Hands-on with the 3Doodler Start, a 3D pen for kids

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The 3Doodler Start is a 3D pen from WobbleWorks designed specifically for kids(Credit: Simon Crisp/Gizmag)

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So far it's mostly been adults who've had the fun of using 3D pens, which is ironic given how drawing in mid-air can release your inner doodling child. However, the 3Doodler Start is a 3D pen from WobbleWorks designed specifically for kids. It uses a new eco-plastic, features no hot parts, and is compliant with toy safety standards. We recently got to play with one ahead of its launch.

We've been fans of the 3Doodler 3D pen since it was first announced, and then gained accessories and a sleeker follow-up. But these pens, along with others which melt and extrude strands of plastic, aren't really suitable for children. This is a shame given the fun they would have with them, but the heat the devices run at could easily mean that in little inexperienced hands, it could result in a trip to hospital.

Though more child-friendly 3D pens like the CreoPop and Polyes Q1 use gel inks that harden thanks to built-in UV or LED lights, there's something about them which doesn't excite us in the same way as devices like the 3Doodler. That goes double for many of the "3D printing kits" for kids, with their gel inks and separate UV flashlights, currently being sold in toy stores.

Luckily, WobbleWorks has heard the call of children who want that draw-in-the-air experience and has taken what it's learnt from selling more than 400,000 3D pens, to make one which is safe and simple for kids to use. Like the grown-up models, the US$40 3Doodler Start melts and extrudes plastic as you draw with it, but a number of important changes have been made to make this one much more suitable for younger users.

Before we got to play with the 3Doodler Start, WobbleWorks co-founder Maxwell Bogue told us that key to developing it was the creation of a new eco-plastic which melts at a considerably lower temperature than that used in the adult 3Doodler, less than a third of that of ABS and PLA. "We're really proud and excited by this material," said Bogue of the environmentally friendly eco-plastic which is also fully biodegradable in household composters.

"It takes around three to five seconds to harden initially, but it's still bendable like wire for up to 20 seconds afterward," he added. "The materials that compose it are all food-grade materials, so it's safe. You could swallow it and it will go through your digestive system, there's no kind of side effect or anything."

This was all well and good, but we wanted to know what it was like to use. The first thing we noticed was that the 3Doodler Start is considerably chunkier than the 3Doodler 2.0, but all was forgiven when we realized this is because it's finally wireless. The battery is said to be good for 45 minutes to an hour on a full charge, which is undertaken via micro USB, and can also be used to keep the juice flowing while you use the pen.

In addition to the size and lack of wires, the simplicity of the blue and orange 3Doodler Start should make it easier for younger users to get to grips with. A single button is used for controlling the pen, and with a single temperature and single speed, there are no settings to get bogged down with. One click and the pen starts to extrude the plastic, another and it stops, a double click reverses the plastic.

It's so simple to use that the most difficult thing is waiting the 40 seconds it takes from inserting a strand of plastic and turning it on, to it warming up and being ready to draw. Straight away we were able to start drawing shapes and patterns flat on the table, and up in the air (which never stops being fun). We then realized we could also draw directly on our hands, with the low temperature of the plastic and no hot parts (even the nozzle) meaning you and importantly, children, won't get burned.

Measuring 138 x 35 x 41 mm (5.4 x 1.4 x 1.6 in) and weighing 91 g (3.2 oz) the pen is reported to be ergonomically designed for smaller hands. That said, it felt perfectly fine for us older folks to use too, and parents who buy this for their kids will almost certainly be breaking it out after bedtime and doodling creations themselves. It's also impressively simple to get the hang of … then again, as it's aimed at children from 8-years-old, it would have been a bit of a worry if we'd struggled.

In terms of the eco-plastic, it appears to have a strength and finish similar to ABS, but has more give in it. This makes it good for creating doodles and structures which can bend and flex a bit. However the bright and vibrant colors, which are sure to appeal to kids, are more PLA-like. It feels mildly warm to the touch as it comes out of the pen, and users will be pleased to know there's no burning plastic smell.

While we didn't have the time to get overly creative with the 3Doodler Start, there were lots of made-earlier examples of what it can do. This was the usual assortment of architectural icons, and drawn toys which included an articulated robot, and a little triceratops. There was also a phone case which had been drawn straight onto a smartphone, and a bowl which had been made by drawing onto a glass.

The 3Doodler Start will ship with a project book full of ideas for kids to create. "What we've tried to do is remove any barrier between the kid owning the pen and making cool things with it, so when you buy the pen set you also get a project book with 12 projects in, so different stencils and step-by-step projects from simple to complex," WobbleWorks co-founder Daniel Cowen told us, adding that there are also hundreds of other free projects online.

Another great addition which makes the 3Doodler Start suitable for younger would-be creators are DoodleBlocks. These are silicone-like mold blocks with patterns in them. The idea is that this is even easier for a child to draw into with the 3D pen and then pop them out. The designs can then be used to create items including bracelets, cars and puzzle pieces.

Kids should also be pleased with the color options of the eco-plastic, which comes in packets of 24 strand pieces for $5. There will initially be 15 colors available along with a glow in the dark version. Other uses of the plastic include the ability to draw on clothes and know it will not leave mark, and transfer images or text from printed paper much like a heat transfer.

From our brief hands-on with the 3Doodler Start we can imagine it being a real hit with kids in the target age range. They are typically less fussy than many adults about the rough-around-the-edges results you're always going to have with a hand-held 3D pen. It will let them augment and even fix existing toys as well as creating their own object.

"We've been testing this with 8, 9, 10, 11, 12-year-olds, and the reaction has been phenomenal," said Cowen. "They are saying 'this will bring my imagination to life,' with comparisons to Minecraft and Lego. Kids will do things that we would never imagine, and that's what I am excited about. They are unencumbered by design in the way we are, they are going to come up with concepts and designs that are just going to blow our minds."

The 3Doodler Start is available for pre-order now at an introductory price of $40 with two packs of eco-plastic, the project book and a micro USB cable. Meanwhile $80 will get you the pen, eight packs of eco-plastic, and eight DoodleBlocks. A top-up bundle of six packs of eco-plastic will cost $20. It's all expected to start shipping in May.

You can check out a promo video for the 3Doodler Start below.

Product page: 3Doodler Start

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