GeekMom: Hi Ben! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for GeekMom about your new book, Little Robot. I really enjoyed it.
Ben Hatke: You are welcome! And I’m glad you enjoyed it.
GM: Did you always plan for this to be a (mostly) visual story? What were the challenges and most fun aspects?
Ben: The original Little Robot webcomics were newspaper comic strip format and they were also largely silent, save for a few robot noises. So, coming into the project, I already had a sort of history just using the robot’s gestures and “acting” to tell a story. I continued that going into the graphic novel and gave the robot a little co-star that operated in a similar way—gesture over dialogue.
It was challenging to decide just how little text I could get away with, but for the most part I find purely visual storytelling a lot of fun. I used one of my daughters as a reference for a couple poses.
GM: The “hand” becoming a friend was a great part in the book. How did you come up with that idea?
Ben: I think that’s one of the things that came from the part of the process where I doodle in my sketchbook. In the early parts of a project like this I tend to be working on the plot in text and the design in a sketchbook at the same time, and each of those elements informs the other.
Of course I’m definitely not the first person to use a “helping hand” type of character. I was watching a clip from The Iron Giant recently, which I hadn’t seen in many years, and was a little dismayed to find that there’s a very similar robot hand scene in that movie! Continue reading Creating ‘Little Robot’: Ben Hatke Interview
Well, here are three to check out with dinosaurs! pirates! robots!
First up is Carter Goodrich’s We Forgot Brock! It’s a tale about all kinds of friendship. Brock is the coolest pirate/rocker/hero young Philip could imagine. But when Brock is forgotten at the fair, another child invites him home. Will Brock ever find Phillip again…does he want to? The artwork is key to the book’s charm. The “real” world is colorful, round, and soft. The “imaginary” friends are black and white and flat, but with expression and sincerity. Although I was at first disappointed in the gender-stereotypical depictions of what boys and girls would imagine, it was hard to keep a chip on my shoulder as I read the story aloud to my nieces. We really, really enjoyed it. (And they thought Princess Sparkle Dust was as cool as Brock.) Highly recommend for all ages.
Next is Mark Pett’s Lizard from the Park. If you have ever visited the NYC’s Museum of Natural History, and then walked in Central Park, it’s easy to see where Pett got his inspiration. Those dinosaur bones are so huge! And where would these giants fit in our world? That’s the problem Leonard, a young boy in the city, has when he hatches a lizard egg that may not be just your average lizard. As the mother to a young girl who was obsessed with dinosaurs, this is a sweet book I recommend for all ages.
Finally, Little Robot is Ben Hatke’s new book. This is perfect for youngsters looking for the next level up in storytelling from picture books. Without the need for many words (there is some dialogue) Hatke puts the emotion and layering of story in his artwork. The protagonist is a curly-haired, barefoot girl who finds an abandoned tool set, and box-o-robot in the local junkyard. She activates the robot and they quickly become friends. Yet, they are so very different! Can they stay friends? What is the meaning of true friendship when robot is in danger?
I have an upcoming interview with Ben Hatke about Little Robot, so stayed tuned for that. In the meantime, I recommend this book for ages 6 and up.
Recently, I warned you that robot overlords will be taking over. First sign? They’re cute and useful. Soon, we won’t be able to bear living without them. Then, if my research holds true, we humans are well on our way to becoming fuel for angry, meat-eating, self-perpetuating machines.
I’m here to report that I am now a willing victim. Yes, I’m weak. When given the opportunity to review Litter-Robot, I seized the chance to observe the threat up close. Maybe knowing my enemy better could help me in some dystopian robot-controlled future. Besides, it’s not like I need the help. I barely do any chores around here because I’ve foisted them off on my super-responsible kids. Let me tell you, those kids were excited when the robot arrived.
First impression of the Litter-Robot? It reminded us of those early diving helmets, the ones that look so steampunk now.
The Litter-Robot is cleverly designed. This self-cleaning enclosure senses a cat’s weight, then automatically starts the cleaning process seven minutes later. It rotates slowly, using gravity to sift litter rather than using a raking method. There’s no clogging or jamming, and only the clumped litter goes into the receptacle. When a waste bag in the collection drawer is full, you simply replace it with another bag. There’s no need for expensive custom-fit bags, because it has clips to accommodate any garbage bag you choose. Cleaning takes only few seconds. No litter dust from scooping, no yucky cleaning, no spilled litter, no fuss at all. And we haven’t noticed an odor either, thanks to its enclosed design and carbon filters.
We carefully followed the instructions for introducing our cats to the unit. It’s important to take it slowly, so they adjust. They accommodated perfectly in about a week and a half. We’re really pleased with this product’s sturdy construction and the fact that it’s made in the U.S.A. The Litter-Robot has a 90-day, money-back guarantee and an 18-month warranty, plus a customer support line. The whole unit seems pricey as an initial investment, but there are big savings over time, because you use so much less litter. The company says customers save 50 percent or more on litter. Sparing yourself the kitty litter box chore is, of course, priceless.
We couldn’t just call it a robot. No, the humans here insisted it have a name. Proposals included Cheezburger, Nyan, Max, and Wilbur. Max won. Also, the little thing has become a “him.” I will try to pretend I still call Max “it” for the purposes of this review, but it’s harder than you might imagine.
I really appreciate Max, er, the Litter-Robot. Maybe a robot-run future won’t be all that bleak. And those large googly eyes we stuck on it make it seem downright personable.
From the outside, Disney’s Television Animation studio doesn’t look like much. There’s no giant wizard’s hat out front like the Feature Animation building or seven stone dwarves holding up the roof like the Team Disney building on the Burbank lot. Driving through the gate and into the parking lot of the nondescript brick building in an industrial part of Glendale, you’d never know that it’s currently the home of some of the company’s most creative and prolific talents. At least, not until you step inside.
The small lobby is filled with computer screens showing clips and promos from many of the shows in production: Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Sofia the First, Gravity Falls, and the phenomenally popular Phineas and Ferb. Up one flight, down the hall and just past the cereal bar there’s a unique space that serves as an in-house art gallery, where staff members are invited to show original pieces they’ve created in their spare time. The art is periodically rotated and usually centered around a theme. GeekMom was invited to the opening reception for the latest exhibition, titled “Man vs. Machine: The Robot Show,” where some of the biggest names in the world of television animation mingled and appreciated the work of their colleagues.
Kimberly Mooney, manager of development at Disney Television Animation, explained that the rotating gallery was always imagined as a part of the studio’s office space from the very beginning. “It goes all the way back to when this building was being renovated and built for us to be an animation studio,” she said. “We wanted a dedicated space where we could showcase the artists’ art, their personal artwork. It helps to establish that real sense of community we have here.”
Alex Rosenberg, an assistant at the studio, added that everyone is welcome to submit work to the shows, even if they’re not professional artists. “Eric Coleman, our SVP, actually put in a piece this time,” she said. “And we have work from people who are in tech and a coordinator on our current series side who did one. We have writers who submitted pieces. It’s a really nice way to showcase the talent that’s here at TVA and celebrate artists who are outside of what we normally define as artists.”
Phineas and Ferb co-creator Dan Povenmire contributed “Girl vs. Machine,” a drawing of his two daughters taking on a massive wave of technology with a pair of slingshots. “The theme was ‘Man vs. Machine’ and I was thinking about it for a while and I was like, ‘Screw it, I should just do “Girl vs. Machine” and then I can put my daughters in it and then I’ll have a place to put it when I’m done with it,” Povenmire said. “And they love it. They’re like, ‘That’s us!’ And they like looking at all the little things in there and trying to figure out what they are. Like, ‘Oh, there’s our Zoomer dog. That’s our boom box!’ I put a lot of other stuff in there too. I was basically just doodling for a day.”
He enjoys the opportunity for self-expression the gallery offers and the chance to see what the other Disney artists are all about. “We’re all in the same building but everybody who is working on a show is really working on one piece of art that they’re all doing together,” he said. “It’s a big, collaborative piece of art. And nobody gets to see what these people actually think of themselves if you just say, ‘Hey, go off in a direction.’ I love seeing the kind of stuff that people do at home. It sort of gives you a different feel for them. And it’s gotten so I can tell different people’s art, though it’s nothing like what people do here.”
I also got to chat with Craig McCracken during the event. He’s currently the creator and executive producer of Disney Channel’s Wander Over Yonder, but you might also be familiar with his earlier creations The PowerPuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. His piece, “Taishi,” features a graphic, 70s-inspired profile of a humanoid robot with flowing yellow and orange locks.
I asked McCracken which piece in the show was his favorite. “I’m leaning toward Alex Kirwan’s,” he said. “He’s my art director on Wander and he built a model of a very obscure robot from a Donald Duck cartoon. It’s like so inside baseball because he’s in this one specific Donald Duck cartoon. And he’s like, ‘I’m going to make a sculpture of that.’ I’m like, ‘I think only you and like 10 people in this building are going to know who that character is and appreciate it.’ But if anyone would, it’s the people here.”
It’s amazing the number of ways our kids inspire us. From the little things like just saying a kind word to someone who needs it, to the incredible creations that are born from curiosity, kids can do marvelous things. Twelve-year-old Shubham Banjeree is one such kid.
After spotting a flyer at his house asking for donations for the visually impaired, Shubham wondered, “How do blind people read?” His search through Google to find the answer led him along a path where he was astonished to learn that Braille printers cost thousands of dollars. Inspired, Shubham turned to his LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit (along with a few pieces from Home Depot), and in just four weeks created a cost-effective Braille printer he dubbed Braigo.
LEGO, moved by the 7th grader who combined his love of LEGO with the genuine desire to do something good for people, issued the Build for Good Challenge to seven companies in Seattle. Each company was chosen as one of the most innovative Seattle has to offer: Amazon, Egencia, Expedia, HTC, Microsoft, Nordstrom, and Zulily. The teams were sent EV3 kits and asked to create a robot that “solves a human interest problem.” On Thursday, April 10, at the EMP Museum in the heart of Seattle, the teams gathered to show off their inventions.
Contestants responded with robots that picked up small toys, sorted luggage by color, worked on a model urban farm, and turned on the lights and watered plants in a miniature home. Teams from HTC and Microsoft considered the challenges facing mobility impaired young people, and invented a selfie-taking robot and 3-D version of Zoo Tycoon respectively.
The Microsoft/XboxOne team gathered the most onlookers at the event, with a large team and fantastic, colorful setup that included three different robots and a custom Windows Phone app to play the game and control them. Team Xbox was motivated by the desire to help kids who are unable to hold or manipulate a game controller. Their entire project took 150 hours over three weeks of work with the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kits.
It was underdog Team Nordstrom that won the grand prize, however. NORD1, the team’s brainchild, was built with kids in mind to add a little bit of fun when it’s time to take their medication. Parents simply direct the robot to deliver the pill, and it finds their child and dispenses the medicine automatically. Once delivery is complete, the robot enters “party dance mode” set to the tune of El DeBarge’s “It’s Johnny.” This Short Circuit flashback was enough to win over everyone the audience over the age of 30, but when NORD1 belted out a good ol’ “EXTERMINATE,” I suddenly had a clear favorite.
Team Nordstrom was awarded five LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kits to donate to the children’s charity of their choice. Among the judges were Shubham Banjeree, who still stole the show with Braigo, even among so many incredible inventors and their creations.
“We continue to be amazed by inventors of all ages who utilize the Mindstorms platform to express their creativity, building everything from robotic pets to robots that solve real life needs, like Shubham’s inventive Braille printer,” said Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for LEGO Systems. “In the spirit of these LEGO Mindstorms inventors and inspired by today’s competitors from Seattle’s elite companies, we encourage children around the world to put their ingenuity to work through play to creatively build a better world.”
I think it’s safe to say we all agree everything is better with robots. Even the sort of robots you find chanting, “kill all humans,” add some spice to the day. But Annette Simon’s robot buddies are nowhere near that kind of evil. They’re more like your five-year-old in paper-cutout robot form, and they’re back at their game of one-upmanship in Robot Burp Head Smartypants.
We first met these two in Robot Zombie Frankenstein!, in which the two robot pals have an ever-escalating competition of cosplay, culminating in a shared pie. (This may sound more like your last con in paper-cutout robot form. Replace “pie” with “rum” as necessary.)
My favorite part of Robot Zombie Frankenstein! is that you can read it with a child or other parent, or let your kids read it together, each taking the role of one of the robots. You get to do that again in Robot Burp Head Smartypants…with a twist. It will help if your list of life skills includes the ability to burp the alphabet. And your third-grade teacher said that would never come in handy! Ha! Take that, Mrs. Walker! Ahem…
(You bet your can of robot oil that when my kids requested their grandfather read this one at bedtime, I made him wait until I could get the video app open on my phone.)
In the ultimate test of kid-book approval, Robot Burp Head Smartypants has been headlining our nightly book reading list for several weeks now. So guzzle up your oil (or other burp-producing beverage of choice) and start practicing. Eventually you, like the bot buddies, may be able to belch-count while juggling apples blindfolded and riding a skateboard.*
You can also still grab Simon’s activity kit that goes along with the first book, including build-your-own-robot pages.
* Do not try this at home. You’re too old for such shenanigans and are not, in fact, a paper robot.
For the second Christmas in a row, our family received a multipack of Duplo. This time we added farm animals and fencing to the mix, a few new people, and a new car base. The boys are loving the new additions, and an extra box of blocks is always a good bet with my boys. They have no problem playing with these bricks for long stretches of time, making all manner of things. I, however, have issues with symmetry, a need to join blocks in an architecturally sound way, and a 2×2 problem.
You know the 2×2 problem well, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. For me it is Duplo, for you it might be Lego. The accumulation of multiple sets inevitably leads to a block imbalance: So few 4x2s for construction, so many 2x2s.
The kids have no problem with the 2×2 blocks, but the parents, we’re a little more distracted by the impossible task of building with the smaller blocks. Whenever a construction project is complete, or even in progress, there is always a pile of blocks off to one side with which the parent is expected to produce the Empire State Building. This is always a big pile of 2x2s.
With the expansion of our building materials this year, I was hoping to redress the imbalance. Alas, more 2x2s. I have been trying to come up with some useful ways of using these smaller increments, ways that don’t fall apart instantly, and don’t offend my adult sensibilities!
1. The underwater camera. This is a more peculiar shape than the cameras we generally construct from Duplo, but given the constraints of the 2×2 we decided to go Jacques Cousteau, and design an underwater camera. It even works in the bath tub.
2. The classic pyramid. While the 4×2 enables the construction of a more artistic pyramid, the 2×2 is a mainstay in Egyptian playtime.
3. The 3-D pyramid. Yes, the pyramid is already three dimensional, but what we are looking for here is depth. You can even go in from underneath and remove superfluous blocks, thus making tombs.
4. The photo frame. Run around the house with this bad boy and take pictures, with an actual camera, of anything you would like to frame. That is, have your child run around the house looking for things they would like to frame, ahem!
5. The robot. Not as sturdy as the multi-brick kind, but a decent robot can be made from simple 2x2s. These are great for robot wars, as they break up easily on impact. Robot wars: a game in which siblings knock each other’s robots together until one breaks. Kind of like the old British game of conkers, but not.
6. Tetris. Okay, this one is not at all fun to play, but it looks kind of cool. It will fill those moments when you are being told not to play with your child’s construction project.
7. The steps. Simple. Classic. Completely boring unless you are a four year old with farm animals that like to play Lemmings.
8. The race track. The piece de resistance. Once constructed, this kept both of my boys occupied for longer than I thought possible. A simple track construction, using a three pronged width for long stretches, and a four pronged turn. Towers and turrets can be added at will. Be warned, siblings will attempt to block their opponent’s car by putting bricks behind their progress, a la turtle shells in Mario Kart.
So that was a wonderful morning spent learning how to construct minimalist projects with my boys. Any suggestions to add to our repertoire?
The robot revolution is upon us. Whether you want an R2-D2, Dalek,or a Bender is up to your own discretion. However, Romo is an easy, family-friendly way to introduce some of the wee ones to the wonderful world of robots.
Romo is a smartphone-controlled personal robot, which can be found at Brookstone and Amazon. He can’t clean the floors or make fries. Romo is more like a family pet, with none of the mess. He’s also a nifty learning experience, both for the robot and its user.
On the surface, Romo seems a lot like your basic smartphone-based toy. However, as you play with Romo, he’s actually learning. In other words, while it may seem like you’re just playing a few simple games, you’re actually programming. This is called the “training” phase. Romo also has telepresense features. This means you can talk to family members through Romo, whether you’re on the other side of the house or the other side of the world.
The actual Romo product is just the robot’s base. No batteries are necessary, as it charges up via an included USB cable. However, to make magic with Romo, you’ll have to supply an iPhone or iPod touch. Currently, there are two versions of the Romo: one is compatible with the fourth-gen iPod touch, the iPhone 4 and 4s, while the other works with the fifth-gen iPod touch and the iPhone 5/5C/5S. For testing purposes, I used my trusty iPhone 4.
If you don’t want Romo to suck up all of your iPhone’s battery life, you’ll want to charge it via the aforementioned USB cable. As the base charges, a light will flash on the front. It can take about six hours to get Romo fully charged. Once it’s ready to roam, that light will turn solid and you can expect about 2.5 hours of playtime. While you’re waiting for the device to power up, download and install the free Romo app via the iTunes App Store.
Once everything is ready, secure your iPhone into Romo’s docking station and launch the app. After a little introductory “movie,” you’ll be asked to help Romo train for “his time here on Earth.” This is where the playing/programming comes in, as well as where Romo will start to adapt to all of your surroundings.
Parent company Romotive has said that one of the goals with Romo is to help get kids excited about computer science and software development. Well, mission accomplished. As Romo learned and unlocked features, my 7-year-old son fell in love even more with the little guy he named “Rover.”
At present, Romo has about 12 different “missions,” which can unlock new abilities. These missions vary from getting Romo to react to being picked up to getting the robot to chase a ball. There are options for sound, motion, and even “expressions.” Although the number of missions seems low, each one can take time—which my son certainly didn’t seem to mind one bit!
Of course, Romo isn’t all fun, games, and wacky faces. He can also be used as a security device, which is pretty darn cool. If you’re willing to leave your iDevice docked in Romo while away, you can view your home using the iPhone’s camera. Of course, this does require another iOS device or a computer for the viewing. However, you can also use that second device to control Romo remotely. So not only can you see whether or not the dog is sitting on the couch, you can actually follow Fido around the house to make sure he isn’t eating any shoes or Lego bricks.
As mentioned, you’re going to need two devices to use those features, which may not be doable for a lot of families. And if you think you finally have a use for that old iPhone, think again. See, Romo is sort of fussy about who he plays with. That’s a nice way of me saying that he’s not going to work with your next smartphone, unless you like getting the same old operating system. There’s an iPhone 4/4s Romo and one for the iPhone 5 and the two don’t play nicely with each other. If you want to keep Romo in your rotation, you can expect to spend $149.99 for the upgrade.
It’s also important to note that the telepresence doesn’t work with the iPhone 4. This kept me from checking out those features during my review. It’s something I didn’t notice in the fine print before I agreed to take Romo into my home, so it may be something you’ll miss.
That slight difference could definitely sway your decision. See, Romo is sort of expensive. For $150, I want something to clean my floors. Well, at the very least, I want it to work with my next iPhone. However, Romotive is working on fixes, upgrades, and additional features for the New Year.
When you factor in the security features, Romo is absolutely worth the money. A basic Dropcam video camera has the same MSRP and doesn’t move around the house or teach the kids about the basics of robots and programming. If you’re still clinging to the iPhone 4, the price tag may be a bit more difficult to accept. Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that Romo was insanely popular in this house. My son always lit up at the mere mention of hanging out with “Rover” for the day. His reactions were even better than the ones we programmed into our Romo.
Toys that push, toys that inspire art, toys that look like famous geeky characters, and more! Toys aren’t just for kids, and this bunch promises fun for geek kids and geek parents alike.
ArtSee Studio Wowwee’s drawing kit for iPads has some fantastic features to really make your child’s screen time interactive. Stamps, customizable activities, and even animation and sound tools, make this a big-deal toy for 2013. The ArtSee app is free to download and can be used with or without the Studio kit. Recommended age is 3+, but younger children can still go to town drawing and coloring; the Studio tools will grow with them and provide years of activities. $39.99
Battroborg Tomy’s Battroborg is like a cool update of Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots. The robots are R/C motion-controlled, and you can buy new robots separately (but they are pricey). There’s a bit of a learning curve to get the robots moving the way you want, but with some practice it’s pretty satisfying. Recommended for kids ages 6+, or you can get a set for the grownup robot fan in your life. It’s a pretty great office toy. $79.99
Doc McStuffins Checkup Center Just Play’s Doc McStuffins playset has made pretty much every single top toy list for 2013, including the coveted Most Wanted List from TimetoPlayMag.com. We are just as wild about it here at GeekMom and so excited to see something other than a play kitchen out there. It’s ages 3+, but at least one GeekMom has it stashed away for her almost-two-year-old to enjoy this December. $79.99
Flying Heroes Bridge Direct’s Flying Hero is the kind of stocking-stuffer/small toy that could outshine all the expensive stuff this holiday season. The quick-pull launcher is so satisfying, and your favorite superheroes will soar nice and high. You can choose Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman, but we believe that when given a choice you should always be Batman. Ages 4+. $14.99
Hape Wonder Walker Sturdy wooden push cart helps babies walk and also fosters creative toddler play. Onboard activities include knobs and gears. Rubber trimmed wheels protect floors. Ages 12 months to 3 years. $75.97
HexBug Aquabot Bath time is about to get way more interesting, because Hexbugs have learned how to swim! $13
Max Steel Interactive Sword The Max Steel Interactive Sword is the kind of thing that will draw huge gasps when it comes out of the box, and knock down the Christmas tree a minute later! It talks, it makes noises similar to a lightsaber, and it goes perfectly in the dress up box for a superhero, ninja, pirate, or fairy princess. No sharp edges on this fake sword, and it holds up well to extensive play time. $22-30
Melissa and Doug Shopping CartDurable child-sized shopping cart looks just like those in real stores. Sturdy metal construction includes pivoting front wheels and a folding doll seat. Ages 36 months to 7 years. $49.95
Metal Earth Models You know how teens are hard to shop for? How they’re too old, really, for toys, but would still like to unwrap something fun? Meant for kids age 14 and up, Metal Earth models come in a flat package—perfect for slipping into a holiday card. Punch out the sturdy metal pieces to build model airplanes, a Ferris wheel, trains, ships, the Eiffel Tower, and more. These are the perfect gift to bridge that wide gap between child and adult. $5-10
Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek For the ultimate MineCraft fan, pick up the Minecraft Fan Bundle from ThinkGeek. The bundle includes a foam sword and pickax, torch, and light-up redstone ore. $80
Monster Factory Mini Monsters Why get a teddy bear when you could have a monster? Canadian collectible toy company Monster Factory is moving their business into the States and into stores with a collection of twelve mini dolls. Showcased at this year’s New York Comic Con, each doll has a distinct and hilarious personality. The dolls are so well made and just adorable. $12.95
Nerf Rebelle Series The Nerf Rebelle series, designed for ages 8-years-old and up, is full of awesome for boys and girls, with two different styles to choose from including a cross bow style. If your child is not a pink kid, pick up some spray paint and give it a personalized paint job to make it their own. Word of advice, make sure your child wears long sleeves while playing to protect their arms from the string snapping back. $29.95
Nerf Zombie Strike Foam Dart Blaster SeriesThe Sledgefire and Hammershot are fun Nerf blasters that are painted in a zombie apocalypse motif and can take special fluorescent green darts. Of the 10+ Nerf blasters we own, the smaller Hammershot is the farthest-firing one I’ve ever seen. These Zombie Strike series blasters are a Target exclusive this holiday season and will hit the market nationwide in 2014. $14.99 & $27.99
Pygmy Puffs Plush Pygmy Puffs ala the Harry Potter series. I love that you can order directly from the theme park to get something not offered elsewhere. Comes in pink and purple and both my little Potter-heads should love these stocking stuffers. (Got myself one, too.) $14.95
Rollors Lawn Game Combining the outdoor fun of bocce, bowling, and horseshoes, Rollors is a unique game invented by a deployed Air Force officer who enjoyed classic lawn games and discovered a way to combine all his favorites. The game includes all the playing pieces you need, instructions, and a nylon carrying case. It makes a great gift for kids ages 4 and up. $39.99
Sky Viper QuadCoptor Any R/C fan in your family will love this substantial quadcoptor from Skyrocket Toys. It has different fittings for indoor and outdoor use, and you can amp up the level of difficulty with three different modes. The Sky Viper can do flips and barrels, and it’s refreshingly sturdy. And so much fun. Ages 12+. $79.99
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Action Figures If your kids love to play with action figures and love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the latest batch of figures will appeal to them. High quality construction and a lot of included accessories means that their play time will feel as realistic as possible. Great for any TMNT fan on your shopping list. $8-10
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Control Shellraiser RC Vehicle Have some kick butt fun with the newest TMNT mobile arsenal, the RC Shellraiser Vehicle. Even though the remote control is a little awkward, the handling is great and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of its movements. Pets on the floor should beware of the remote firing sewer cover canon that shoots 10 disks continuously with the push of a button. An added bonus is the ability for the standard size TMNT action figures to ride along on the inside of the Shellraiser or they can hang off the sides! $59.99
Thomas the Train: All Around Sodor The All Around Sodor set is just fantastic. Now the youngest Thomas fans (18 months and up) can have their own train set with features like a talking Thomas and location buttons that will make him go straight to that spot on track. He even works off the track, because you know toddlers are all about doing things outside the lines. We have seen young children mesmerized by this set. $39.99
Thomas the Train Up and Down Coaster Ride On The Step2 Company has made a very cool addition to Thomas the Train merchandise. An actual indoor/outdoor train with more than nine feet up sloping track for kids to ride. We saw this at a holiday preview a while back, and kids could not get enough of it. Ages 2+, maximum weight 50 lbs. $169.99
Tom Kidd Dunne Estates Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle Beautifully detailed steampunk art on laser-cut 423 piece wooden puzzle, made in the USA. Get back to family time spend making puzzles together with this pass-down-to-next-generation item. Ages 7 and up. $100
Tool Belt with Accessories For Small Hands offers hard-to-find, child-size tools so they build confidence and independence. Yard, kitchen, sewing, kitchen, and other useful implements. This is a great resource. We particularly like their tool belt with hammer and safety glasses for kids 3 to 8. $30.95
Toolbox Jewelry One of the best Klutz kits we’ve seen, Toolbox Jewelry not only gives you everything you need to make some beautiful jewelry, but it teaches you skills that you can apply to any hardware you find around the house. Great for girls who have the Maker spirit. $21.99
Transformers Rescue Bots Though they are not a new product this year, Rescue Bots are a very popular toy in the Post house. These toys use one fluid motion to transform from robot to vehicle. This well designed sturdy toy series are a great addition to any house that longs for the toys from their youth for their kids, without the frustration of complicated instructions and pieces falling off. $9 and up
Extrageektacular Activities are geeky field trips that encourage your child’s creativity and are a fun time for the whole family!
If dogs are man’s best friend then surely robots are a close second. Hm, what about robot dogs? The possibilities are endless with robotics. If your child has a love for technology, they don’t have to go all of the way to the Toshi Station to pick up power converters…they can simply head over to Rolling Robots!
Rolling Robots was started by George Kirkman (who was recently a competitor on Robot Combat League) and Bin Jiang, both former aerospace engineers who are also parents. Having children of their own, they saw the need to tap into kids’ spirit of wonder and unlock future potential through robotics.
Set up like a workshop environment, kids use creative thinking to solve design-build problems. Working in groups with peers their own age allows kids to feel comfortable in tackling challenges and find success as a team.
The Kid’s Technology Workshops allow kids to progress from basic skills to robotics competition. Once they’ve completed a level, they move on to the next one. Rolling Robots offers classes for every level; circuits, basic programming, even Minecraft hacks, all with hands on learning which reinforces the idea of being comfortable and having fun.
Students with no previous robotics experience can go from learning basic keyboard skills all the way up to Java programming. They are guided every step of the way by knowledgeable staff and can learn from older kids in higher levels. From after-school classes to home schooling lessons, there is even a 3D printing class where kids can experiment and see their designs come to life.
Rolling Robots is a fantastic place for parties because your guests get the unique experience of battling bots in the Robot Battle Arena. They get a lesson in design build as well, where every party guest gets to build and take home a real motorized robot! Best party favors ever!
Rolling Robots takes kids’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and gives them the freedom to grow that passion through creative thinking and building. It’s a unique place where kids can find the support they need to nurture their interests in technology and have fun!
Rolling Robots – Glendale
1800 South Brand Blvd. #101
Glendale, CA 91204
Rolling Robots – Palos Verdes
700 Silver Spur Drive, #101
Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274
As I walked through Maker Faire New York, I noticed table after table swarming with pint-sized makers—even more than years past—suggesting that Maker Faire is better than ever for kids. This year’s Maker Faire included the marvelous Zone E, a spacious area where parents could relax as their kids had room to make and play. Of course, kids’ stuff was peppered throughout Maker Faire, inviting them in at every turn.
Families were welcomed into Zone E by the Austin Bike Zoo, with their stunning butterfly bicycles and their horse/bike hybrid carousel. My kids loved the carousel. The 8-year-old pedaled feverishly while the 3-year-old chilled out in the little kid holding area in the center.
Once in Zone E, we saw some familiar faces. I know Brian Yanish, creator of ScrapKins, because we’ve got a ScrapKins book in the works for Speakaboos, the story app I’m working on. In the ScrapKins booth, the kids got a lesson in upcycling, making masted boats from milk cartons and straws. Then there was a recycled river to race them down into the ScrapKins lagoon. My 3-year-old could have done that all day. What a great way to build and test a vehicle.
We’re very lucky in New York City to have a bunch of places to take our kids for science play and learning. Storefront Science opened in my neighborhood, and it’s a real treat to have this resource in upper Manhattan. They came to Maker Faire with a creative exercise using batteries, LED lights, and pipe cleaners, letting kids build whatever they wanted. My daughter made a fuzzy creature flashlight.
Robofun and the Brooklyn Robot Foundry are other science resources we have in the city. My daughter loved a robot-building class she took a few months ago at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, but Maker Faire is a great reminder to work these maker activities into our weekends more often.
We managed to miss this activity completely, but when I saw these creatures sewn together from various animal parts, I finally knew what to do with those two bags of stuffed animals taking up room in the closet. I proposed to my daughter that she take parts from all of her favorites and combine them into one giant Frankenanimal. She’s all for it!
Even though she had one on her wrist from last year, my daughter was excited to make another survival bracelet. Made from one long length of durable cord, these bracelets are easy to make and provide you with a long length of durable cord in an emergency. It’s fun imagining the MacGyver-like scenarios where one would rip open their survival bracelet because a rope was needed. And now we have two of them. Double the survival!
We spent the most time at the LittleBits booth. I love these intuitive circuit pieces. They’re so well designed that I saw several kids plunk down in a chair and get a circuit going within a couple minutes. My ambivalence about them comes with their price and purchasing options, but more on that in a moment.
The task in the LittleBit workshop we attended was to make a Halloween costume; a nice, concrete task to get the creative juices flowing. My daughter already has a costume. She’s going to be Hermione. I suggested that she make something to go with her costume, and she came up with the idea of making Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks. She made the cat out of cardboard, then wired it up with a sound sensor and vibration motor so that when you said “Crookshanks!” the bell around her neck would ring. Like magic! You can see it working in the video above.
We were super excited about it until we started to walk away from the booth and we were told that she needed to unmake it to give all of the LittleBits back. There was no way for me to buy the parts that she used, unless I wanted to purchase the kits that they had for sale, but even that would have required remaking it. We will probably order the pieces individually online (for about $40), but I can’t help but wish they had structured the workshop more in the spirit of Maker Faire. Either charge a workshop fee, or require a kit purchase to be in a workshop, or be clear with kids that they’re just experimenting. Or let the kids keep the parts and chalk it up as a marketing expense. Just don’t make kids unmake at Maker Faire.
Of course, even I as talk about “the spirit of Maker Faire,” that spirit seems to be changing. It’s amazing to have so much inspiration and activity for kids in one place. I loved taking the kids to watch them try new and challenging things.
But it’s hard not to feel a little cynical as bigger corporate sponsors roll in and more and more of the booths are there so you’ll purchase their products. I understand the need for money to help Maker Faire (and its vendors) succeed, but it’s less of a showcase of weird and wild creations and inventions than it used to be.
If you went to Maker Faire this year, especially with kids, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Lego announced their next generation Mindstorm robotics product back in January at CES, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview. This updated version is super cool. Expensive, but super cool. It has a new Linux-based operating system (which Lego is totally cool with letting you hack), and Lego will provide instructions for up to 12 different models right out of the box. There’s a better processor with an actual SD card slot, and there’s much better on-brick programming. You can chain up to four Mindstorms together, and there’s a new infrared sensor as well as significant improvements to existing sensors.
Although Lego was elusive about the exact release date in January, most guesses were initially for early spring, mid-summer. We finally, finally have a date. The retail version of the EV3 will ship on September 1 for a price of $349, but if you shop around online, you may be able to pre-order sometime this month. You could also pre-order a book on the EV3. Ahem.
The Lego Education edition (pictured above) ships today. Most people should go ahead and wait for the retail version rather than getting the education version. The education version is intended for classrooms and leaves out some of the parts (including the new infrared sensor) in exchange for a better storage case. That’s a trade-off that makes sense if you need to store your system in a classroom, but not if you’re a home user that wants to build that really cool infrared cobra bot I saw them demo at CES.
BookExpo America took place earlier this month in New York City, and it’s always one of my favorite events. I always need to leave myself a few days to see the show because I’m constantly stopping to read in the booths and waiting in autograph lines. This year my autograph lines included many of my kidlit favorites, including Jon Scieszka, Oliver Jeffers, Bob Shea, Betsy Lewin, and Peter Reynolds, all of whom have new books out.
Kids who love Angry Birds can convince their parents that the games are educational with the new National Geographic books that use Angry Birds to teach about physics and space.
I had a lovely chat with Bob Der, Director of Time for Kids, about getting kids excited about reading (especially nonfiction) and how Time for Kids is finding a home in the classroom. Their books are about topics kids get excited about, like dinosaurs and sports and crazy, weird facts and information. They also have digital versions of many books to have a presence on interactive whiteboards in the classroom, “high-impact versions” made better with video. When I think about all the nonfiction requirements in the Common Core Standards, I’m glad for things like Time for Kids.
Cozy Classics are an adorable line of board books that attempt to tell classic tales like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick through a handful of photographs of felted characters paired with single words. It helps to have read the original to be able to fill in some detail for your tot. I can imagine giving two copies of Pride and Prejudice to a new mom—the grownup one for her and the Cozy Classic version for baby.
As a kid I was a fan of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not segments that appeared in my Sunday comics, and I’ve stayed intrigued all these years. Ripley’s had a great presence at BookExpo this year, including the gigantic Dare to Look! book. Scan pages with your smart phone to see more videos and images.
There was much to salivate over in the Chronicle book, including Carnivores, a hilarious book by Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat, a bunch of new Taro Gomi books, and this cool Make Your Own Robot kit that looks like a ready-made birthday gift.
I wish I could tell you this was a real Monster Book of Monsters, but alas it was just a box. What a great place to store your treasures, though. People would think twice before opening.
What are robots? How are they being used in the world today? How can kids make their own working robots? Where can you find parts? All this and more is covered in a great new book by GeekMom’s very own Kathy Ceceri. The book, Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future, not only shares this information and more, it actually contains robotic projects that kids as young as 9 can build using recycled household materials like paper, cardboard, paper towel rolls, and straws.
Full disclosure:Kathy Ceceri is my GeekMom editor. I volunteered to review a complimentary copy of her new Robotics book. I also had a pre-publication sneak peek at a few of the projects in the book.
The book contains 20 projects and we tried most of them. Some are quick and simple demonstrations and others require a bit more time and materials. All of the projects demonstrate real robotic principles. Best of all, there’s plenty of room for improvisation and parts substitution. The Passive Dynamic Mini Walker was the most surprising project in this book — we really didn’t expect it to work because it was so simple to build. No electronics, sensors or sophisticated joints. But it rocked! Made using a thin wooden skewer, some beads, and cardboard, its gait was amazingly life-like. We laughed with delight as it strolled down a cardboard folder like a tiny shore bird at the beach, powered by gravity.
Have you ever been to a burlesque show? There are two different types of burlesque, traditional and neo-burlesque. Traditional burlesque integrates striptease with a bit of Vaudville, comedy sketches, acrobatics, juggling, live vintage music, and singing. This is the burlesque that most people are familiar with. During the mid-1990’s neo-burlesque emerged. While neo-burlesque still focuses on striptease and dance, it integrates popular music, performance art and exploration of gender identity. Both versions of burlesque embrace all body types in a deliberate attempt to debunk the traditional definitions of beauty. Burlesque isn’t about demeaning women, quite the opposite in fact: it is about empowering them.
If you have never been to a burlesque show, maybe now is the time to go. Still not convinced? How about if it incorporated a Ghostbusters parody, a Star Wars vs. Star Trek battle, steampunk, or maybe a zombie hunt? Burlesque dance troupes around the country have begun catering directly to the geek culture by bringing beloved geek themes and striptease together in a very memorable way. While you may be wary of attending a striptease act, consider for a moment if you would like to attend ComicCon or other cons where cos-play is prevalent. The burlesque costuming is rarely more risqué then some of the more memorable cos-play costumes.
This week I’m joined by two members of the First Lego League team Moderately Confused which recently won the Global Innovation Award. Arjun Kumar and Jacob Hoylman talk about how they got involved in First Lego League and the process that led to their team winning the $250,000 award to bring the team’s product to market. Listen in as these guys share their enthusiasm and excitement for building, creating and solving problems that affect us all.
Recently I warned you that robot overlords will be taking over. First step? They’re cute and useful. Then we can’t bear to think of living without them. Soon, if my research holds true, we humans are well on our way to becoming fuel for angry, meat-eating, self-perpetuating machines.
I’m here to report that I have become a willing victim.
Yes, I’m weak. When given the opportunity to get a review sample of the Neato XV-21 Pet & Allergy Automatic Vacuum Cleaner I took the chance to observe a robot up close. Maybe knowing my enemy better could help me in some dystopian robot-controlled future. Besides, it’s not like I need the help. I barely do any chores around here due to my super responsible kids. Let me tell you, those kids were excited when the box arrived.
Because the instruction book noted a large open wall was best for a docking station, my family insisted it get a prime spot in our front hall where every visitor can now see who dominates the home. Our robot.
The Neato XV-21 is a compact little machine. It operates using “laser-based vision.” Each time it is turned on it scans the room with laser eyes, mapping the layout. It has no trouble clambering from carpet to tile, or from room to room. Cleaning it is surprisingly easy. Open the filter, empty the dust bin, snap shut. Takes 30 seconds. And the operating options are also simple.
But we couldn’t just call it a robot or XV-21. No, the humans here insisted it have a name. Proposals included Vacuumus Aurelius, J. Edgar Hoover, and Locutus of Floor. Locutus won. Also, the little thing has become a “him.” I will try to pretend I still call Locutus “it” for the purposes of this review but this is harder than you might imagine.
From the first time we first ran the Neato XV-21 we were impressed. When first turning on it powers up, surveys its surroundings, then gets to work with the sort of friendly purposefulness our Pomeranian thinks he exhibits. (Except the vacuum is actually useful.) The vacuum easily fits under furniture that even super responsible kids don’t move when they do chores. It pauses in a considerate sort of way when a moving object, human or pet, passes by. It displays polite prompts on its screen like “please put me down on the floor” when picked up and asks nicely when its dust bin needs to be emptied. The contents of that dust bin are a potent reminder of how useful a Neato XV-21 can be. OMG. The first time it had to be emptied twice before recharging. But following instructions, we ran it every few days (far more often than humans vacuum around here) and sure enough, the dust bin had less debris. In other words, our floors are demonstrably cleaner.
This is quite an accomplishment for a machine that’s about the size of two college textbooks. We have a big family tracking in who knows what from the barn, plus three dogs and all sorts of visitors. Yet we’ve noticed some amazing, totally unexpected Neato XV-21 side effects.
My family is fond of our little robot. When it gets stuck under our couch they cheerfully pull it out. They regularly straighten up to remove obstacles that might clog our suction-happy friend, keeping the floors freer of backpacks and magazines and other messes than ever before. They clean their bedrooms so the robot has a reason to visit (it’s screen politely asking to be put down as they carry it upstairs). And here’s the most wonderful side effect of all. Because the floors are cleaner, it motivates us to do better elsewhere. It’s like the vacuum has set an example for us to follow. The sinks get wiped out more often, the couch blankets put away, the library books tucked back in the trunk, well, you get the idea. One of my kids pointed out that our house looks like we’re expecting company. Not so sure that’s true. One of my super responsible kids isn’t really keeping up with that dusting.
But I’m a convert. I adore the Neato XV-21. I know the dander and pet hair has been substantially reduced around here. I can tell the floors look better. Maybe a robot-run future won’t be all that bleak. I may draw some eyes on our vacuum so I don’t feel quite so silly reminding him it to stop going under the couch.
Want to win your own Neato XV-21? Tell us in the comments what you would name your own vacuum. A winner will be randomly chosen from all our clever robot-naming entries. (You will be notified by email so please supply one on the comment form.) Deadline is Wednesday, June 27, 2012.
Geeks love the periodic table. They love it so much, they’ll apply it to almost anything. Go ahead—Google “periodic table of [your favorite thing]” and somebody’s probably done it. Or, you can save the effort and enjoy these that I gathered for you.
Andrew Plotkin, this table’s creator, laments, “You’ve seen those charts that say, like, ‘Periodic Table of the Vegetables’ or ‘Periodic Table of the Sausages’? They annoy me. Because they’re not periodic.” He answered with a table of dessert, which you can buy poster-sized in his CafePress store.
Finally, like a scientific love note to the reason we’re all gathered here together, the Periodic Table of the Internet by Wellington Grey, although the URLs in the image no longer work. (Do you know where WG went?)
I noticed the trend starting at Toy Fair last year: robots for kids. Booth after booth featured our future overlords, and I thought my six-year-old daughter would love most of them when she got her hands on them.
About six months passed, and then the robots found their way to our house for us to review. Most followed the same pattern of use. My daughter would open the box with a “coooooooooolllll!” Then there’d be frantic button pressing to entertain her for about five minutes before her interest waned. Wappy Dog held her interest the longest, but that’s because it came bundled with a DS game. First she played the DS game with the robot reacting nearby, but she soon discovered travel mode and abandoned the robot completely.
Enter my 20-month-old. While I was playing with Wappy trying to figure out if she could do anything more than bark at the commands coming from the DS, my son comes over and presses her nose a bunch of times until she started barking a song. Who knew? He clapped and danced along. Clearly he’d heard that one before.
He’s fascinated by the Hexbugs in the house. He likes holding the Nanos against his little cheeks and then letting them loose under the sofa. Lately he’s grown quite interested in the Hexbug Spider and has figured out how to work the remote control for it, setting it off on a path of destruction.
I had the highest hopes that my daughter would love Skylee, the dragon robot that comes with a little Bebe (dragon baby) that she can recognize and respond to. There’s a sequence of button presses that you can do to get Skylee to play games, but we can never remember what they are. Mostly she’ll tell you that she loves you and that her wings are tired from flying – boring for the six-year-old but positively enchanting for the one-year-old.
Skylee has become one of his favorite toys. He won’t go to bed unless he’s waved goodnight to Skylee, and finding her in the morning is one of the first things he does. As with Wappy, only he knows the secret trick to making her sing her song and do a little dance for him. His interest in her occassionally drums up interest from my daughter, too, and they’ll play with Skylee together. It’s awfully cute.
These toys are all expensive for toddler toys (Skylee, for example, retails for $59.99), not to mention that robots with voices all seem to be crazy loud with no volume control, but I’m glad these toys have made their way into our home. Could me my son’s started on a path to future robotics engineer. Or dragon-trainer. Or dancer. Thanks, robots.
For my Muse of Nerds this month, I’ll formally introduce you to someone I have talked about in the past: Dr. Michele McColgan of Siena College. I met her through our homeschooling group (she has two elementary-aged children) and she has introduced my kids to science, math, robots, computer programming, alternative energy, a Lego Robotics Team…and more than I remember. I first mentioned Michele in this post about soccerbots. And then again about a year-long project our four children worked on with RPGs and robotics.
At the moment, she teaches the general physics sequence to science and math majors, and electronics and optics for physics majors at Siena College, homeschools her two children, runs the Saturday Scholars program for inner-city youth, organizes summer camps in Physics, Alternative Energy, and Robotics, uploads regular YouTube tutorials, mentors Siena’s physics teams to participate in Siena’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, supervises summer research projects for physics undergraduate students, and prepares pre-service physics teachers.
She’s also really nice.
Michele agreed to answer a few questions for GeekMom.
You use robotics to teach physics concepts. How did you come up with this idea?
Before he passed away, I often met with Les Rubenfeld, the founder of RPI’s CIPCE program (Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education.) He was a math professor and was passionate about teaching math with robotics. We would meet at Bruegger’s near Siena and discuss potential ways to collaborate to bring robotics to more students. He suggested that there was more to robotics than just programming the robots to take sensor input and program the robot to respond. He suggested that there was more science to teach. That inspired me to find the physics in robotics. So far, I’ve created robotics activities to teach physics topics including: kinematics (displacement, velocity, and acceleration); measurements to calculate gravity; force of friction; gear ratios for speed and power; impulse; angular velocity and linear velocity; and identification with light sensor data.
What aspect of your work inspires you? (and what are you currently fired up about?)
– Learning new things. I hate being bored. I’m always finding new problems to solve.
– I really enjoy the variety of things that I do. Change is really important for creativity. Revisiting past projects is important, too. Being a physics professor offers opportunities for both.
– Creating fun activities that naturally include science (like duct tape circuits.)
– Creating online resources to allow kids to complete projects at their own pace and allows me to grow my resources.
– Finding ways to show kids that science and math are interesting and fun when you’re solving real problems — not fake problems that someone makes up because you ” should” learn certain things.
Obviously you are a creative person in designing your programs. How can you pass along this creativity to your science and technology students?
I believe in modeling! I like to lead by example. I like to meet students wherever they are. I hate the phrase “you should know that”. I think it’s so important to meet students where they are. Shaming students shuts them down. Encouraging them, whatever their background, allows them to move forward and embrace learning about physics and math.
I think it’s so important for students to take control of their learning. I arrange my classroom and choose activities that require active engagement, not passive learning.
When students show an interest in any of my projects, I do everything I can to support their interests. I give out supplies and let students borrow equipment. I’m interested in their questions and problems and I believe they can do it. I also suggest that learning physics is a journey that takes time and effort. Even if you don’t completely master the material in my classes, that’s okay. Mastery takes time and effort and offers wonderful rewards. I believe that anyone can learn physics – it’s not a field reserved only for rocket scientists. Physics is so rich and covers such a broad range of topics, everyone can find something that’s relevant to them.
Thanks, Michele! And if you want to see even more of what she does, here’s some cool links:
Ardbot – robot camp to build and program a robot controlled with an Arduino and programmed with Modkit
The Russian Google page currently has a marvelous interactive robot doodle. From what I can tell, it’s for Stanislaw Lem, the sci-fi writer who brought us Solaris.Thanks to my colleague who managed to find this!
If you look at a map of Michigan, you will notice that it is in the shape of a hand. You will know if someone is from Michigan if they will hold out their hand to point out where they live. My inlaws live in the thumb of Michigan, very close to the tip of the thumb. The wind turbines in this picture from 2008 can be seen along the way to my inlaws’ house, but they are more famous now for being featured in the movie, Real Steel.
My husband and I have been excited to see Real Steel since his mom started sending us updates about the filming which happened rather close to the house that my husband grew up in. He was telling me yesterday before we saw the movie that his mom is sure she saw some of the robots being driven in through their very small town, though they were covered in tarps.
There were also areas people were blocked from going when they were doing filming as well as no fly zones. The local paper, Huron Daily Tribune, did keep up with the filming since a major motion picture being filmed in this small community is big news.
Both my husband and I really enjoyed Real Steel and you can read GeekMom Rebecca’s review of the actual movie. I was just extra geeked when the movie opened, and realized the road that Hugh Jackman was driving on looked very familiar. The personal connection to this movie made it even more enjoyable when it came time to watch.
Every year around this time, Time to Play Magazine starts thinking about the hot holiday toys and invites bloggers to see their recommendations. I love having this chance to get hands-on with new toys, and toys that have come a long way since Toy Fair back in February. One of the most exciting thing to see is how technology is invading toys in new and interesting ways.
The whoa moment today came courtesy of Disney and Spin Master. They’ve collaborated to create Cars Appmates, a line of custom Cars toys designed to work with an iPad app that transforms the screen into a racetrack. Marvelous details include tracks that the cars leave in the dirt and flashing lights (done by flashing light from within the app under the car). Every person I saw look at these did the same thing: feel the bottom to make sure that they won’t scratch up your iPad. They won’t.
A two-pack of these cars is $19.99, and the app is free. That doesn’t seem like a huge price to pay for something this innovative, but at the end of the day you’re really looking at a 20-dollar app. Will it be worth it to your little Cars fan? One possible hurdle is that you have to have your hands on the car as it’s being held in the video, with fingers on the window. Hopefully this will evolve so that any way a kid grabs it, it will work.
Every time I see Skylander’s Spyro’s Adventure from Activision, I get more and more excited for its mid-October release. The toys that come with the game store your game data for that character, so as you put your toy on the Portal of Power, that character blasts into the game with all of its ability data intact. Take it over to your friend’s house and invade their game! Activision also just announced that the characters will unlock web-based play, a different customizable experience from the console game.
There are dueling tablets designed just for kids between the usual suspects, Leap Frog’s LeapPad Explorer and VTech’s InnoTab. Both have downloadable content, cameras, and art programs. My money’s on Leap Frog, though, even though it’s $20 more ($99.99 versus InnoTab’s $79.99). It’s backwards compatible to work with Leapster Explorer cartridges, and I’m usually more of a fan of Leap Frog’s software. Of course, I’m totally biased on this having just produced I Spy Super Challenger for Explorer and LeapPad.
HexBugs never fail to delight us GeekMoms, and there are some seriously cool new things coming out. The Nano Hive Habitat Set is perfect for city dwellers and kids on the go, because this habitat beautifully folds into a carrying case. It can connect to all of your other HexBug tracks, too, of course. What I’m really excited about, though, are the zombie glow-in-the-dark Halloween HexBugs and the cute little antlered HexBugs that come inside a Christmas ornament (Radio Shack exclusives).
Whether your kids are spies or budding filmmakers, there are some interesting new ways to shoot video. Jakks Pacific has the Spy Net Stealth Video Glasses, with buttons on the side to shoot still images and up to 20 minutes of video. Mattel has the Hot Wheels Video Racer, a car with both a built in camera and tiny LCD screen. It’s designed to shoot video showing the Hot Wheels race track experience, but imagine taking these outside for a bug’s eye view! Or an intricate look inside my toddler’s mouth! Both toys have USB ports to upload the video.
For those of you who wouldn’t know, the Guardian Reading Group began with Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451, by readers’ choice.
That’s a great, revolutionary choice (so they said), that will especially appeal to us geek people in love with classical sci-fi, and to us parents looking for books to discuss with our children. Utopian and dystopian fiction is a fascinating subject, or so I think. I often study it with my sixteen and seventeen years old students.
If you never read it, “the novel presents a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen start fires to burn books.” (Wikipedia)
You may, of course, read or reread the book, and discuss it part by part on the Guardian website, or follow the Guardian’s Reading group on Twitter. You may also read some companion posts on Guardian Books. They promised one on the novel’s historical context, Cold War and McCarthyism. They also provide a list of “further readings” to offer some background to Bradbury’s life and books.
Among these suggestions were two really delightful pieces for any geek.
One is a letter by Ray Bradbury himself, written in 1974 and transcripted on the lovely Letters of note website. Asked about “the danger of robots taking over our human world”, Bradbury writes a truly wonderful answer:
Can’t resist commenting on your fears of the Disney robots. Why aren’t you afraid of books, then? The fact is, of course, that people have been afraid of books, down through history. They are extensions of people, not people themselves. Any machine, any robot, is the sum total of the ways we use it. Why not knock down all robot camera devices and the means for reproducing the stuff that goes into such devices, things called projectors in theatres? A motion picture projector is a non-humanoid robot which repeats truths which we inject into it. Is it inhuman? Yes. Does it project human truths to humanize us more often than not? Yes.
The excuse could be made that we should burn all books because some books are dreadful.
We should mash all cars because some cars get in accidents because of the people driving them.
We should burn down all the theatres in the world because some films are trash, drivel.
So it is finally with the robots you say you fear. Why fear something? Why not create with it? Why not build robot teachers to help out in schools where teaching certain subjects is a bore for EVERYONE? Why not have Plato sitting in your Greek Class answering jolly questions about his Republic? I would love to experiment with that. I am not afraid of robots. I am afraid of people, people, people. I want them to remain human. I can help keep them human with the wise and lovely use of books, films, robots, and my own mind, hands, and heart.
I am afraid of Catholics killing Protestants and vice versa.
I am afraid of whites killing blacks and vice versa.
I am afraid of English killing Irish and vice versa.
I am afraid of young killing old and vice versa.
I am afraid of Communists killing Capitalists and vice versa.
But…robots? God, I love them. I will use them humanely to teach all of the above. My voice will speak out of them, and it will be a damned nice voice.
The second is a video tribute, written for the author’s 90th birthday by comedian Rachel Bloom. Be careful, it’s definitely not suitable for children under 18, as YouTube confirms! But the video is hilarious, and comforting in a strange way, thinking that old sci-fi writers can be strongly desirable in our time and place.
“Does the idea of book burning still resonate?” wonder The Guardian and its readers. It certainly does, as Banned Books Week will confirm in a few days.
One of my favorite memories of this summer is the day I sat with my daughter snuggled in my lap and watched the final space shuttle launch. As Atlantis took to the skies, I wiped away tears and tried to explain to her why Mommy was crying over a spaceship. This is a little girl who has a room plastered with glow-in-the-dark stars and maps of the solar system and who picked a telescope as a birthday present one year because she wanted to see the planets. We talked about how cool it was, how amazing, that there were astronauts in that ship at exactly the moment we were watching it careen into space. She was fascinated at the idea that it was “for real” and, just like me, sad that it wouldn’t be happening again.
I attended a launch back when I was in college and it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. It was still new and exciting at the time, earning feature story coverage on the news rather than just a cursory mention. We got up at the crack of dawn to drive out to the Kennedy Space Center and got as close as we could before parking up on the grass, wedged between other cars. All of us were armed with binoculars and comfy chairs, some of them perched on top of car roofs, as we waited with our radios tuned to the countdown. And when that thing took off and I felt the noise radiate up through my feet and right out the top of my head, it took my breath away. It. Was. Amazing.
How to explain to a seven-year-old the experience of seeing a shuttle take off in person, the excitement, the awe of what we had accomplished? We watched a lot of launch coverage that day and talked about how dangerous it is, how brave the astronauts are, and how it’s a worthwhile thing to explore and investigate and to try to do what no one thinks is possible. Now that NASA has a humanoid robot on the International Space Station, we even follow him on Twitter so she can ask him questions.
Space is cool. Exploring is cool. Science is cool. NASA is trying make sure kids think so too by giving schools a chance to own an actual shuttle tile and even some astronaut food. I hope someday my daughter boldly goes where no one has gone before, makes the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs and well, whatever her little heart desires. In the meantime, if her school manages to get one of those tiles, I’m sneaking into class that day so I get a chance to hold it when it makes its way around the room.
Robots are cool. The first robot I remember was Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still. I thought he was amazing. An alien robot who didn’t talk, he guarded his master’s spaceship with fierce devotion and shot a laser beam from his head that destroyed puny Earth weaponry without hurting anyone. I wanted a Gort to guard my tree house from the nasty boy who lived next door. Later, I’d see Star Wars and amend my wish to wanting my very own R2D2. Now, as a grown-up, I am amending my wish once again. I want my very own Robonaut.
On Monday, the brains at NASA activated Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed to help astronauts on the International Space Station. The idea is that he will someday do the things that are a bit too dangerous for us mere mortals. He’s been up there since February, but it took a little time to get his software loaded and prep him for his first big test. All went as planned and Robonaut powered up without blowing up, so all the little science types at NASA are very happy.
This first test involved turning on the four visible light cameras that are his eyes and the one infrared camera in his mouth that’s supposed to be for depth perception. Sure, I’ll believe that for now but I’m going to steer clear of what could be a killer-laser-beam-of-doom just in case he gets angry. And as though the guys at NASA could read my mind, they’ve gotten Robonaut his own twitter account so we can all have friendly chats with him and set our minds at ease.
As you can see in the picture, he looks like a cross between an astronaut in a white space suit and Iron Man. That gold head would make Tony Stark assemble the copyright lawyers faster than you could shoot a laser beam. He’s also technically called Robonaut R2 which brings into question approval from the folks at Lucasfilm. Somehow this robot has Iron Man’s head and is named after the droid we’ve all been looking for since we were kids. So, despite my uncertainties about that infrared camera he’s hiding, once the inevitable legal showdown between Stark, Lucasfilm and NASA clears, I am first in line for a Robonaut R2 of my very own.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a sucker for all things Disney. That adorable little mouse with his giant ears and cute clothes and happy laugh. How can anyone not like The Mouse? It’s impossible. If you don’t like him you’re either a replicant or a Cylon. I love him, which secures my place in the human race. There are an infinite number of collectibles in the Disney universe and it’s a constant struggle for me not to buy them all. One such line of collectibles that I managed to resist until this January was the Vinylmation figures. I caved when they released them as Star Wars characters. Now, they’ve done it again with the Robots series.
The Robots were each designed by a Disney Store artist and are available only at DisneyStore.com or at Disney Store locations. This series turns the lovable Mickey into evil killer robots, only not so evil or killer. Mostly just incredibly cute. As with previous Vinylmation figures, each vinyl robot is 3″ tall and has movable arms and heads. Collectors will want each of the twelve different robots, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Each robot comes in a sealed box, and then in that box he’s sealed again in a foil wrapper. You don’t know which little robot you got until you rip open carefully open the box and cut the wrapper. To add even more mystery, there are eleven known variations, but the twelfth is the mystery Chaser that won’t be know until some lucky person opens the first one and reveals it to the world.
The robots are even named and I was fortunate enough to receive Ignition Bot, Atomic Bot and Cranky Bot for review. I love all three of them, but I must admit that Cranky Bot, with his see-through ears and cracked tooth is my favorite. How often do you get your very own Robotized Mickey with attitude? Now I’m off to play with my toys and count my pennies. Three down. Nine to go!
I did what any red-blooded American did over our holiday weekend. That’s right, I went to see a movie. This was after consuming roughly my own body weight in hamburgers and hot dogs while hanging out with friends all afternoon. I almost didn’t go to see Transformers 3 because it was getting a love it/hate it response from people and I was desperately afraid I’d fall into the hate it camp. There’s nothing as disappointing as walking in to a movie thinking it will be fantastic, but wandering out a few hours later wishing you could get a refund.
We didn’t leave terribly early for this one so when we arrived I was just hoping we’d get seats that weren’t in the very first row. No problem. Ten minutes before it was due to start there were only four other people in the theater. Four. This may have increased my anxiety just a tad since a big movie and an empty theater is generally not a good sign. By the time the movie started there were maybe two dozen of us, clutching our sodas and turning off our phones as the previews started.
Despite all my anxiety, all my worries that I would be terribly disappointed, this is officially the best movie I’ve seen this summer.
Now, now, now before you get all bent out of shape and call me crazy, let me explain. I wanted action. Unrealistic, completely over-the-top, not possible, unsurvivable by mere mortals action. I wanted fighting robots. I wanted fun one-liners and corny comic relief. Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon had all of these things.
I’ve heard complaints that Shia LaBeouf was mopey and didn’t do much for the first half of the movie. Okay, I’ll agree he was a bit mopey but it made sense for his character and there was so much happening around him, so much crazy, that I could forgive the mopey. Also, there is a fantastic car chase where our hero is about to die and Bumblebee morphs from car to bot to car again all while Shia flies through the air letting out a scream worthy of a twelve year old girl. I love him for pulling that off perfectly and making me and everyone else in the theater laugh and will forgive the mopey for that scene alone.
There are also complaints that the action is too drawn out and completely unrealistic. Really? So when you went in for a movie about alien robots that transform into cars and help save our world from destruction, were you really expecting a film firmly rooted in reality? That there’s your problem. This is, at its heart, a Transformers movie. Half the fun of seeing this is watching stuff you know would never work, not even a little, and seeing it, well, work. Sure, the chances you’d survive sliding through the shattered glass of a giant skyscraper without being sliced to bits are very small. It doesn’t matter. They survived and it was awesome.
I’m critical of movies that don’t live up to my expectations, especially when they advertise themselves as one thing but turn out to be something else. That makes me walkaway angry. But Transformers was exactly what it was billed…action, explosions, robots, action and action. My expectations were firmly met and I just held on for the ride. It wasn’t a serious, hard-hitting commentary on the world and the human condition. It was the Transformers doing what they do best. Oh, and one last thing. The voice of Sentinel Prime is Leonard Nimoy. If you happen to be a Star Trek fan, pay close attention to this little fact. LLAP, enjoy the movie, and let me know what you thought of this actionfest.
How late is too late to return a library book? When I was 6 or 7 I held onto a Postman Pat book for six months thinking I had already returned it; it had been hiding under the mattress in the crib I had for my twin dolls. Recently in Maine a book was returned 200 years overdue, now that’s taking it a bit too far I think.
When I was at Toy Fair earlier this year, one of the booths that caught my eye was the robot-filled one of Robotis. I was interested in their Ollo robot kits, which are similar to Lego. There’s a booklet with visual step-by-step instructions showing how to put robots together, plus all the parts you need to make a variety of different robots.
The folks at Robotis sent us a kit to try out. My daughter is much younger than the recommended 10+ on the box, but that didn’t diminish her enthusiasm in the slightest. The tiny connector pieces were a little too small for her to work with easily, but there’s two steps to putting them together – sliding the bottoms into the holes, and then pushing the tops down. She became a master at that second step. I was shredding all of my fingernails putting the connectors together and into the holes, realizing only once we were nearly finished that the kit comes with a handy tool that makes it so much easier. Duh.
The great thing about the kit is that first there are steps to make a basic bug body. Then there are different sections to customize the bug. With the one that we chose, we managed to build right over the power button on the motor. We got it working in no time, but then when it shut itself off we were very confused about how to turn it back on. An inquiry to Robotis set us straight.
As a remote-control toy, it’s very satisfying. First, because we built it and felt proud of the fruits of our labor. Second, because the controls actually work well. Unlike many other RC toys, my daughter has no trouble getting our bug to go where she wants it to.
You’ll see in the video that the next thing we need to do is figure out how to build a bug that will pick up Cheerios off our floor.
Ollo DIY robots are great for any kids with an interest in robots, but depending on the age of your kids, plan on helping out. (You’ll want to anyway because it’s pretty fun.) The kits aren’t cheap, but I think they’re worth it. And, as we’ve discovered, people will come over to your house, see the robot that you made, and think that you’re awesome.