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tons of ideas for little builders – TechCrunch

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The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13


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Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+


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Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+


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Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts
Age: 6+


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After 16 years of freeware, Dwarf Fortress creators get their $7M payday

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Enlarge / The quirky work of two brothers’ lives has found a wider audience on Steam and Itchi.io, and now they have some breathing room.

Bay 12 Games

The month before Dwarf Fortress was released on Steam (and Itch.io), the brothers Zach and Tarn Adams made $15,635 in revenue, mostly from donations for their 16-year freeware project. The month after the game’s commercial debut, they made $7,230,123, or 462 times that amount.

“The fairytale ending is reality, but you didn’t kiss the toad,” Zach Adams wrote on Bay 12 Games’ forums. “You gave him money.” He went on to write the kind of grateful response to fans you don’t often see from game developers:

The appreciation you give us is part of our being now. It carries us in the cars we drive. It sustains us as the food that we eat. There is now no longer any existence except the one that you have provided. When we pass from this world, you will be the reason we are remembered.

Tarn Adams noted that “a little less than half will go to taxes,” and that other people and expenses must be paid. But enough of it will reach the brothers themselves that “we’ve solved the main issues of health/retirement that are troubling for independent people.” It also means that Putnam, a longtime modder and scripter and community member, can continue their work on the Dwarf Fortress code base, having been hired in December.

The “issues of health/retirement” became very real to the brothers in 2019 when Zach had to seek treatment for skin cancer. The $10,000 cost, mostly covered through his wife’s employer-provided insurance, made them realize the need for more robust sustainability. “You’re not just going to run GoFundMes until you can’t and then die when you’re 50,” Tarn told The Guardian in late 2022. “That is not cool.” This realization pushed them toward a (relatively) more accessible commercial release with traditional graphics, music, and tutorials.

As of today, Dwarf Fortress’ Steam page summarizes the game’s more than 17,000 reviews as “Overwhelmingly Positive.” “I am speechless to people around me between game sessions,” wrote jozef.sova. “Had my Chief Militia Commander tackle a Giant Cyclops over a waterfall ravine 10 stories killing it at the bottom,” wrote DEV. “Guy couldn’t get out and he drowned, may he never be forgotten.”

While the commercial release of Dwarf Fortress has earned the brothers some breathing room and introduced new players with some quality-of-life offerings, the “classic” version—the one Ars editor Casey Johnston detailed over her 10-hour ordeal—is still free to download.

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PS5 owners won’t get this set of free PS4 games for much longer

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Enlarge / A look at the games available in the PlayStation Plus Collection, which will no longer be offered to PS5 subscribers as of May.

For over two years now, PlayStation Plus subscribers who owned a PS5 got access to the PlayStation Plus Collection, a set of 19 legacy PS4 games available for free download and play via the console’s backward compatibility. This week, Sony announced that it will be ending this subscriber benefit in May. Current PS5 owners will have until then to redeem their free games, which will remain available on their account as long as they stay subscribed to any of PlayStation Plus’ multiple tiers.

Hundreds of legacy PS4 games are still available for download as part of the higher-end PlayStation Plus “Extra” and “Premium” tiers (starting at $14.99/month or $99.99/year). That list includes many of the titles that were part of the PlayStation Plus Collection, including almost all of Sony’s first-party titles. But the PlayStation Plus Collection was also available at the cheapest “Essential” pricing tier ($9.99/month or $59.99/year).

The PlayStation Plus Collection served as a valuable introduction to legacy PlayStation franchises for PS5 owners who never owned a PS4. Sony said in an earnings release last night that such users made up a full 30 percent of the PS5’s monthly active users, suggesting that “the acquisition of new users is progressing,” as the company put it. Players who did upgrade from a PS4 to a PS5, meanwhile, are spending significantly more time and money on the new console on average, according to Sony.

The sunsetting of the PlayStation Plus Collection comes as Sony promises that long-standing retail shortages of PS5 hardware should be easing thanks to increasing supplies and despite “unprecedented demand.” PlayStation Plus currently boasts 46.4 million subscribers across all consoles, Sony said, a number that has remained essentially flat over the last two years.

Microsoft, meanwhile, announced that it had reached 25 million Game Pass subscribers last January, and Sony publicly estimated that number had grown to 29 million by November. Both those subscriber numbers are up significantly from the 18 million Game Pass subscribers Microsoft claimed in early 2021, though that subscriber growth is reportedly well behind Microsoft’s targets.

Subscription numbers for both console subscription services might be hitting a saturation point, though. As Xbox CEO Phil Spencer said in remarks last October, “at some point, you’ve reached everybody on console that wants to subscribe.”

Here’s the full list of the PlayStation Plus Collection games that will be departing in May (games still available on the Extra/Premium tier are noted with a *):

  • Batman: Arkham Knight*
  • Battlefield 1
  • Bloodborne*
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
  • Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy
  • Days Gone*
  • Detroit: Become Human*
  • Fallout 4*
  • Final Fantasy XV*
  • God of War*
  • Infamous Second Son*
  • Monster Hunter World
  • Mortal Kombat X
  • Ratchet and Clank
  • Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
  • The Last Guardian*
  • The Last of Us Remastered
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End*
  • Until Dawn*
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Unofficial Link to the Past PC port is a reverse-engineered gem

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Enlarge / Among the many upgrades made possible by this project, A Link to the Past is now a game you can Alt+Tab out of when a supervisor comes near.

Nintendo / Kevin Purdy

It’s a sad reality among retro emulation enthusiasts: You often spend far more time crafting your perfect setup than playing the games. You get your controller, linear filtering, sound engine, and everything else just right, and then you discover that your favorite game of yesteryear is far slower and more annoying than you remember.

That’s why the hard work of reverse engineers is so valuable. Hobbyist decompilers have worked to turn ROM binaries into thousands of lines of human-readable code, allowing for far deeper audiovisual upgrades, features, and other tweaks. It’s resulted in some impressive new takes on games, including Ocarina of Time, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Grand Theft Auto. And unlike many fan-based projects, reverse engineering generally passes legal muster as long as no copyrighted assets are distributed along with the decompiled code.

And they often far outshine game publishers’ official offerings, which usually amount to little more than officially licensed, lightly tweaked emulation.

Now you can add The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past to the list of classic games reverse-engineered and made great in modern times (first spotted by Neowin). I got the game working on a Windows PC (there are instructions for Mac, Linux, and homebrew-enabled Switches, too). It took about 10 minutes of reading the instructions, futzing with Python and adding a few files—including the extraction of assets from a personal backup copy of the original game.

Side-by-side comparison of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past running next to Snesrev’s reconstructed port.

What resulted was a version of one of the foundational games of my childhood that I’m far more likely to play again. The game fits my modern, high-resolution monitor, and has options for alternate, higher-fidelity music (via drop-in MSU files). It looks mostly the same, though it plays far more quickly and smoothly, without the frame-rate drops and long scene transitions I remember. I’ve enabled several quality-of-life upgrades: fast item switching, breaking pots with a sword, turning off the low-health beep, and some other small fixes. You can go further by messing with all kinds of settings in an .ini file.

For me, this represents an agreeable compromise between nostalgia and modern realities. You can play A Link to the Past with nothing but support for your modern system and screen. Or you can tweak many little things that might irk you and swap out Link’s sprite for Zelda, Hello Kitty, or others. Either way, you’re playing the original game, freed from the limitations of its original hardware, but not significantly altered in any real way.

Less noticeable a feature, but just as remarkable, is this port’s deep fidelity to the original. You can run Snesrev’s version in a way that shows the original machine code version running side by side with their C implementation, with the RAM state compared between each frame by frame, to ensure you’re playing, at a fundamental level, the same game.

Somehow it’s not surprising that this thoughtful rework of a classic game comes not from the copyright holder Nintendo, but from a group of volunteers working diligently to understand what made the original game work and streamline it.

From talking to contributors in their Discord, I gleaned that the disassembly work (from binary to assembly code) came from Spannerisms. Moving the assembly to nearly 80,000 lines of C and creating a playable product, was Snesrev. FitzRoyX cleaned up bugs from the original game, xander-haj maintained the wiki and added item features and sprite swaps. Xander-haj noted that other ports forked from the Snesrev project, including Xbox One and PlayStation Vita.

While projects based on a Nintendo property are often killed by legal threats just as they come to attention, this reverse-engineered project, which specifically makes no use of any original game assets, has a good chance of staying alive. Reverse-engineered code for Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City remains online after Github agreed to a Digital Millennium Copyright Act counterclaim. Courts have previously struck down reverse-engineering-based projects based on end-user license agreements (EULAs). But fully decoupled projects from the likes of the Zelda Reverse Engineering Team march on, giving hope that even more games get their shot at modern tuning.

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