Serious Fun

Welcome to Discover's annual selection of science and technology toys adults can enjoy without guilt (you're learning!)

By Jonathan Kantor, DISCOVER|Saturday, December 01, 2001

Every fall, as the major toy companies spew out new offerings, Discover editors and writers drift into the office with shouts of "You won't believe this!" Layout tables are cleared, packages ripped open, and batteries inserted. Staffers gather around to ooh and aah, gawk, criticize, make jokes, and above all, play. To us, there's nothing quite like an exciting new technology or science toy. (None of us have yet forgotten a spinning disk an editor brought in several years ago that levitates and seems to defy gravity.) To you it may seem like frivolous fun, and sure, we're all eager to get in touch with the joy of wonder that the child in each of us still has for a new toy, but we've learned something remarkable about toys around this office: Toys teach. A good science or technology toy can open up an hour-long discussion around here about the science behind it, bring back volumes of recall about science we've all but forgotten, and send us off to reference books to nail down the fuzzier parts of our previous learning. We like the process so much we've decided to institutionalize it and share it. Welcome to our new, annual toy review. The toys you'll read about on the following pages represent a drastic winnowing down of hundreds of new offerings we discovered this year on the toy market. These are our favorites. We guarantee you'll learn a lot from each and every one.
— Stephen Petranek

R O L L I C K I N G   R O B O T S

RAD 4.0, Toymax, $99.99
Rumble Robots, Trendmasters, $29.99
Sumo Robot, OWI, $49.95
Spider III, OWI, $59.95
Hyper Line Tracker, OWI, $59.95
Ultra, CyberK'nex, $129.99
Robotic Invention System 2.0, Lego, $199.99
Vision Command, Lego, $49.99
Ultimate Builders, Lego, $59.99
Pneumatic Robots, Fischertechnik, $139
Intelligent Interface, Fischertechnik, $159

Robot kits can teach us all kinds of things about circuits and computers, but the kits have lots of pieces, which can be a bit daunting at first. But they come in many levels of difficulty, starting with very easy, so it's possible to work up to higher levels of accomplishment. True technophobes with a developed fear of assembly should start with RAD 4.0, which is voice activated and can fire foam darts right out of the box at your verbal command. He's great around the office as a gofer to deliver memos, and he'll get a laugh every time you ask him to "boogie." He even supplies the music.

NO-BRAINERS: Clockwise from top left, a kit-built creation from CyberK'nex; a Lego bot that sees; two Sumo Robots; Fischertechnik Pneumatic Robot; Rumble Robot; Lego Robotic Invention System machine; Rumble Robot; and in the center of the page, the no-assembly-required RAD 4.0.
For those with more aggression to release, Rumble Robots know how to put up a fight. First, a bar-code card swiped through a robot's head determines how hard it will punch or how bright its killer laser will beam. Then a remote control sends the bots after each other until they run out of life points or get knocked over.

Those willing to try a little assembly should start with OWI's Sumo Robots. These treaded versions of Japanese wrestlers emit infrared beams as they spin in circles. When two sense each other's infrared, they charge and try to push each other over. (Tip: Battery-power levels have to be equal to level the playing field.) OWI makes great use of LED technology in other kits, too, like Spider III, which uses its infrared beam to avoid obstacles, and the Hyper Line Tracker, which zips along as it follows a black line drawn on white paper. Much like an ant on a scent trail, Line Tracker sweeps its trunklike LED-laden appendage back and forth to make sure it keeps the line in its sights. It's fast, but it doesn't have a very tight turning radius. All these kits have screws, gears, and wires galore that will require a couple of hours to assemble, but detailed instructions make it easy, and circuit boards and motors come prebuilt.

For bots with more capabilities, software has to be added to the mix. The Ultra kit from CyberK'nex embraces the digital age with detailed instructions on how to piece together five "cyber life-forms" that use electronic "keys" to give them different personalities. The kit comes with a port that plugs into a computer which lets you download new personalities into the keys from the Web. A cyber-dog or a robot room guard can say phrases, respond to sound, light, or motion, and sense when it runs into something. The accompanying controller can program a sequence of actions for each robot to perform, such as move forward, roar, and fire a missile, or it can put the robot in "learn" mode, in which it can remember a sequence.

To get real intelligence out of mechanical minions, move on to Lego's Mindstorms kits. This system is so good it's used to teach robotics in universities. The bots are made using the same type of Lego blocks everyone is familiar with, but it adds gears, motors, and sensors. Each robot runs independently when owners create programs on their computers using the software included and download them to the machine's microprocessor. The 2.0 version of Lego's Robotic Invention System has an updated programming language that makes it simpler to get started. A variety of expansion sets can make the robots even more capable: Vision Command offers a digital camera to give the robot sight, and the Ultimate Builders set adds pneumatics so the robot can scale walls.

At the difficult and pricey end of the scale is Fischertechnik, a German kit maker that hasn't received much press in the United States. Its Pneumatic Robots system can be used to create models that look like scaled-down versions of assembly-line robots, and they are nearly as functional. But software called Intelligent Interface must be purchased to reach the full potential of this kit. With Pneumatics, the robots can sort colored pucks, open a door, operate a gripper, and turn the lights off when you've fallen asleep from exhaustion after a day of designing.

M O R E   P O W E R F U L   T H A N   P O K É M O N

Power Plant Trading Cards, Industcards, $3 per set.

POWER PLAYERS: Don't let electrical generating plants grind on day and night in anonymity. Discover extraordinary innovations like Maryland's Resource Recovery Facility, which converts trash to energy.
You'll probably never get your hands on a Honus Wagner baseball card, but how many of your friends have their own card featuring Brooklyn's Gowanus power plant, the largest floating power plant in the world? And imagine the fun you'll have saying, "I'll trade you one Hoover Dam for one Elrama coal-fired unit." Is that how J. D. Rockefeller talked to J. P. Morgan?

Although Industcards sells most of its inventory to plant owners and power companies for promotional or publicity purposes, they are available to anyone and can be purchased in small quantities. Christopher Bergesen, who seems obsessed with the facilities that generate America's electricity, started making the cards as a hobby and now sells more than 60 different ones. They are set up just like the baseball prototype: photos on one side, vital stats on the other. You'll learn, for instance, that the Gowanus plant generates 494 megawatts of power from a combination of fuel oil and natural gas, and that it sits on the Gowanus Canal, a two-mile waterway completed in the late 1860s.

Power-plant trading cards also function as easy history lessons in the industrial development of the United States. The first cards in the series cover mostly oil and coal-fired plants; the newer ones, fittingly enough, add nuclear and hydroelectric. The densely packed information on each card testifies to Bergesen's attraction to big technology, and like so many passions, it's infectious. And who knows? Maybe someday that Diablo Canyon pressurized-water reactor card will be worth a thousand bucks.

C O N S T A N T L Y   M O V I N G   P A R T S

Expandagon Actuator, Hoberman Designs, $29.95.

Chuck Hoberman brought the expanding and shrinking sphere, a science-museum staple, into homes and classrooms around the world. Then his company, Hoberman Designs, took expandable shapes one step further with the Expandagon Construction System, a collection of jointed, vividly colored plastic parts that hook together to form any number of expanding geometric designs. Now Hoberman has released the Actuator—a mechanized base that stretches and collapses your designs. The Actuator comes with a start-up set of Expandagon parts, but more sophisticated constructions require one of the three complete Expandagon Construction System kits. The linkage design—what edge can link to what and in what direction—takes some study, but kits come with practice designs and instructions. The Actuator transforms your creative designs into hypnotic mood pieces. Just sit back, relax, and watch your designs shape-shift.

C O M E   F L Y   W I T H   M E

Vectron Flying Saucer, Science Tech, $99.95.

Stand clear. . . . We have main engine start. . . . Liftoff. Sorry, it's not quite that dramatic, but the Vectron Blackhawk does put most toy flying saucers to shame. Mastering it takes more than an afternoon of dedication, but the rewards—what else allows you to fly across the living room in formation with your parakeet?—are well worth the effort. One problem for fanciers of free flight: This quad-prop saucer is tethered to its remote-control unit by a wire, which is likely to irritate hard-core wireless types.

B U B B L E S   W I T H   C O R N E R S ?

Zome System Bubble Kit, Zometool Inc., $9.95.

UPPERS: Give an ant a thrill ride on a paper hot-air balloon, fly the Vectron flying saucer, make square bubbles, soothe yourself with the music of plants, or expand your horizons with Expandagon.
Square bubbles are no longer an oxymoron. Neither for that matter are hexagonal or pyramid-shaped ones. With the Zome System Bubble Kit, bubbles have grown corners and edges.

A bit like modern-day Tinker Toys, the kit includes brightly colored plastic struts and connectors that can be pieced together to form three-dimensional shapes like cubes and pyramids. Dunk the frame into soapy water, and the bubble trapped inside takes on the same shape as the surrounding scaffolding. Then, with a soda straw, you can move the bubbles around, change their shape, modify their size, and explore their inner workings. Utterly captivating.

Most bubbles are round because spheres give a bubble the most volume for the least surface area. But when they are suspended within a frame, multiple bubbles join together and pull at one another equally from all sides. The result: angular bubbles that can help teach anyone about geometry and math. The only frustrating part is the decrease in dexterity that comes with pruney, soapy-water-soaked fingers.

M O R E   H O T   A I R ,   P L E A S E

Smithsonian Adventures Hot Air Balloon, Scientific Explorer, $20.

Up went the duck, the sheep, and the rooster. Then on November 21, 1783, two men followed the animals' example and took flight in a cotton-and-paper balloon rising on hot air from a straw fire below. They made history, although Monsieur Montgolfier's balloon did catch on fire. Your attempt to re-create this first balloon flight need not meet such a fate. And we do mean re-create. Thankfully, this version of the kit is simpler than the original, which came with squares of paper that had to be pasted together to form rectangles, which then had to be cut into panels. Now you start with teardrop-shaped panels made of frighteningly delicate tissue paper.

The five-foot balloon, which we powered with dual hair dryers, managed, even on a warm day, to lift off. On a cold day, the balloon promises to lift high enough that you'll need to tether it with a light string. But even under the best flying circumstances, it's unlikely you'll be able to launch a duck.

H O W   T O   M A K E   T H E
M O O N   G O   R O U N D

3-D Spherical Jigsaw Puzzle: Moon Globe, Buffalo Games Inc., $25.

PUZZLERS: Piece together a three-dimensional moon, decode a jigsaw that keeps predators away from their prey, or write the Great Book of Ages by collecting enough Explorer Cards to really understand the many Peoples of the Planet.
How hard can it be to put together a puzzle made up of numbered pieces? In this case everything goes very smoothly as the moon's southern hemisphere and then its northern hemisphere take shape. But as you begin to take delight in watching flat cardboard pieces magically curve into a 3-D globe and making everything meet at the equator, piece number 244 refuses to connect with number 245. So you must rethink your strategy. This is a puzzle, after all. You pick a hemisphere to sacrifice, and if you're lucky it's the northern one. Then you take it apart piece by piece and systematically reattach each piece to the southern hemisphere. Soon you find out there's a reason that the tip of the north pole is clearly labeled the last piece. And you hope you have a friend with little fingers helping. In the end, this is not so much a puzzle as it is a game of pick-up sticks. And when it's all over, you're proud, and there your little moon sits until, inevitably, someone comes by wanting to play catch.

P I E C E   B Y   P I E C E

Lost in a Jigsaw II: Survival of the Fittest, Buffalo Games Inc., $12.

Need hours—nay, days—of occupation for idle hands? The goal of this puzzle is to construct a maze through a fanciful wildlife habitat. The properly built maze will wend a stone path through leafy fenced compounds, ensuring that this animal kingdom will remain peaceable (but rather hungry) by keeping prey separate from predators and predators away from the zookeeper's path. The 515 identically shaped puzzle pieces complicate the task, and the considerable detail of the design can make it difficult to match up the pieces. Flowers, leaves, and that little bit of ungulate hoof on a grassy background can be tough to discern at the edge of a piece. But, hey, you don't like easy puzzles, do you? An instruction sheet offers hints as well as a black-and-white photo of the completed picture to placate those who cannot bear frustration. And here's another tip: The old-fashioned approach of assembling by color and recognizable object works just fine.

I ' L L   R A I S E   Y O U   T W O   J E E P S

Peoples of the Planet, Bioviva, $29.99.

Here's true irony: a trivia game about the not-at-all-trivial cultural history of the human race. Nine Explorer Logbooks make up the game board. Each logbook corresponds to one of nine sequentially numbered historical eras, from the Paleolithic to the modern age. Explorer Cards specific to each era are placed on the corresponding logbook, and the number of cards used in a game is determined by the number of players. Every Explorer Card presents a scenario about a particular culture and poses a multiple-choice question. Players strive to collect the Great Book of Ages, which constitutes a complete set of nine Explorer Cards, one from each era. A player can collect a card by landing on a logbook and picking up a card. But that card does not become a part of the player's Great Book of Ages until she actually wins the card. To win a card, a player challenges a card held by another player by correctly answering the question on the card. After a particular card has been unsuccessfully challenged twice, the card becomes part of the cardholder's Great Book of Ages. Adults and more-sophisticated kids may grow weary of the cards' eager, exclamation-point-ridden tone, but the fun facts animate the day-to-day lives of peoples around the globe and across the ages—impetus enough to collect 'em all.

B E A M   M E   U P

Space Station Simulator, Cinegram Media Inc., $24.95.

You don't need to be a millionaire to spend time aboard the space station—all you need is a simulator. No training is required to build your own space station from a selection of 40 modules, and expert feedback on the design is free. The program's designers collaborated with the space agencies that put together the real thing, so it's chock-full of information about the modules and components. Soon you'll impress friends with lingo like "U.S. node with cupola," and "automatic docking unit." The program is easy to navigate and fun to play with, and the graphics are great. One special part allows you to move the station over different regions of the Earth and then spacewalk outside to check out the view. The only feeling you'll miss out on is weightlessness.

H E A R   Y O U R   G A R D E N   G R O W

L-Fields, Sonaris Records, $19.

First came the lyre, then the harpsichord, then the piano, then the synthesizer. Now French musician Michael Prime presents the latest in instrumental evolution: the electronically amplified psychedelic plant. We're not kidding. This album consists entirely of "bioelectric recordings of living plants." In other words, Prime attached electrodes to three plants in the wild, fed the output into a battery-powered oscillator, and recorded the sounds. Then he mixed in environmental noises from the same locations. There are three long tracks, each 15 to 20 minutes long. "God's Own Dibber" expresses the moods of a hemp plant. "Contour of a Forgotten Landscape" reads the electrical vibe of fly agaric, a mushroom—not a plant, strictly speaking, but certainly in the spirit of the thing. The third track is cactus oriented.

The recordings have no melody, no rhythm, and—needless to say—no lyrics. But they do have a loping, ethereal quality quite unlike even the ambient electronic experiments or New Age nature sound tracks they may at first seem to resemble. Sometimes the sounds are like the moaning of a theremin, at other times the roar of an airplane or the whistling of the wind. Upon first listen, one editor at Discover covered her ears. A few minutes later she was captivated. This gets our vote for the closest you will ever come to experiencing life outside the animal kingdom.

A   V I R U S   A M O N G   U S

Virus Watch, Re: PLAY, $25.

How cool was Dick Tracy? Some would say so cool he was the only man in the Western world who could feel comfortable wearing a bright yellow trench coat. But to our way of thinking, Tracy was cool because he loved technology—that two-way wrist radio was to die for. What Tracy didn't have, only the modern age can offer—a virus watch. This tick-tock displays a lot more than the baseline functions of time, date, and alarm: There are eight different video games and the capability to send and receive "viruses" with other virus-watch wearers. But alas, fiction can prove more compelling than reality. The instructions with the watch are more complicated than those for a VCR, and although the games will help while away hours waiting in a security line at an airport, they are a lot less than challenging. Sending viruses back and forth is pretty cool, but both wearers must first activate the communication mode, which unfortunately eliminates the element of surprise. Still, there is the magic of cool here. To capture it, first leave your copy of Discover out so people know you're techno-hip, then wait for the questions about that wild watch on your wrist. Our advice is to say no more than this: "It's a virus watch."

R O G E R   C O P Y   T H A T

C-Pen 800C, C Technologies, $199.

COMPU-CRAFTS: Copy a business card with the C-Pen and then beam it into your PDA, expose your friends to a Virus watch, and get a better feeling for your desktop with Orbit's trackball that kicks back.
Notepad? Pencil? Get out of the 20th century. The C-Pen may look like a digital thermometer on steroids, but it's a handheld scanner, dictionary, translator, calendar, and address book. So what? So it uses optical character recognition to scan a business card straight into its electronic address book. Then, using its built-in infrared port, it beams it directly into your PDA or infrared-equipped computer. When you scan it over an individual word, it provides a Merriam-Webster's dictionary definition or a translation into your choice of Spanish, French, Italian, or German. Use it to write, moving it like a normal pen, and it converts the characters into electronic text. And its eight megabytes of memory allow you to store up to 3,000 scanned pages of text and 1,000 address-book contacts, all of which you can then transfer to a properly programmed PC. Of course, there's a catch. C-Pen can convert only one line of text at a time—pausing each time the pen is lifted from the page. So although it has enough memory to store a huge amount of text, scanning a lot is time consuming. But hey, you're not planning to copy the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics anyway, are you?

T O U C H Y — F E E L Y   C O M P U T I N G

Orbit 3-D Trackball, Kensington Technology Group, $39.99.

Have you ever wondered what dragging a computer icon would feel like if your mouse could convey the sensation of touch? Well, it's kind of bumpy, actually. At least it is with the Orbit 3-D trackball, which adds physical feedback to the mundane necessities of computer-screen management. Now dragging and scrolling have texture, and every brush with an icon or window border yields a bump. You can even customize the sensations, individualizing the feel of each nook and cranny of your screen. There's a treat for the eye here, too, in its snazzy design.

L E T ' S   G E T   S M A L L

Undersea Encounter Aquarium, Uncle Milton, $29.99.

Tired of pressing your face against the glass to get a real fish's-eye view of your aquarium? Try looking through the periscope of Uncle Milton's Undersea Encounter, and you'll catch great close-ups as your best tetra slithers by. The tank comes with a scope, a feeder, and a cartoonlike seascape. Not included: the fish, air pump, water conditioner, and fish food.

M O L D Y — O L D I E   M O V I E S

Intel Play QX3 Plus, Intel, $99.

MICROS: See your fish up close with an aquarium periscope, make a movie of life in the single-celled world with Intel's computer-linked optics, and take the Super GeoScope into the woods, where lenses normally don't like to go.
Intel Play takes microscopy to a whole new level with their computer microscope. A first glance at this translucent gadget reveals the inner workings of a simple microscope with stage, lights, and three levels of magnification: 10x, 60x, and 200x. But plug in the scope's easy-to-install software, and you'll soon feel as if you're in a high-tech biology lab, because these images can be transmitted to a computer screen. Focusing in on individual items in handheld mode—a watch, fingernails, newspaper print—is great, but moving the camera around can be a bit like a Blair Witch movie: dizzying and out of focus. The resolution can be quite clear if you hold the microscope still, and it really works best docked in its cradle. You can mount your own items—hair, bugs, your pet newt—in specially provided containers on the scope stage, or if you're short on specimens, the kit comes with a number of standard cross-sectional cuttings, like fern spores and a bee's wing. The software can save screen shots of individual items and create both real-time and time-lapse movies. Imagine—instead of throwing out that moldy bread, keep it under the microscope for a few days and make a movie of spreading spores. Sadly, the QX3 Plus is compatible with Windows only. Macintosh users have to settle for the ProScope, a handheld computer microscope from Scalar ($199.99). Although the ProScope is easy to install and use, and its software also allows for screen shots and movies, the basic kit offers only 50x magnification. If you're rough with your stuff, the all-weather Super GeoScope from Uncle Milton ($24.99) is sturdy enough to take into the yard.

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