Dec. 13, 2012 at 6:02 PM ET
A new toy company is using Kickstarter to help fund a set of intelligent building blocks called Atoms Express Toys. They fit together like LEGO blocks, but also work as sensors, motors and wireless connectors, allowing a child to build a remote control car in a matter of minutes.
Seamless Toy Company is making Atoms, which is the brainchild of CEO and founder Michael Rosenblatt, a former MIT Media Lab member who worked at Apple. On Wednesday, Atoms Express Toys hit their $100,000 goal on Kickstarter. NBC News talked with Rosenblatt about his new endeavor.
This area of the toy world is largely dominated by LEGO's Mindstorms sets and a couple other smart-blocks products. Rosenblatt says that while what's out there is very cool and capable, it's both expensive and not really conducive to plain old play.
"There's a lot of steps when you get it out of the box — you have to install software, download stuff. It's hard for kids to pick up and run with," Rosenblatt said. "Our immediate plan for the kits was to give kids something to do right out of the box."
Indeed, the process of creating something like a robot with wheels and headlights, controlled by a tilt-sensitive remote, is accomplished in minutes rather than hours. Construction acts as a tutorial as well: Plug the wires in differently and you'll reverse the way something spins, or make a lamp that turns on in the dark rather than the light.
That's an important part of the process, Rosenblatt said. Creation and experimentation are critical to making future scientists and engineers, which is why he decided to make Atoms in the first place. And he's not the only one who thinks so.
Mitchel Resnick, a former colleague of Rosenblatt's at MIT and creator of Scratch, a programming environment for kids, agrees that "the most important thing that's needed is more opportunities for young people to design, create, and experiment," he told NBC News.
"We need people to grow up as creative thinkers. We should be developing high-tech toys that embody that same creative spirit of building blocks and modeling clay."
Instead, high-tech toys try to deliver entertainment, he said. And that doesn't just mean video games: "The key issue is not whether it's on or off the screen, it's whether the kids are in control of the experience." He cited "Minecraft" and his own Scratch project as toys or games that provided tools for creation rather than just a single experience.
Of course, kids want to be entertained as well. To that end, the first Atoms kits include pieces that form basic projects like a rolling monster or remote-control propeller, but modules can be combined with LEGO and other decorative pieces to extend their versatility. Every piece has Velcro for easy attachment, and little loops so they can be sewn onto clothing or stuffed animals. There's software available for iOS devices, and Android support is on the way.
Altogether there are 13 modules, from battery and Bluetooth blocks to motors and lights. The company focused on kid-friendly modules for the launch, but more advanced ones are on the way after the product gets out the door, likely in spring 2013.
Proximity and RFID sensors, stronger motors, fans, even a camera attachment are in the works. Building a robot you can log into from your iPad and roll around the house with could be done with a handful of blocks.
Rosenblatt says that projects like this last one, which could be enjoyed both by kids and their parents, are critical to making Atoms and Seamless Toy a success.
"There are people out there who think that starting a toy company in 2012 is like starting a record shop," he said. And indeed, from the proliferation of tablets and video games, it might seem that toys are a dwindling market. And it's true that the toy industry is shrinking — but it's also changing.
"That's why it needs to be multi-generational," Rosenblatt said. In other words, it's important that this "toy" can be made into either a spinning magic wand... or a keyless ignition system for a car. The devices are simple and open enough that such things are possible, although naturally making a remote control door lock or email-activated cat feeder takes a bit more work.
But it's a toy first and foremost, and the team looks to children for inspiration.
"It's neat to see what they want to do," said Rosenblatt, "Because they're not thinking in terms of proximity sensors — they're saying 'I want this to activate when the cat walks by.' "
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.