My 7-year-old son is a builder. He spends hours with his Legos, Zoobs, and K’Nex toys, and he’s made some pretty fun stuff along the way (ever seen a Zoob exoskeleton?). So deep is his passion for building right now that he wants to be a construction worker when he grows up. All fine and good, but as a 21st-century dad, I also feel compelled to expose him to electronics, programming, and machine learning, and I’ve enjoyed watching him take a keen interest in technology. So when I came across the $99 Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit by littleBits, I was almost giddy to pick one up. In my mind, this build-your-own R2-D2 appeared the perfect combination of a creative construction toy and robotics kit.
Targeted to young padawans/engineers ages 8 to 12, the kit comes with a transparent plastic R2-D2 body and all the color-coded, electronic building blocks ⏤ motor, control hub, proximity sensor, etc. ⏤ needed to create a moving and beeping custom droid, which can then be controlled via a smartphone. Perhaps sensing a shift in the force, the kit immediately directs users to the app to get started ⏤ no paper instructions here. Our son has been around smartphones his entire life, so after a quick install, he was off to the races.
In fact, in place of a traditional instruction manual, the app begins with a series of training missions, the first several of which involve assembling the R2 Unit. Our son was quickly hooked. The missions start out slow, by identifying and assembling the internal components, but then ramp up to programming motion controls and decorating your bot. In addition to the included sticker sheets, the case can be customized with blocks, arts and crafts supplies, and random stuff you have lying around the house. Depending on your kid’s imagination, their Artoo doesn’t need to look anything like the droid in the movie.
If I had any complaints, it was that the kit requires a relatively current smartphone or tablet, and the hand-me-down iPads our kids have been using and abusing wouldn’t cut it. I had to install the app on my own phone, which admittedly, I’m never big on doing. Also, at least for the younger inventors, the kit does require some adult assistance as things can get a little complicated. That said, watching my son’s completed R2-D2 rolling and beeping around the house was every bit as satisfying as I had hoped.
The most exciting present I ever got as a kid was a Transformers Sky Lynx, a NASA space shuttle orbiter mounted atop what resembled a crawler transporter. I have no idea what my parents paid for it at the time (they go for $150 today), but I remember thinking, “Two robots in one, what more a kid ask for!?” Thirty years later, I know. And it’s a pint-sized R2-D2 that, not only can they build, program, and re-build all over again, but that will hopefully shape them into a future scientist, engineer, or inventor. It is, after all, the 21st century.