One of the things that struck me at the World Maker Faire was how many companies are trying to reinvent or improve on older projects, especially in the STEM/learning sector.
More years ago than I care to remember, I had Erector Sets, chemistry sets, and electronic experiment sets. Although they would be considered primitive by today's standards, they achieved their purpose - which was to engage and inspire young kids to get involved with technology through experimentation.
I built cars, tanks, cranes, and even a very crude walking robot. I also managed, somehow, to totally evacuate the house doing a chemistry experiment that involved heating sulphur in a spoon over a candle to see how it turned into a liquid. My parents weren't pleased, and I'm sure it took a lot of work before my mother was able to rid the house of the burnt rotten egg smell.
The electronic experiment set was the most intriguing and had the most lasting impact by far, even though the set was just a few dozen components arrayed on a thick board with springs for contacts, some jumper wires, and a very cheap headset. I remember putting together a simple burglar alarm, a light sensor, a Morse code key, and a crystal radio.
That experience triggered my interest so much that I started making regular visits to the library checking out back issues of magazines and books on electronic circuits. And I would collect old radios, TVs, and other gear to disassemble so that I could use the components to hack together some of the more interesting circuits I discovered in the books.
There were no electronics classes or clubs in my junior high school and later in my high school, though they did have wood and metal shop classes. So, using library books and magazines I taught myself whatever I needed to learn to put together the devices I wanted to make.
I'm not bragging, and I'm not suggesting that kids today should be forced to go through the same process. It was difficult, often frustrating, and there were many times when I almost gave up completely because I either couldn't understand something and there was no one around to help, or because the parts I needed just weren't available - or cost way to much for my limited allowance.
At the same time, I think we may be doing young kids a disservice by making things way too easy for them. When we simplify the learning process, and we try to remove any frustration or stress, then then we are 'dumbing down' the process - degrading the value that it gives to the student learner.
So many of the STEM type systems I've seen try to design out any difficulty or challenge out of the process. They often treat a project as if it was assembling furniture from IKEA dressed up with a bit of science or engineering.
Electronic and robot kits become niche market video game clones focused on instant gratification. "Plug this into that; connect this; turn on the battery; and you've created a functioning robot!"
But, actually, you haven't 'created' or designed anything. You've just followed instructions like a robot.
The challenge is to create learning systems that not only reward and provide satisfaction but also force the student to create - to stress their mental muscles - and to solve problems in ways that they didn't already know.
Some of the systems out there do a fairly good job at it while others fail miserably. All of them, including the most well known systems, still have a lot of room for improvement - at least in my opinion.
I'm so incredibly jealous. Lady Ada over at AdaFruit Industries has all these great toys to play and experiment with, and she's figured out how to do it while enriching all of our hacker lives and making a little money to find more great stuff.
The 'toy' that triggered this post for me is some conductive rubber stretch cord that acts as a sensor. It's like being able to pull on the end of a resistor and have it's characteristics change linearly as it gets longer and shorter. Way cool! And it is incredibly cheap. She's priced it at less than ten dollars for a full meter and even includes a pair of alligator clips and a 10k resistor. Science teachers, for example, could dice it up and have enough for each student to have a piece for experiments.
The only drawback that I can see is that the sensor takes a little while to recover after being stretched, though I guess that could be compensated for in some applications by using two sensors in opposition.
As usual, the AdaFruit website has a great related tutorial page so you can learn while having fun.
I've been anticipating the release of practical head mounted display for years since they have tremendous potential for robot and remote telepresence applications. So far all of the designs have either been obtrusive and block the wearer's vision somehow, or they have had limitations that have precluded commercialization.
Now Brother Industries has announced they will roll out their AiRScouter transparent LCD display this Fall for business/industrial applications and hope to follow up with a commercially available version in the near future.
’Head Mounted Display Set To Roll Out (Video)’ continues
If you want to get a broad overview and understanding of sensor technologies you might as well learn from the best. Luckily, the MIT OpenCourseWare program is dedicated to making the same educational material, including course outlines, readings, lectures, assignments, and often videos, that are used to teach MIT students both at undergraduate and graduate levels.
For example, one of the program's current offerings is "MAS.836 Sensor Technologies for Interactive Environments:
"This course is a broad introduction to a host of sensor technologies, illustrated by applications drawn from human-computer interfaces and ubiquitous computing. After extensively reviewing electronics for sensor signal conditioning, the lectures cover the principles and operation of a variety of sensor architectures and modalities, including pressure, strain, displacement, proximity, thermal, electric and magnetic field, optical, acoustic, RF, inertial, and bioelectric. Simple sensor processing algorithms and wired and wireless network standards are also discussed. "
The MIT OpenCourseWare program material is covered by their Creative Commons License, and the best part is that it's absolutely free. All you have to do is bring your own intelligence, curiosity, and dedication. You can't beat that.
Kondo Robot announced two new multi-legged robot kits expanding their already impressive line of high performance, and highly modifiable, robots. Famous for introducing the first hobby humanoid robot kit, the KHR-1, and the most popular platforms of choice for ROBO-ONE competitors, Kondo has recently branched out into multi-legged robots.
In addition to robot fans and hobbyists, Kondo kits have become extremely popular among technical high schools, colleges, other academic institutions, as well as research facilities here in Japan. Both of the two new robot kits are likely to attract a strong following, particularly since their price/performance is expected to be improved over existing products already on the market.
Technology development today faces some serious limitations that constrains its application and successful deployment, especially in non-traditional sectors. The two biggest limitations, at least from my perspective, are battery capacity/life and sensors. While there has certainly been a lot of progress in both areas over the past two decades, the core technology and design approach hasn't really changed very much.
In order to achieve radical improvements in the way we put technology to practical use some significant breakthroughs in both areas will be critical. Along those lines, one of the most interesting and surprising "thinking out of the box" sensor developments I've run across recently is the FuwaFuwa sensor module developed as a part of the Igarashi Design Interface Project under the auspices of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) ERATO.
"FuwaFuwa" in the Japanese language is a kind of onomatopoeic word that roughly translates as light/airy/fluffy, and that's exactly what the FuwaFuwa sensor module does.