Meccano is one of those toys with a very strong nostalgia element, involving memories of hours spent bolting together a toy wheelbarrow or a coffee table-size Forth Bridge. But 21st century kids relate more to smartphones than traveling cranes, so Meccano has come up with its Meccanoid G15 KS – a kit robot that can be programmed using motion capture.
First marketed in 1901, Meccano wasn't so much a toy when it started out as a prototyping system aimed at kids. It was a mechanical construction set based on standardized engineering parts with which children could build everything from a simple car to a mechanical analog computer, if they were inventive enough and bought a large enough kit.
Meccano was intended as an educational toy that taught basic engineering principles, problem-solving, manual dexterity, and had the goal of producing the next generation of engineers. It must have got something right, because in its heyday it was a rare university engineering department that didn't have at least one project on the bench that wasn't a Meccano lash-up.
In recent years, Meccano has passed through several owners and has been less about general kits than building specific projects, such as a specific car or an airplane, but the Meccanoid G15 KS moves out of the toy corn thresher league and into open source robotic building platforms. In many ways, it's a return to the more general, innovative kit days, but wrapped in a specific product.
Aimed at ages 5 to 14, the emphasis is on simplicity and ease of use. The kit even comes with ergonomic tools and "user-friendly instructions," which is a bit of shock for those of us who remember the basic spanners and instructions with deliberate errors included to encourage problem-solving.
In its basic construction, the Meccanoid G15 KS has a movable head and arms, motorized feet for rolling about, and LED eyes with over 500 colors available. It uses large polygonal, grid-like, high-impact polycarbonate construction plates, which seems a bit of a deviation from the old girders and symmetrical metal plates, but Meccano says that the new parts are compatible with classic Meccano – opening up unlimited design possibilities.
But what makes the Meccanoid really stand out is its programmability. Meccano says that no experience is needed to teach the robot once assembled, because its "Mecca Brain" has three programming modes. It can be taught by means of a "ragdoll avatar" app from a tablet or smartphone, or it can be programmed using Learned Intelligent Movement (LIM) – this means that you can move the head and arms, and the robot will follow suit, even repeating what's said to it. And finally, there's motion capture, where the Meccanoid mimics your movements using the camera of a smartphone mounted in its chest.
According to Meccano, the Meccanoid responds to over 100 pre-programmed voice commands and can learn more. It knows thousands of phrases, tells jokes, knows fun facts, asks questions, starts conversations, plays games, and can remember names and birthdays. In addition, it has 12 interactive modes and adapts to its environment.
The Meccano Meccanoid G15 KS comes with 64Mb flash memory with updatable firmware, Bluetooth connectivity, a rechargeable Ni-MH battery, dual 6-amp motor drivers, and eight servo motors with bidirectional communication.
It goes on sale in August for US$399, and is introduced in the following video.