WSJ: The New Era of Toy Robotics

These cool new toys are relatively inexpensive and guarantee hours of tinkering and learning and fun!

Attention aspiring roboticists of all ages: Today’s high-tech playthings from Lego and other brands can be controlled in once-unimaginable ways


Gregory Reid for The Wall Street Journal

Lego Mindstorms EV3

IN OLDEN TIMES, the most an ambitious young tinkerer could hope for in a toy was to be able to stick one funny-shaped piece onto another. Kids built airplanes with Tinkertoys and spaceships with Erector Sets. In large part, the joy was in the building.

But recreational tinkering has since taken a quantum leap forward. Once motors and computer processors got less expensive and the smartphone became ubiquitous, suddenly, toys could be programmed—not just remote-controlled, but given orders, even missions. Sure, it’s fun to scare your sister by hiding a toy spider in her dresser, but that’s nothing compared to outfitting a jerry-built arachnid with LED eyes and a motion-activated vibrating motor. Today, mini robots can be made to zigzag down the hall, patrol a home, greeting siblings with a friendly hello or a barrage of plastic missiles.

“We’re living in a golden age of toys that let you learn by doing.”

The latest high-tech toys offer enough expert features to keep an aspiring roboticist or programmer engaged, but are also simple and fun enough to keep an 8 year old busy for hours on end. Erik Sofge gives his take on Lunch Break. Photo: Romotive.

While nothing sucks the fun out of a toy like calling it “educational,” the ones shown here are examples of hands-on learning done right. They challenge kids—and adults—to think ahead, construct a plan and execute it. We’re living in a golden age of toys that let you learn by doing, providing access to everything from basic electronics to advanced robotics.

What’s great about these products is that they offer enough expert features to keep an aspiring roboticist or programmer engaged (in fact, some of these so-called toys are used in university labs), but are also simple and fun enough to keep an 8-year-old busy for hours.

Lego Mindstorms EV3

Novice-Friendly Features: Kids have been building “robots” with Legos for decades, but this set lets them create the real deal: There are instructions for making any of 17 different motorized, programmable robots, ranging from a towering humanoid (shown above) to a lunging snake. A pint-size computer, called the Intelligent Brick, allows you to program simple actions—making the robot crawl forward, for instance, or turn its head.

Geek Appeal: Although the kit is aimed at builders age 10 and up, this 601-piece set is more complex than your standard Lego set. You’ll want to set aside about an hour per build and to download the companion tablet app. Instead of instructions with two-dimensional drawings, it offers 3-D-rendered models of every step in the construction process, all of which can be tilted, panned and zoomed in on. The free Mindstorms software, for Mac or PC, opens up a world of advanced programming features, enabling your robots to react to their surroundings using the included infrared, color and touch sensors. For example, you could program a bot to prowl an area until it spots a red object (via the color sensor), then charge while firing tiny missiles. $350,mindstorms.lego.com

Romotive Romo

Gregory Reid for The Wall Street Journal

Romotive Romo

Novice-Friendly Features: Pop an iPhone or iPod Touch on top of this tank-like toy to create a strangely charming mobile robot. Using another iOS device as a remote, you can drive Romo into a room, start a video chat with someone, snap a photo or simply make Romo’s animated face, displayed on the iDevice’s screen, express a range of emotions, from curiosity to fright to glee.

Geek Appeal: The real magic happens when you use the free iOS app to give Romo its own personality by setting up a series of triggers and responses. Want your Romo to come off as shy? With a few taps, it can be configured to back off in terror whenever it sees someone’s face (using the iPhone’s camera), then tentatively roll forward with its “head” tilted down. Or when the Romo senses that it’s being picked up, you can make it giggle or get angry. Prescribing these behaviors may not seem like programming, but it’s a painless introduction to the process of making an inanimate object come to life. For more advanced tinkerers, Romo’s creators released a software developer’s kit this summer that lets even those with no robotics experience dip their toe into the usually rarified world of command-line coding for machines. $149, romotive.com

Orbotix Sphero 2.0

Gregory Reid for The Wall Street Journal

Orbotix Sphero 2.0

Novice-Friendly Features: At its most basic, the Sphero 2.0 is a motorized ball—one that you can steer with an Android or iOS device. But this recently revamped model is really a robot that rolls. With a max speed of 7 feet per second (about 5 mph), it can be programmed to careen down the hall, veer 90 degrees into the kitchen and then weave between chair legs. Onboard sensors let it self-stabilize and adjust its handling based on the type of surface it’s rolling on. With the free MacroLab app, one of the 25 compatible apps for the Sphero, you can, say, loop sequences of actions to make Sphero roll in a figure-eight pattern while its internal LEDs flash.

Geek Appeal: The more advanced orbBasic app is like a college-level robotics course, allowing you to code instructions for the Sphero directly on a smartphone. Power users can tap into readings from the Sphero’s accelerometer and gyroscope. With enough coding chops, you could even make Sphero roll itself through an apartment, calculate the square footage and then Tweet the results (via Bluetooth a computer). $130, gosphero.com


Gregory Reid for The Wall Street Journal (4)

littleBits components (top) can be used to animate homemade designs like the sculpture (bottom).

Novice-Friendly Features: These small, technical-looking components aren’t toys in and of themselves. They’re a system for bringing existing toys and arts-and-crafts projects to life. The series includes various “Bits” that latch onto each other with magnets, making it simple to put together basic, rough-hewn gadgets, like a buzzer that sounds when someone enters a room. Each Bit is color-coded by function: The blue Bits provide power (either from a USB port or battery); the pink “Input” Bits are like on-off switches that can be triggered by the press of a button—or the presence of light, motion or sound; green “output” Bits include a range of LED lights, as well as a small fan, a buzzer and motors that vibrate or rotate.

Geek Appeal: Diverting as litteBits are on their own, they’re intended to be taped, glued, tied, wedged or stapled to art supplies. You’ll find plans for all manner of homemade contraptions on the littleBits website. The Ball Monster, for example, is a creature whose eyes spin when you throw a ball onto its tongue. It’s made using a shoebox, plastic cup, rubber bands, construction paper and five littleBits parts that cost $83 total. The more sophisticated Big Wheel, shown at right, is a kinetic sculpture (made using foam core, chipboard and other materials) with cog-connected wheels driven by a single motor. Bits can be purchased individually or in kits, which start at $89. littlebits.cc


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