Teardown: VTech Whiz Kid Luggable Computer

Back in the early 1980s, hotshot business types on the go would have used what were referred to at the time as portable computers from companies like Osborne or Kaypro. Due to the technical limitations of the era these so-called “luggables” were only slightly smaller and lighter than contemporary desktop computers, but they had integrated displays and keyboards so they were a bit easier to move around. A few years later the first generation of laptops would hit the market, and the portables predictably fell out of favor. Today they’re relatively rare collectors items; a largely forgotten first step in the steady march towards true mobile computing.

Which makes the 1984 edition of VTech’s “Whiz Kid” educational computer an especially unique specimen. The company’s later entries into the series of popular electronic toys would adopt (with some variations) the standard laptop form factor, but this version has the distinction of being what might be the most authentic luggable computer ever made for children. When this toy was being designed it would have been a reflection of the cutting edge in computer technology, but today, it’s a fascinating reminder that the latest-and-greatest doesn’t always stick around for very long.

The classic luggable hallmarks are all here. The flip down keyboard, the small and strangely offset display, there’s even lugs on the side to attach an included strap so the youngster can sling it over their shoulder. On the other hand, the fact that it’s just a toy allowed for some advantages over the real thing: it can actually run on battery power, and is quite lightweight relative to its size.

When we last took a peek inside one of VTech’s offerings, we found a surprisingly powerful Z80 machine that was more than deserving of its PreComputer moniker. But that BASIC-compatible design hailed from the late 80s, and was specifically marketed as a trainer for the next generation of computer owners. Will the 1984 Whiz Kid prove to have a similar relationship to its adult counterparts, or does the resemblance only go skin deep? Let’s find out.

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Infinite Flying Glider

If you’ve exhausted your list of electronics projects over the past several weeks of trying to stay at home, it might be time to take a break from all of that and do something off the wall. [PeterSripol] shows us one option by building a few walkalong gliders and trying to get them to fly forever.

Walkalong gliders work by following a small glider, resembling a paper airplane but made from foam, with a large piece of cardboard. The cardboard generates an updraft which allows the glider to remain flying for as long as there’s space for it. [PeterSripol] and his friends try many other techniques to get these tiny gliders, weighing in at around half a gram, to stay aloft for as long as possible, including lighting several dozen tea candles to generate updrafts, using box fans, and other methods.

If you really need some electricity in your projects, the construction of the foam gliders shows a brief build of a hot wire cutting tool using some nichrome wire attached to a piece of wood, and how to assemble the gliders so they are as lightweight as possible. It’s a fun project that’s sure to be at least several hours worth of distraction, or even more if you have a slightly larger foam glider and some spare RC parts.

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Classic Toy Helicopter Flies Again As DIY Version

For many of us who grew up in the 1970s, “VertiBird”, the fly-it-yourself indoor helicopter, was a toy that was begged for often enough that it eventually appeared under the Christmas tree. And more than a few of the fascinating but delicate toys were defunct by Christmas afternoon, victims of the fatal combination of exuberant play and price-point engineering. But now a DIY version of the classic toy flies again, this time with a more robust design.

To be fair to the designers at Mattel, the toy company that marketed VertiBird, the toy was pretty amazing. The plastic helicopter was powered by a motor located in the central base, which rotated a drive rod that ran through a stiff tether. Small springs in the base and at the copter acted as universal joints to transmit power to the rotor. These springs were the weak point in the design, especially the one in the base, often snapping in two.

[Luke J. Barker]’s redesign puts a tiny gear motor in the aircraft rather than in the base, something that wouldn’t have been feasible in the original. To address the problem of getting electrical power from the base to the aircraft, [Luke] eschewed an expensive slip ring and instead used a standard 3.5-mm audio jack and plug. The plug serves as an axle for the main gear in the base that powers the copter’s rotation; sadly, this version doesn’t tilt the aircraft mechanically to control backward and forward flight like the original. A pair of pots with 3D-printed levers control throttle and flight direction through an Arduino; see it in action in the video below.

These pages abound with rotorcraft builds, both helicopters and multirotor. We appreciate all manner of flying machines, but this one really takes us back.

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Catapult Your Best Wishes With This 3D-Printable Card

It’s the season to be surrounded by greeting cards of all shapes and sizes from friends old and new. News of their families and achievements, reminders that they exist, and a pile of cards to deal with sometime in January. Wouldn’t it be great if you could send something with a little more substance, something your friends would remember, maybe even hang on to?

[Brian Brocken]’s 3D-printed Da Vinci catapult kit may not fill that niche for everyone, but we can guarantee it will be a talking point. The Da Vinci catapult design uses a pair of springs similar to an archer’s bow, to unwind a pair of ropes and thus turn the shaft upon which the catapult shaft itself is fitted. All these components are mounted in a single piece with sprues similar to an injection moulded model kit, allowing the whole to easily be posted in an envelope.

The parts are all available to print separately among the files on the Thingiverse page for those with no need to mail them. For the casual spectator he’s made a YouTube video that we’ve placed below the break, detailing the design and build process as well as showing the device in use.

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The Ifs Make Learning To Code Child’s Play

Anyone who has done the slightest bit of programming knows about the “Hello, World!” program. It’s the archetypal program that one enters to get a feel for a new language or a new architecture; if you can get a machine to print “Hello, World!” back to you, the rest is just details. But what about teaching kids to program? How does one get toddlers thinking in logical, procedural ways? More particularly, what’s a “Hello, World!” program look like for the pre-literate set?

Those are the sort of questions that led to The Ifs by [Makeroni Labs]. The Ifs are educational toys for teaching kids as young as three the basics of coding. Each If is a colorful plastic cube with a cartoon face and a “personality” that reflects what the block does – some blocks have actuators, some have sensors. The blocks are programmed by placing magnetic tabs on the top representing conditions and actions. A kid might choose to program a block to detect when it’s being shaken, or when the lights come on, and then respond by playing a sound or vibrating. The blocks can communicate with each other too, so that when the condition for one block is satisfied, something happens on another block.

The Ifs look like a lot of fun, and they’re a great jumpstart on the logical thinking skills needed for coders and non-coders alike. We’re not alone in thinking this is a pretty keen project – the judges for this year’s Hackaday Prize selected The Ifs as one of the twenty finalists. Will it win? We’ll find out next week at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference. If you won’t be in Pasadena with us, make sure you tune in to the livestream to watch the announcement.

3D Print Your Very Own Mechanical Computer

Most Hackaday readers are familiar with computers from the 70s and 80s, but what about ones even older than that? The Digi Comp 1 was a commercially available computer from the 1960s that actually cost less than a modern-day microcontroller. The catch? It was mechanical rather than electrical. Thanks to retro-wizard [Mike Gardi], now anyone can build a replica of one.

Admittedly the Digi Comp 1 was more of a toy than a tool, but it was still a working computer. It contained three flip-flops (memory) and had a lever that acted as a clock, allowing the user to perform boolean operations and some addition and subtraction. Certainly not advanced, but interesting nonetheless. [Mike]’s version of the Digi Comp 1 has an extra bit when compared to the original and includes some other upgrades, but largely remains faithful to the original design.

If you want to print one of these on your own, [Mike] has made all of the files available on Thingiverse. He has also experimented with other mechanical computers as well, including the sequel Digi Comp 2. We’ve seen some recent interest in that mechanical computer lately as well.

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Why Buy Toys When You Can Build Them Instead?

Like many creative individuals who suddenly find themselves parents, [Marta] wanted to make something special for his children to play with. Anybody can just purchase an off-the-shelf electronic toy, but if you’ve got the ability to design one on your own terms, why not do it? But even compared to the fairly high standards set by hacker parents, we have to admit that the amount of time, thought, and effort that was put into the “Marta Musik Maschine” is absolutely phenomenal.

[Marta] was inspired by the various commercial offerings which use RFID and other technologies to identify which characters the child is playing with and respond accordingly. But since he didn’t want to get locked into one particular company’s ecosystem and tinkering with the toys seemed frowned upon by their creators, he decided to just come up with his own version.

Over the course of many posts on the Musik Maschine’s dedicated website, [Marta] explains his thought process for every design consideration of the toy in absolutely exquisite detail. Each of the writeups, which have helpfully been broken down for each sub-system of the final toy, are arguably detailed and complete enough to stand as their own individual projects. Even if you’re not looking to get into the world of DIY electronic toys, there’s almost certainly an individual post here which you’ll find fascinating. From the finer points of interfacing your Python code with arcade buttons to tips for designing 3D printed enclosures, there’s really something for everyone here.

The children of hackers are often the envy of the neighborhood thanks to the one-of-a-kind playthings provided by their parents, and considering the level of commitment [Marta] has put into a toddler toy, we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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