Monday, March 21, 2016

Toy Hacking

I live in a small apartment, and when I moved there, I didn't bring old toys with me from my parents' house. The only electronic item I could think to bring to class for Toy Hack day was a light-up Christmas decoration. I also brought a laser pointer and a cube with an LED in it, but I opted not to take those apart. None of the things I brought seemed very interesting, so I was glad that Kylie brought a few more for us to choose from. I picked out a few toys before settling on one. Here's a picture of all the items I was trying to choose from:

My Christmas tree, LED cube, and laser pointer are in the front-center-left. The three other toys I found in class were the shark car, a spy headband, and Darth Peanut M&M.
First I tried taking apart the Christmas tree. As I suspected, it was far too simple. I was able to twist the tree part off, unscrew the battery compartment, and easily remove the entire electronic module from the tree's base. It appeared to just be a single color-changing LED. I don't know what controlled its color-changing pattern. I didn't see a circuit board or anything programmable. Perhaps it was integrated into the LED itself. I was easily able to put it back together. In any case, I was unimpressed and wanted to try hacking another toy.

The "guts" of the light-up Christmas tree. The ring near the bottom was just hot glue, which was the only thing holding it all together at the top of the base.
I finally chose the Hot Wheels shark racecar. First I played around with it to see what it did. It had three buttons on top, each responsible for something different, like lights, growling noises, and one button that shot the car forward, with the shark's jaw moving up and down as the car drove. There had to be some pretty sophisticated electronics for all that to happen! Taking it apart, it turned out, required a whole bunch of unscrewing.

Look at all those screws! And that's just the bottom layer!
Inside, the toy gave up its secrets. I found buttons below the buttons on the outside, a circuit board, an LED, and a speaker. But the motor was in its own compartment, and I still wasn't sure how it worked. Remember how in my last post I said I didn't know how a motor made things move besides just directly spinning? I could see a single motor, but it was facing the wrong direction for it to be directly spinning the wheels. It was perpendicular to the axle rather than in line with it. I decided to focus on finding out how that worked, since I knew this was a gap in my knowledge of machines.

Well, it took a little more unscrewing and finagling, but I finally split apart the motor's compartment. And I had an exciting moment of realization that I'm sure a young Papert would have been able to relate to: Oh! Gears!

I never had an emotional attachment to gears the way Papert had as a child. I knew they could turn each other, but I never knew how they worked when attached to actual motors (maybe I should pay more attention to the gears in my bike!). The most surprising aspect of this discovery for me was that some gears were at right angles to each other, entirely changing the direction of the spin. That was how it was possible for a motor perpendicular to the axle to spin the axle!

This was an extremely satisfying discovery for me. I could finally appreciate why Papert's "object to think with" as a child had been gears. But I also realized a few other things. Electronic toys like this are not meant to be taken apart. I'm pretty sure I broke some plastic pieces in forcing open the motor's compartment, so I don't think I could ever properly put the shark car back together again. This difficulty and "black-boxing" of how the electronics work is greatly limiting to the kind of learning that can happen with these toys. They are not "construction kits" "designed for designers," as Resnick and Silverman put it. But they could be! If toy cars like this were modular, easy to take apart and put together again in a different way, with easy access to their electronic parts (i.e., no white compartment "black-boxing" the motor and gears!), then kids could learn so much more from these toys, and probably have even more fun!

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