MIKE PESCA, host:
Now right after Christmas, most kids go into a toy coma, rocking back and forth, muttering Xbox, G.I. Joe with the Kung-fu grip, Barbie.
And now that it's a week after Christmas, the senses have returned, favorite toys have been chosen, and inevitably, those weird toys sent over by Aunt Sarah who thinks the Canadians are out to get her, they're the ones that are piling up. So here's what a parent can do: Take out a screwdriver, a set of pliers, some electrical tape, and get to hacking. Toy hacking is when you break into the brain of an electrical toy and make it do things when its manufacturer or and Aunt Sarah - perhaps God and nature - never intended.
But Massimo Banzi has figured it out. Hi, Massimo.
Prof. MASSIMO BANZI (Founder, Tinker.it): Hello.
PESCA: So you're a toy hacker?
Prof. BANZI: Well, yes. Mostly I'm a professor, and I teach in design schools, and I use these toy hacking as a way to get students to play with technology with, you know, without being afraid about technology. Because these people mostly don't have any technology background. They don't know anything about electricity. So hacking cheap toys is a good way to get…
PESCA: Toys are approachable, much, much more so than, say, a motherboard of a computer.
Prof. BANZI: Oh, totally, yes. It's the…
PESCA: So what kind of toys - what kind of hacks do you do? Describe an interesting one.
Prof. BANZI: Okay. First, normally, we work with very cheap toys, so they don't - they're not afraid to take them apart because they're not so expensive. But we normally use electronic toys that have some sensing abilities. So, for example, we do a lot of experiment based on these cats that basically make sounds when you touch them. So we use them as a way and to perceive the human touch. And then maybe we get students to wire them up to a remote control car, so when you clap your hands or you stroke the cat, then the remote control car starts to move around.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ALISON STEWART, host:
Prof. BANZI: And - yeah. I mean, he's just a way to teach them about bits of science without the boring part. You know, because when I started teaching, I was teaching, like, classic electrical engineering…
Prof. BANZI: …and all my students started to fall asleep. So I started to figure out how do I do it? And I then I realized when I was a kid, I used to take apart everything that people would bring to my house.
PESCA: Toys were the gateway. Has any toy company's ever gotten an idea from some of the hacks you've done, to your knowledge?
Prof. BANZI: No, I don't think so. But I'm - there's other people in the world that kind of do these kind of things. And I'm sure that they have re-purposed some toys in the way that some companies have thought, hmm, good idea.
PESCA: Is it technically legal what you're doing?
Prof. BANZI: Yes. Yes. No, there's no - no, it's not like you're taking a satellite TV recorder and make it receive channels you're not suppose to.
PESCA: Right. And you're not selling it as something else. You're doing it as an instructional tool.
Prof. BANZI: Yes. Mostly it's to learn about technology. And also, I think it's important for people to understand that if you're not happy about the product, you should be able to learn and kind of make it do things that you like.
STEWART: What's the most inventive thing one of your students has come up with when you thought, okay, this kid is either brilliant, or we should watch him at all times?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. BANZI: Well, it's kind of difficult to describe here just by voice, but it's interesting how some of them are able to recycle the plastic bits from one toy and the electronics from another one to just making a completely new game. And that's something really nice, because it shows that this person is able to kind of grasp, you know, these kind of elements of design and make an object from other parts. And that's quite exciting. And then I have to say that most of the projects are kind of silly in a way, you know, because, you know, people make weird musical instruments by using the cats as kind of note generators.
Or they make these weird kind of dolls that you have, maybe, have seen on the pictures, but, you know, that they make this kind of robotized dolls. But it's just a way to kind of lose the, you know, the fear of playing with technology.
PESCA: Yeah, really get them into it. Now when you say see it on the pictures, you're the chief technology officer of Tinker.it. So that's a Web site that you have. Aside from enrolling your school in Milan, what other ways can people be exposed to some of the hacks that you've set up and can teach them about?
Prof. BANZI: Well, in general, there is this magazine in the U.S. called MAKE magazine, that kind of pushes people to kind of hack things in a positive way. So when I use the word hack, I intend, you know, repurpose things in a nice way. So that is a place where you can find a lot of this kind of information, and they cover a lot of the work that we do. And also, there's a booklet that you can find online if you Google for low-tech sensors and actuators that has a lot of recipes that nicely kind of described with drawings and how to do these basic hacks.
PESCA: Have you seen any toys in the marketplace that just impressed you as someone who really gets it? Someone - a toy that really uses all the aspects of the technology that are available?
Prof. BANZI: Well, there was - that's a very nice train set that I saw in England, where, you know, you have these little cards. And each card contains a little behavior. So you put it on the reader, and that changes the way the train behaves. And it's very nice because it teaches kids, essentially, about programming in a very, very basic way, and makes - each one of these cars also contains like a little sound. So on top of (unintelligible) behavior, it also makes a the whole thing sound - and it's kind of - it's also quite cheap. So we hacked it quite heavily, because there's a lot of cool stuff.
STEWART: You have to be predisposed - obviously, you're teaching a course in this, so people have already come to you in a certain amount of information. But if I just got a tool kit at home and my kid's, whatever, See 'n Say is driving me crazy. Can an average person do this?
Prof. BANZI: Yes. I mean, most of, you know, most of the people that come to this workshop are people who don't have any background in technology or electronics, so they just like to take these apart, figure out how they work. And if they can figure out how to change the behavior and do something else, they're very happy about it.
PESCA: Well, every Italian I know gets his start with figuring out the motors of a Fiat, which are usually breaking down.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. BANZI: It's a difficult job, to figure out a Fiat.
PESCA: You guys are in a cultural advantage by us. Yes. Massimo Banzi's the founder and chief technology officer of Tinker.it, and he'll be teaching a Toy Hacking workshop in London this month.
Thanks very much, Massimo.
STEWART: Nice to meet you.
Prof. BANZI: Thank you.
STEWART: Travel writer Chuck Thompson is here with the truth, darn it, about travel writing.
This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.