Various interesting little kits have gathered at our house in the past few months. We got the cubelets beta kit from modular robotics, the littlebits kit and various bits and bobs I've been practising my soldering on.
The best thing about them all is the way they let you see inside processes - let you play around with things you might understand intellectually, but haven't fiddled with with your fingers, haven't understood at that level.
Within about 10 minutes of getting the cubelets out of the box, for instance, we'd built this robot that follows your hand around:
It's not new and surprising behaviour in a toy and it's not unbuildable with Lego or Mecanno. But there's something different and good about being able to do it so quickly, roughly and spontaneously - throwing bits together and getting behaviour out. Not following instructions or typing laboriously. That ease makes it magical and educational - you start to understand the functions of things as a builder not a thinker. (Slightly, you know, slightly - at a lego level, not at a 5-year engineering degree level, but it's a start.)
I'm sure once a huge box of cubelets with loads of different behaviours becomes properly affordable then all sorts of interesting things will emerge.
Littlebits seem even earlier in the cycle - there's a fantastic idea here, waiting for scale and economics to make it work. Right now, you can see what they're getting at, but it needs a huge box of bits for it to be properly fun. It'll be good when it's going properly though - you can imagine this sort of thing being easily buildable, just by snapping things together.
I tell you what this all feels like. It's like the weekend Ben and I went toyhacking with Alex. I suddenly got unafraid of poking around at this stuff and started thinking about what's inside.
I've been plugging leads into jacks for 30 years, for instance, and waggling them unhappily when they don't quite work. But only while building the Noise Hero did I actually examine what one looks like on the inside. And that's fundamentally changed my sense of what's going on in there. It's not a big thing, but it's something. It makes devices a little bit more comprehensible, which must be a good thing.
We're not quite at the Geocities of Things, but we're getting closer.