor and controller, for example – to allow users to easily integrate them together with the rest of the Lego model. However, it goes a step further and actually allows easy programming in the same modular fashion, block by block, step by step, so the whole thing can be assembled and built with relative ease.

The use of simple programming tools, known broadly as command box programming rather than code programming, allows the use of a number of sensors. These include touch, light, sound and distance sensors as well as cameras that can be used to create real embedded systems with computer controlled electromechanical parts. Many real-life embedded systems, from elevator controllers to industrial robots, may be – and have been – modelled using Mindstorms.

Though instructions can be followed – in much the same way as basic Lego models allow you to build a predefined model – once the principles are learnt, the modular approach allows a great deal of creativity. And let's not forget this is Lego's most successful product of all time, a hugely popular toy, aimed at children, many of which are under 12.

'Fun' learning?

All this raises a further and more intriguing point around the rise of technical toys generally. Their influence in nurturing and inspiring the next generation in STEM and, indeed, engineering subjects, as well as actually preparing and teaching the practical skills that industry continually complains lack in the current set of graduates coming through.

Hi-tech toys, in many cases, can put in place fundamental problem solving skills and give confidence, and interest, toward taking on some of the more daunting STEM subjects at school, college and then university. Innovation is never a case of regurgitating facts, or manipulating formulae to give an output, it is about thinking laterally and being able to use and exploit technology for a given function.

Ray Almgren, Vice President of marketing at National Instruments – one of the technology partners behind Mindstorm – said: "We know hands-on learning is the best way to inspire students and develop their skills in science, technology, engineering and math. With Lego Mindstorms, students learn valuable engineering concepts by programming Lego robots with software based on NI LabVIEW system design software. Interactive learning with industry-grade tools not only keeps young people engaged in math and the sciences, but also prepares them for future careers in engineering and technology in a way that traditional toys cannot."

US based Go Sphero has much the same aim as the Lego Mindstorm in that it wants to encourage children using its robotic based toys to get interested in technology. It produces either a 2 tracked robot called Ollie, or the sphere robot Sphero. Both are Bluetooth connected to a smartphone and via an app are controlled to perform at the users will.

Go Sphero was founded by Ian Bernstein and Adam Wilson, both passionate robotics engineers. Part of what they want to achieve is getting children interested in both programming and engineering by using their products.

The robots are customisable and allow children to program the devices for their own playing experience. And it is not a case of simply changing a setting, but actually requires some problem solving and manipulation of software.

"We create connected toys - but that's not all," said Bernstein. "By fusing technology with robotics, our toys are teaching and inspiring tomorrow's innovators and inventors. Programming isn't easy, but you don't need to be a rocket scientist to give kids a strong foundation.

"Whether you're an educator or a parent, we can give lessons that will teach kids the basic concepts of programming, maths, and science."

Using vs utilising

The fact of the matter, however, is that hi-tech toys are not always about getting youngsters hooked on technology and inspiring the next generation of engineers. It's simply about entertainment.

Many children now grow up with the assumption that technology simply exists, it has always been there and always will be. And while they are able to use it, they are perhaps not able to learn from it in quite the same way that the Lego Mindstorm sets out and aims to do. Many are capable of using tablets and smartphones from a very young age, but will never go on to develop apps or at any point be inspired to do so as a result of using them.

The danger is that hi-tech toys will be made so useable that there is no challenge or learning experience to be gained from them. There is an opportunity to make problem solving fun and get interest in technology from a young age - and yet technology may well just be used to give a toy some gimmicky edge in what is a fiercely competitive market.

Connected Play

The increase in smartphones and tablets means that apps, virtual entertainment and online play are increasingly coming together in the physical world. An example comes from a Kickstarter project launched to create the modern Teddy Ruxpin, dubbed SuperToy, which has been launched by UK based Supertoy Electronics.

The teddy bear is supposedly able to talk as naturally as a human and is able to engage with young children to help them learn language skills, hold conversations, and even help teach them to read. While on some level this is all slightly disturbing, it does no doubt hint at the fact that our interaction with machines – more widely – is likely to become the norm before long.

Speech recognition and the corresponding algorithms are now a mature technology, and though they have had some inclusion in the toy market to date, there is a niche for some bright spark – indeed perhaps the Supertoy – to fully exploit the technology so it will appeal to the next generation.

Where this young audience might have once used imagination to fill in any non-humanesque gaps, the Supertoy teddy bear begs the question of where this is all going? Will we soon be able to download different personalities to teddy bears and other toys as artificial intelligence continues to make leaps forward? While none of this is beyond the bounds of possibility, it is still likely to be a few years yet before you can have a full blown conversation with a present on Christmas morning.

RS Components send sSuperman into space

RS Components has collaborated with toy maker Mattel to support its Extreme Toy Travel campaign that has successfully sent a Superman figurine into space and back.

The Toy Travel in Space project saw RS team up with Rlab, a peer run community 'hackspace', card modeller Jude Pullen, and high altitude balloonist Dave Akerman, with the aim of sending a Superman figurine to space and back in a custom-built capsule. Inspired by Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking freefall from the edge of space last year, the team collaborated to design and build a capsule that would attach to a hydrogen weather balloon.

The craft, packed full of electronics and 3D printed components, travelled to a height of around 39km, and at the edge of space Superman began his freefall back to Earth. The capsule included a Raspberry Pi to capture mission data as well as a specially designed tracking unit to locate and retrieve Superman.

"This project is a demonstration of our innovation in engineering design, using our industry-leading design resources, together with products such as the Raspberry Pi and 3D printing, made possible through collaboration with leading engineers and technology experts," said Pete Wood, DesignSpark community manager at RS Components. "It has been a unique experiment as it involved carefully identifying several challenges associated with High Altitude Ballooning (HAB) and developing a team of engineering experts who came up with the right plan for the capsule."

The launch took place on September 12, in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, UK. During the flight, the mission data (altitude, temperature, weather) was collected along with HD videos and images.

Both Superman and the capsule were monitored through a radio connection and GPS. The space capsule weighed about 2.5kg and slowly drifted down to Earth over the course of a few hours on a parachute that ended with a safe and low impact landing.

RS has now posted all the design files, bill of materials and design notes on the DesignShare section of the DesignSpark website under an open source licence so others can build their own space bound craft and figurines. The Toy Travel in Space project aims to enrich children's learning experience and inspire their competitive creativity by engaging them to build their own spaceship and posting the design on the La Scatola dei Giocattoli website.