Michael Rosenblatt is founder and CEO of Seamless Toy Company, maker of ATOMS, an electronics construction kit for kids (and adults). He wrote a piece for MAKE about the challenges of making an easy-to-use electronics kit that doesn't hide how electronics works.
Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great team to design a new electronics construction set called ATOMS. The design goal for ATOMS was to create a plug-and-play construction set that required no experience in electronics or programming. We designed ATOMS to be simple enough for a 5-year-old, and powerful enough for a professional — which means that making table-top creations isn’t enough. You have to be able to build “real” things with it — like a cake with motorized elements, or a nightlight that you can switch remotely with a the shake of a “magic” wand. We designed ATOMS to enable more people to make great things, and particularly with kids, we hope ATOMS will seed a curiosity for how things work.
However, there is an inherent contradiction in these goals — tools that help users extend their capabilities almost always abstract away the true nature of how things work. ATOMS is no exception, and that leads to a number of design decisions we struggle with on a regular basis. We want ATOMS to both empower users, but also be transparent, and oftentimes those objectives are at odds.
On our recent summer family holiday, I stopped in at The California Academy of Sciences, a beautiful science museum and research facility in San Francisco. In the gift shop, I grabbed a MetalWorks laser-cut trolley-car kit. MetalWorks are 11cm square sheets of tin, laser-cut and laser-etched to come apart into pieces ready to assemble into models of famous buildings, iconic vehicles, and other landmarks. I cleverly threw away the packaging (including the instructions) when we packed for home, but as I just discovered when I sat down to assemble the model, the company is smart enough to post PDFs of their instruction sheets. The model was just the right amount of challenging for me -- the kind of thing I could do in 20 minutes with a pair of tweezers while carrying on a pleasant conversation, and the finished product is a pretty cool-looking model indeed.