Pity the poor toy engineer. Toys, especially the electronic ones, grow more sophisticated by the year. Yet toy makers have to hit what have to be some of industry’s toughest cost targets. These guys think in pennies not dollars.
One way to achieve technical sophistication on a budget is to make good use of off-the-shelf technologies developed for other uses. And judging from some of the robotic toys on display at yesterday’s Toy Fair in New York, it’s an approach that works.
Innovation First, makers of the VEX robots, unveiled two new micro-robotic creatures that it’s adding to the $9.99 HEXBUG robotic insect that debuted last year. The HEXBUG Inchworm, which will sell for $14.99, features seven-way steering mechanism, contact-switch “feelers,” and infrared communications. And the HEXBUG Crab, which will sell for $12.99, walks sideways and has light and sound sensors that trigger hiding and backtracking behaviors that mimic those of a real crab.
Innovation First also showed a prototype of an upcoming VEX kit. Called the VEX Mini, this $100 miniaturized kit allows the creation of programmable table-top robots. The kit is aimed at high-school students who want to work with robotics but don’t want to shell out $300 for the full-size VEX kit that has become so popular with university-level engineering students.
According to Joel Carter, an Innovation First vice president, products like the HEXBUGs and even the VEX Mini wouldn’t have been possible at such low prices even a few years ago. “Falling component prices and mass production have helped us tremendously,” he says. “We’re able to look around for the best mass-produced technologies and avoid any expensive over-engineering.”
Sensors, in particular, have become more accessible for toy makers. And Carter notes that Innovation First is making good use of “extraordinarily inexpensive” light, sound, contact and acceleration sensors in its new and upcoming products. The same will soon go for wireless communications as the company gets ready to roll out robots that communicate via the very open 802.11 wireless standard.
Innovation First isn’t the only company to embrace the use of off-the-shelf technologies to create something fresh. Robonica, a start-up from South Africa, previewed its new two-wheeled Robonii robot at the show. These microprocessor-controlled, fully-programmable robots bristle with sensors and communicate wirelessly via ZigBee, allowing them to interact with each other and physical objects in their path.
Robonii robots have been developed for gaming purposes and can engage in multi-robot games that users download or create themselves using a graphical game editor. “The robots are smart enough that they know where they are relative to each other and to other objects in the game,” says Leon Coetsee, one of Robonica’s engineers.
In fact, the robots may be smart enough to do more than play games. Coetsee points out that Robonii’s peer-to-peer communications capabilities and support for C programming may make them a suitable research tool for swarm robotics.
Like the robots from Innovation First, Robonii don’t so much use untested technologies but instead leverage what’s already available off the shelf. “A smart combination of existing technologies is our basic approach,” Coetsee says.
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