It is a shame that there are fewer and fewer “nerd stores” around. Fry’s is gone. Radio Shack is gone. But the best ones were always the places that had junk. Silicon valley was great for these places, but they were everywhere. Often, they made their money selling parts to the repair trade, but they had a section for people like us. There’s still one of these stores in the Houston, Texas area. One of the two original Electronic Parts Outlets, or EPO. Walking through there is like a museum of old gear and parts and I am not ashamed to confess I sometimes drive the hour from my house just to wander its aisles, needing to buy absolutely nothing. It was on one of those trips that I spied something I hadn’t noticed before. A Remco Caravelle transmitter/receiver.
Like so many consumer products these days, baby toys seem to get progressively more complex with each passing year. Despite the fact that the average toddler will more often than not be completely engrossed by a simple cardboard box, toy companies are apparently hell-bent on producing battery powered contraptions that need to be licensed with the FCC.
As a perfect example, we have Fisher-Price’s Linkimals. These friendly creatures can operate independently by singing songs and flashing their integrated RGB LEDs in response to button presses, but get a few of them in the room together, and their 2.4 GHz radios kick in to create an impromptu mesh network of fun.
Once connected to each other, the digital critters synchronize their LEDs and sing in unison. Will your two year old pay attention long enough to notice? I know mine certainly wouldn’t. But it does make for a compelling commercial, and when you’re selling kid’s toys, that’s really the most important thing.
On the suggestion of one of our beloved readers, I picked up a second-hand Linkimals Musical Moose to take a closer look at how this cuddly pal operates. Though in hindsight, I didn’t really need to; a quick browse on Amazon shows that despite their high-tech internals, these little fellows are surprisingly cheap. In fact, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that given its current retail price of just under $10 USD, I actually paid more for my used moose.
But you didn’t come here to read about my fiscal irresponsibility, you want to see an anthropomorphic woodland creature get dissected. So let’s pull this smug Moose apart and see what’s inside.
To be a child in the 1970s and 1980s was to be of the first generations to benefit from electronic technologies in your toys. As those lucky kids battled blocky 8-bit digital foes, the adults used to fret that it would rot their brains. Kids didn’t play outside nearly as much as generations past, because modern toys were seducing them to the small screen. Truth be told, when you could battle aliens with a virtual weapon that was in your imagination HUGE, how do you compete with that.
How those ’80s kids must have envied their younger siblings then when in 1990 one of the best toys ever was launched, a stored-pressure water gun which we know as the Super Soaker. Made of plastic, and not requiring batteries, it far outperformed all squirt guns that had come before it, rapidly becoming the hit toy of every sweltering summer day. The Super Soaker line of water pistols and guns redefined how much fun kids could have while getting each other drenched. No longer were the best water pistols the electric models which cost a fortune in batteries that your parents would surely refuse to replace — these did it better.
You likely know all about the Super Soaker, but you might not know it was invented by an aerospace engineer named Lonnie Johnson whose career included working on stealth technology and numerous projects with NASA.
Automata are already pretty cool, but the ones that can fool us are something extraordinary. The legendary [Greg Zumwalt] has recently turned his toy-making attentions toward illusory automata, and we think he’s off to a great start with his admirable appetizer, the Magic Chef.
The Chef aims to please, and as long as he has the power to do so, he’ll keep offering dishes from his six-item menu of hamburger, hot dog, pizza slice, BLT, sunny-side-up egg, and banded gelatinous chunk we can’t quite identify. Amazingly, this one-man restaurant does everything with a single 6VDC gear motor, some magnets, and 58 printed parts including gears, cams, and levers. The way the food carousel moves on a sort of magnetic slip ring system is the icing on the cake.
Many of us in the United States frequently browse the shelves of Toys R Us for things to hack on. Sadly that era will soon end with the chain’s closing. In the meantime, the entire store becomes the clearance shelf as they start liquidating inventory. Depending on store, the process may begin as soon as Thursday, March 22. (Warning: video ads on page.)
While not as close to hacker hearts as the dearly departed Radio Shack or Maplin, Toys R Us has provided the hacker community with a rich source of toys we’ve repurposed for our imagination. These toys served various duties including chassis, enclosure, or parts donor. They all had low prices made possible by the high volume, mass market economics that Toys R Us helped build. Sadly it was not able to keep its head above water in the low margin cutthroat competition of retail sales in America.
As resourceful consumers, we will find other project inspirations. Many projects on this site have sourced parts from Amazon. In commercial retail, Target has started popping up in increasing frequency. And no matter where new toys are sold, wait a few years and some fraction will end up at our local thrift store.
We’ll always have some nostalgia for Geoffrey the Giraffe, but toy hacking must go on.
This is a fairly simple build if you have the shop tools, and if you only have hand tools available, is still quite doable. The blocks consist of square wooden blocks with holes drilled into them and a bunch of wooden dowels cut to size. [Jonny] adds a wooden box with a hinged lid for storing the blocks in as an added feature of the build,.
There are no LEDs lighting up, no Arduino-powered microcontroller involved, and they don’t connect to the internet, but that doesn’t make them any less of a great toy. Even without the shop tools, these could be made pretty quickly even by someone without prior experience with woodworking. If you’re interested in building block toys, check out this write-up about a way to combine different types of building blocks together, or check out this write-up about creating the frame of a DIY CNC mill with a metal building set.
Within the last few years, a lot of companies have started with the aim to disrupt the educational electronics industry using their LEGO-compatible sets. Now they’re ubiquitous, and fighting each other for their slice of space in your child’s box of bricks. What’s going on here?
The main reason for LEGO-compatibility is familiarity. Parents and children get LEGO. They have used it. They already have a bunch. When it comes to leveling up and learning about electronics, it makes sense to do that by adding on to a thing they already know and understand, and it means they can continue to play with and get more use from their existing sets. The parent choosing between something that’s LEGO-compatible and a completely separate ecosystem like littleBits (or Capsela) sees having to set aside all the LEGO and buy all new plastic parts and learn the new ecosystem, which is a significant re-investment. littleBits eventually caught on and started offering adapter plates, and that fact demonstrates how much demand there is to stick with the studs.