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Friday, May 22, 2009

Five Amazing ’80’s Geek Toys and Their Modern Equivalents

The ’80’s were a magical decade for gadgets for kids. Computing power and display technology were evolving and cost effective enough to penetrate the toy market in a big way. Purely mechanical toys evolved into electromechanical toys and gave birth to the digital toy revolution. For example, LED games of the ’70’s were replaced by Tiger LCD games which were replaced by the Nintendo Gameboy and so on.

Companies also began to innovate on educational toys for kids, whether it was teaching them about electronics, programming, or offering educational games. As a child of the ’80’s, I had many of these toys and played with them much longer than a kid’s attention span would dictate. Below are five that I have the fondest memories of. And hoping to instill that same child-like wonder in my kids, I’ve also included what the modern equivalents are in the market today.

100-in-1 electronics kits

Photo Credit: Flickr User mightyohm

What is was: Arthur C. Clarke has said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. As a kid in the midst of an increasing technological revolution, electronics were at the heart of that. Learning electronics was made easy through the Science Fair Electronic Project Kits found at Radioshack. Through the project guides, kids could construct various ‘experiments’ by attaching wires to terminal springs that make circuits. The terminal springs would wire in components such as LED segment lights, photo sensors, resistors, diodes, etc. While it was fun getting the projects to work, the manuals lacked in depth explanation as to what was happening in the circuit to produce the project’s result.

Why it was awesome: First, it was a simple buy for parents. Everything you needed to get your child interested in electronics was right in the kit. You didn’t need to breadboard or solder. I remember a distinct feeling of accomplishment making a high-water alarm or a light-sensor game with the realization that the bundles of wires springing up from the kit were actually doing something!

Modern equivalent: You can still pick up variations of the 100-in-1 kits, but their popular replacement seem to be Snap Circuits by Elenco. All of the components are mounted on a plastic base with a contact on either end which interconnect with each other and the plastic base that projects can be mounted to. Each component also has the electrical diagram symbol for that component drawn on it so it can help you read schematics. For that reason alone, I like these better.

Pre-Computer 1000

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What it was: One of many educational computers hitting the market during the mid-80’s, the VTech Precomputer 1000 wrapped learning in a quasi-game format that taught kids about science, history, geography, math and typing — or as much as quizzes can teach anyone about anything. But at least in two player mode you could school your friends by buzzing in your answer first.

Why it was awesome: The Precomputer 1000 featured a slimmed down version of BASIC called Pre-BASIC, and the wire-bound manual featured several programs and games which could be typed in to RAM. The programs were there to teach you the basics of programming computers and demystified many of the built-in games and quizzes by showing you how to make your own. However, programming was quite challenging as you could only view one line with 20 characters across the LCD display. Debugging was limited, and you lost your program if you replaced the battery.

Modern equivalent: VTech is still making educational laptops for kids that feature similar learning activities as the Precomputer 1000. These are packaged to look like mom and dad’s laptops enticing kids to play on their own. However, none of the current models in their catalog feature access to a programming language.

Also, The XO-1 from the One Laptop Per Child organization is much more advanced in capability but does not seem to have any educational learning software. However there are are plenty of learning tools such as an offline wikipedia, music composition software, and Pippy, a Python Programming Language/environment.

Etch-a-sketch Animator

What it was: Like a traditional Etch-a-Sketch, the Animator featured two knobs and a screen and allowed you to make drawings. But instead of a mechanical stylus removing aluminum powder from the screen, the Animator featured an LCD matrix and the knobs would move a cursor around the screen. Pressing a button would allow you to turn individual pixels on and off. Once a drawing was made, you could save it to memory and make another. Careful planning and ‘flipping’ back to previous drawings (not unlike traditional animation) allowed you to create a sequence of drawings. You could program the sequence to flip to any drawing in any order to create the illusion of animation.

Why it was awesome: It was kind of like a computer and more complex then making a flip book. You really weren’t programming, you couldn’t interact with it like a game, and the metallic sound effects were a really weird choice. But in the ’80’s, you felt like you were creating something amazing.

Modern equivalent: While there is plenty of software available that allow kids to make simple 2-D animation, the killer application for portable animating fun is an upcoming Nintendo DSiWare titled called Inchworm. Planned for a September 2009 release, Inchworm features a wide variety of features including a color pallet, various pen styles, basic shape drawing, layers and onionskin animation. Numerous tutorials are on the Inchworm website, including demonstrations on a web-uploading feature that will allow people to share their animations outside of the Nintendo DSi.

Casio VL-1 Keyboard

Image Source:

Image Source:

What it was: A relatively inexpensive keyboard, sequencer, and calculator (!) that featured 5 built-in sounds, 10 rhythms, recording functionality, and the ability to create your own sound by modifying Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release (ADSR) values. It was a fun toy to play around with as building your own sounds was the highlight of the toy. But it was monophonic (only one note at a time) and the built-in sounds were astonishingly bad. Plus the demo song teased you into thinking you could change sounds on the fly.

Why it was awesome: It was small, portable, and programmable. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t get faithful piano or violin sounds out of the thing. I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect toy for a budding musician, but it is perfect for a music geek. You could spend hours and hours adjusting the ADSR values creating crazy synth sounds. Plus, was your keyboard also a calculator?

Modern equivalent: The Korg microKorg modeling synthesizer is bigger, badder, and while more expensive than the VL-1, it is infinitely more usable, mostly due to the Korg being an actual instrument and not a child’s toy. Featuring multiple waveforms to model, multiple filters, two ADSR envelopes and a vocoder, it’s a great synthesizer for beginners. But is it kid friendly? Hard to say. The more features you throw at the thing, the more difficult it is to program and likely the less fun a younger kid might have, but older kids won’t be limited like we were with the VL-1. Consider this a call for the Casio’s of the world to bring back a programmable synth toy.

Erector Sets

Image Source: Meccano

Image Source: Meccano

What it was: The classic toy construction set that has been around since 1913, Meccano Erector sets were made of metal containing girders with holes that could be attached with nuts and bolts and other shaped elements. The pieces allowed you to build a variety of models including cars, planes, windmills, bridges, etc. Budding mechanical or civil engineers got a taste of constructing models or building toys in a much more grown-up way.

Why it was awesome: To a kid who mostly played with plastic toys, erector sets represented a graduation of sorts to a more advanced toy. The models were similar to some of the stuff you could build with Legos, but you got to use real tools to assemble your project.

Modern equivalent: Fortunately, Erector sets are still around. Meccano has smartly segmented their product line around age groups, having kits with all plastic parts for the 2-4 year olds, through advanced wifi-controlled robots. But the classic kits are where it’s at, with generic pieces that don’t limit the imagination. Lego’s may be the most popular construction toy, but it’s nice to see options still available.