The Toy Maker

A large part of the world still educates their kids using a system that’s completely antiquated. Personal choices and interests don’t matter, and learning by rote is the norm. Government schooling is woefully inadequate and the teachers are just not equipped, or trained, to be able to impart useful education. [Arvind Gupta], a science educator, is trying to change this by teaching kids how to build toys. His YouTube channel on Toys for Science and Math Education has almost 100,000 subscribers and over 44 million views. It’s awesome.

matchstickmecanno01[Arvind] graduated from one of the finest engineering schools in India, the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, and joined the TATA conglomerate at their heavy-vehicles plant helping build trucks. It didn’t take him long to realize that he wasn’t cut out to be building trucks. So he took a year off and enrolled in a village science program which was working towards changing the education system. At the weekly village bazaar, he came across interesting pieces of arts and crafts that the villagers were selling. A piece of rubber tubing, used as the core of the valve in bicycle tubes, caught his eye. He bought a length and a couple of matchboxes, and created what he calls “matchstick Meccano”.

This was in the 1970’s. Since then, he has been travelling all over India getting children to learn by building fun toys. The toys he designs are made from commonly available raw material and can be easily built with minimum resources. These ingenious DIY toys and activities help make maths and science education fun and interesting for children at all levels of schooling. All of his work is shared in the spirit of open source and available via his website and YouTube channels. A large body of his work has been translated in to almost 20 languages and you are welcome to help add to that list by dubbing the videos.

Check out the INK Conference video below where he shares his passion for education and shows simple yet entertaining and well-designed toys built from trash and recycled materials.

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Precision CNC Drawing with EtchABot

Turning the classic toy Etch-A-Sketch into a CNC drawing tablet intrigues a large number of hackers. This version by [GeekMom] certainly takes the award for precision and utility. Once you build something like this, you can hardly stop writing firmware for it; [GeekMom] produced an entire Arduino library of code to allow joystick doodling, drawing web images, and a self-erasing spirograph mode. The topper is the version that runs as a clock!


The major hassle with making a CNC version of this toy is the slop in the drawing mechanism. There is a large amount of backlash when you reverse the drawing direction. If that isn’t bad enough, the backlash is different in the vertical or horizontal directions. Part of [GeekMom’s] presentation is on how to measure and correct for this backlash.

The EtchABot uses three small stepper motors. Two drive the drawing controls and the third flips the device forward to erase the previous drawing. The motors are each controlled by a ULN2003 stepper motor drivers. An Arduino Uno provides the intelligence. Optional components are a DS3231 Real Time Clock and a dual axis X-Y joystick for the clock and doodling capability. Laser cut wood creates a base for holding the Etch-A-Sketch and the electronics.

The write up and details for this project are impressive. Be sure to check out the other entries in [GeekMom’s] blog. Watch the complete spirograph video after the break.

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String Racing Robots are Here !

This could be the start of a new thing. [HarpDude] showed off his String Car Racers over on the Adafruit forum. It’s like a small model cable car on caffeine. String up enough of them and go head to head racing with others.

A motor with a small pulley runs over a length of string stretched between 2 posts. Below the pulley, acting as a counterweight balance, is the rest of the racer. A Trinket board, motor driver, 9V battery and a pair of long lever micro switches to detect end of travel. The switches also help reverse the motor. A piece of galvanized wire acts as a guide preventing the String Car from jumping off the string. And discovering the benefits of a micro-controller design, as against discrete TTL/CMOS, old timer [HarpDude] added two operational modes via software. “Pong”, where the String Car keeps going back and forth over the string until it stops of (battery) exhaustion. The other mode is “Boomerang” – a single return trip back and forth.

We are guessing the next upgrade would be to add some kind of radio on the car (ESP8266 perhaps) and build an app to control the String Car. That’s when gaming could become fun as it opens up possibilities. One way to improve performance would be to add two “idler” pulleys in line with the main drive pulley, and then snake the string through the three of them. Now you know what to do with all of those old motors you’ve scavenged from tape drives, CD drives and printers. Let the Games begin!

Thanks [Mike Stone] for tipping us off on this.

EZ-Spin Motor Spins “Forever”

Now this isn’t a perpetual motion machine, but it’s darn close. What [lasersaber] has done instead is to make the EZ Spin, an incredibly efficient motor that does nothing. Well, nothing except look cool, and influence tons of people to re-build their own versions of it and post them on YouTube.

The motor itself is ridiculously simple: it’s essentially a brushless DC motor with a unique winding pattern. A number of coils — anywhere from six to twenty-four — are wired together with alternating polarity. If one coil is a magnetized north, its two neighbors are magnetized south, and vice-versa. The rotor is a ring with permanent magnets, all arranged so that they have the same polarity. A capacitor is used for the power source, and a reed switch serves as a simplistic commutator, if that’s even the right term.

As the motor turns, a permanent magnet passes by the reed switch and it makes the circuit. All of the electromagnets, which are wound in series, fire and kick the rotor forwards. Then the reed switch opens and the rotor coasts on to the next position. When it gets there the reed switch closes and it gets a magnetic kick again.

The catch? Building the device so that it’s carefully balanced and running on really good (sapphire) bearings, entirely unloaded, and powered with high impedance coils, leads to a current consumption in the microamps. As with most motors, when you spin it by hand, it acts as a generator, giving you a simple way to charge up the capacitor that drives it. In his video [lasersaber] blows on the rotor through a straw to charge up the capacitor, and then lets it run back down. It should run for quite a while on just one spin-up.

The EZ Spin motor is absolutely, positively not perpetual motion or “over-unity” or any of that mumbo-jumbo. It is a cool, simple-to-build generator/motor project that’ll definitely impress your friends and challenge you to see how long you can get it running. Check out [lasersaber]’s website, this forum post, and a 3D model on Thingiverse if you want to make your own.

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Build Some Entertainment for Young Holiday Guests

Need a good excuse to duck out on the family over the holidays and spend a few hours in your shop? [Jens] has just the thing. He built a color-mixing toy that looks great and we’d bet you have everything on-hand necessary to build your own version.

The body of the toy is an old router case. Who doesn’t have a couple might-be-broken-but-I-kept-it-anyway routers sitting around? Spray painted red, it looks fantastic! The plastic shell hosts 6 RGB LEDs, 3 toggle switches, and 2 buttons. [Jens] demonstrates the different features in the demo video below. They include a mode to teach counting in Binary, color mixing using the color knobs, and a few others.

Everything is driven by an Arduino Pro Mini. The lights are APA106 LEDs; a 4-pin through-hole package version of the WS2812 pixels. You could easily substitute these for the surface mount varieties if you just hot glue them to the underside of the holes in the panel. We’d love to see some alternate arrangements for LEDs and a couple more push buttons for DIY Simon Says.

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You Need a Self-Righting Thrust-Vector Balloon Copter

Cornell University’s microcontroller class looks like a tremendous amount of fun. Not only do the students learn the nitty-gritty details of microcontroller programming, but the course culminates in a cool project. [Brian Ritchken] and [Jim Liu] made a thrust-vector controlled balloon blimp. They call this working?!?!

Three balloons provide just enough lift so that the blimp can climb or descend on motor power. Since the machine is symmetric, there’s no intrinsic idea of “forward” or “backward”. Instead, a ring of eight LEDs around the edge let you know which way the blimp thinks it’s pointing. Two controls on the remote rotate the pointing direction clockwise and counter-clockwise. The blimp does the math to figure out which motors to run faster or slower when you tell it to go forward or back.

The platform is stabilized by a feedback loop with an accelerometer on board, and seems capable of handling a fairly asymmetric weight distribution, as evidenced by their ballast dangling off the side — a climbing bag filled with ketchup packets that presumably weren’t just lifted from the dining halls.

It looks like [Brian] and [Jim] had a ton of fun building and flying this contraption. We’d love to see a distance-to-the-floor sensor added so that they could command it to hover at a given height, but that adds an extra level of complexity. They got this done in time and under budget, so kudos to them both. And in a world full of over-qualified quadcopters, it’s nice to see the humble blimp getting its time in the sun.

Yep, you heard right… this is yet another final project for a University course. Yesterday we saw a spinning POV globe, and the day before a voice-activated eye test. We want to see your final project too so please send in a link!

Hacking the Leapfrog TV to Play Doom

In a few hours, millions of fresh-faced children will be tearing open presents like the Leap TV, a Wii for the pre-school crowd that has a number of educational games. And, once they get bored with them, what could be more educational than fighting your way through a horde of demons to save the earth? Yup, [mick] has hacked the Leap TV console to play Doom. After some poking around he discovered that the Leap TV is built around a quad-core nxp4330q arm7-A processor, with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of flash memory, while the controller links to the main console using Bluetooth LE. That’s more than enough to run Doom on (in fact… too much), so he whipped out his handy compiler and got Doom and SDL running with only a few minor code changes.

This isn’t [Mick]s first such hack: he previously hacked the V-Tech InnoTab, a cheap tablet for kids, which persuaded the manufacturers to release the full source code for the tablet. Will Leapfrog follow suit? That remains to be seen, but in the meantime, [Mick]s work gives us some insight into the internals of this device.

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