Blocks are the best toys. Even next to Lego, they offer children an infinite means to explore with the simplest of interfaces—stacking. But how do you keep kids interested in blocks when every other toy blinks, beeps, and responds to their touch?
Atoms Express is a Kickstarter project by Seamless Toy Company, and the best way to describe these kits may be as blocks that can sync with your iPhone, or programmable toy pieces that you can operate with an app. In reality, Atoms consist of a collection of 13 different pieces—including a motor, a light sensor, a sound module, a knob module, an IR "laser," an IR target, LEDs, an accelerometer, and a Bluetooth 4.0 controller—that can be assembled in any way kids can imagine to build their own electronic toys, like remote-controlled tanks and magic wands that open doors.
Creator Michael Rosenblatt explains to me that although his engineering team has long been into Arduino and 3-D printing, these sorts of "affordable" and "accessible" technologies still have a high barrier of entry. You need to be a programmer or engineer to take advantage of them. And they’re crafted by geeks, not by people with children’s hands in mind.
"There are a lot of hobby electronics out there that are just bare circuit boards, but those are hard to integrate into something that would potentially see weather and thus would risk getting destroyed—a Halloween costume comes to mind," Rosenblatt explains.
Instead of a body of bare transistors, Atoms are wrapped in chunky and durable plastics, like console gamepads—they’re even partially waterproof. Then beyond that, Atoms are made to fit into other systems: They’re compatible with Lego, and each piece has both velcro built into the bottom (to stick anywhere) along with holes in the corners (to be bolted down or sewn onto things where velcro won’t do). Then, when a child actually plays with the Atoms, each piece contains LEDs that give users contant, immediate feedback as to where modules are connected and how strong the signals coming through are.
"We want people to visibly see what’s happening immediately and we want, through the iconography, to help people understand how things connect," Rosenblatt says. "When someone builds something with Atoms, while they may not achieve what they were trying to build on the first pass, they’ll have real-time data they can analyze based on the feedback of the Atoms."
But in this case, industrial design decisions couldn’t always be in the interest of ease of use. While Atoms may be a toy at heart, they are meant to be educational, to teach kids the approach to engineering (and, okay, the pangs of construction). A perfect example of this issue was in power distribution. Batteries could be placed in each module, makings Atoms absurdly simple to connect. But doing so would cheat someone from learning, more realistically, how important power flows are in any electronic. Ultimately, the team opted to make the battery a module that comes in any Atoms kit/sensor chain—a decision that Rosenblatt admits still might not be the optimal approach.
"We wrestle a lot with the question of: Do we make it obvious to people how the technology really works? Or do we integrate it and make it work more like magic?" Rosenblatt explains. "I think the latter has a lot of benefits, but it sort of cheats the user out of an understanding of how things really work."
It’s a fascinating problem. We often consider design as simply a mashup of aesthetics and ease of use. Make your product beautiful and intuitive, and you have a great product. But if we’re to raise the next generation of problem solvers, presenting them with a few hurdles is an absolute necessity. Because despite the fact that we all have calculators, we’re still making kids learn long division.