Holiday wish lists line the pockets of shoppers and fill the email boxes of many at this time of year. The toy industry has created so many wonderful products that have benefited society in countless ways, yet I still feel blessed to have our work considered a ‘gift’.
Today, many of these gifts – or toys and games, are making a vital difference in the lives of children and adults beyond social interaction, education, and skills development. Today’s play products have the power to actually change lives. Extending far beyond the traditional toy aisles and stores, migrating into new categories and unexpected markets, these playthings are impacting science and engineering, the military, fashion, and furniture to name a few. Multiple industries are experiencing the economic, research, and category broadening benefits from toys. On a larger scale, toys are enhancing the lives of villagers in developing countries; teaching kids to innovate; providing therapeutic benefits, and yes, even saving lives.
Following, are just a few examples of some play products that are revolutionizing industries and providing vast benefits to society:
A Real Power Ball
Tossing or kicking a ball around is one of the most fundamental play activities a child can engage in, but how can a simple ball make a difference to humanity? Two women from Harvard, Jessica Matthews and Julia Silverman, answered that question after they were inspired to take an engineering course and ended up creating a soccer ball that would help change the lives of thousands around the world.
The ball or sOccket, doubles as an eco-friendly portable generator and when tossed, thrown, or kicked around, an internal mechanism rolls with it. The mechanism turns a motor which then powers a battery. By plugging an adaptor into the soccer ball you access the stored energy which can then be used to power an LED light, charge a cell phone, sterilize water, run a fan, and or heat a hot plate. A major benefit of the sOccket is that it provides an immediate, portable energy source for those living in developing countries.
The two women combined their observations of children at play, the universal appeal of soccer, and the need to provide developing countries with safe, sustainable energy sources into a play product that’s making a tangible difference. The energy stored from playing with a sOccket ball for 30 minutes is enough to power a light for three hours. This has helped to reduce dependency on kerosene which gives off harmful fumes. The safe energy source provided by a sOccket not only provides power but also protects the environment and people.
Soccket has already won numerous innovation awards and has been praised by the Clinton Global Initiative. There are future plans to offer a high-end version of the ball in the US and UK. (http://us.soccket.org/)
Do-It-Yourself Medical Kits
If creating a clean energy source is not impressive enough, toys, or rather toy 'parts' are also being used to create affordable medical devices in developing countries and the United States.
Jose Gomez-Marquez is Program Director for the Innovations for International Health Group at MIT and works with the Little Devices Lab where he conducts experimentation for creating affordable medical devices…using toy parts. Marquez has created Do-It-Yourself medical kits called Medikits which look very much like a briefcase full of gadgety Legos and are used by doctors and nurses in developing countries to help save lives.
These erector sets of inexpensive medical technologies consist of construction block-like pieces, each with a different feature. By connecting the pieces in different configurations one is able to create whatever medical device is needed. By hacking toys and using the various parts, Marquez has created alarms that alert nurses when an IV is empty, foot-powered nebulizers, blood and cholesterol testing devices and more.
Marquez enthusiastically frequents toy stores where he says he hunts for low-cost, well-engineered “mechanical bits and pieces.” If there is no immediate need for a toy part, he keeps it as inspiration for future projects. He also teaches nurses and doctors in the field how to harvest toy components so they can create their own life-saving devices. One team of nurses visited a toy store and ended up using the parts of a toy gun as a way to create a medicine dispensing device with an attached toy alarm.
He admits, “It’s a little renegade. But we’ve learned that if you don’t make someone uncomfortable in what you’re doing, it’s probably not that innovative to begin with.” (http://littledevices.org/)
Teaching Science & Technology
With a desire to bring the fundamentals of science and technology to everyone, Ayah Bdeir an engineer, embarked on a journey to create an electronic module construction toy building system. What Bdeir created was littleBits; an elegant, creative blending of art, science, and technology designed to provide individuals with the tools to experiment, create, and invent their own toys.
The innovative building pieces are preassembled electronic modules each designed with a specific pre-engineered function: light, sound, sensors, and motors. Each piece is color coded to represent the specific functions (green= output, blue= power, pink= input, orange= wire) and each has a magnetic connection on the right side of the piece. The idea is to connect the pieces in different combinations to produce different results. For example, connecting two components may produce a light-up effect. When another piece is added or tweaked, a blinking light is activated. Through further experimentation the light can blink faster or slower, sound can be added or even motion.
LittleBits was originally intended for adults, but after a few demonstrations Bdeir discovered that children were fascinated by bringing their imaginations to life through this creative building system. (http://littlebits.cc/)
In tomorrow's post, I'll share some examples of how toys and games are providing physical comfort and actually saving lives.