Raul Gutierrez, the founder of the Brooklyn-based kids app company Tinybop, worries about the effect brands are having on the way kids play. Here’s how he sees it: Today’s kids movies and TV shows are great, but as their stories seep into more and more toys, the possibilities for the imagination are constricted as a result.
Whether or not you agree with that diagnosis, it spawned a tremendously cool kids app. The Robot Factory, available for iOS devices for $3, is the first in a series Tinybop is calling “Digital Toys.” It’s just what it sounds like: an animated workshop where kids can mix and match dozens of parts to create robots of their own design, including an obstacle course-like environment where they can test their bots. It’s meant to be highly open-ended. Your robot can have two heads. You can stick legs where arms are supposed to go. The app just provides the parts. The kids supply the stories.
Designing for Imagination
Gutierrez first noticed the brand thing with Lego. Compared to the more generic kits he played with as a youngster, the branded sets his sons were clamoring for seemed to have a more definitive end point. They encouraged kids to build toward the brand-name thing on the box, and since that brand-name thing is what got his kids excited about the set in the first place, there was less of a suggestion that the pieces inside could in fact be used to make, well, anything.
“I don’t mean to just pick on Lego,” Gutierrez adds. “It’s happening all over the place, with physical toys and with digital toys. That play pattern, of having a set of parts, creating something that is the product of your imagination, and then repeating it—changing it, testing it, and starting over again—is really lost.”
Robot Factory is built entirely around that play pattern. There’s no agenda. There are no levels. There’s no story and no real point system. It’s more like a set of digital Tinker Toys, just focused on the world of robots.
You can stick five pogo stick legs outward in all directions like spokes on a wheel. You can do whatever.
The app divvies robot parts up into a handful of categories. There are assorted bodies, arms, legs, heads, and other robot miscellany (antenna, claw, floating brain in tank). Within the legs bucket, say, you can choose from tank treads, pogo sticks, spider-type legs and more. Everything can be mixed and matched. You can put a pogo stick where the legs are supposed to go. Or you can stick it on the robot’s side, or on its head. You can stick five pogo stick legs outward in all directions like spokes on a wheel. You can do whatever. The app was illustrated by British artist Owen Davey, and the robots themselves trend more toward old-school Japanese monster movies and pulpy sci-fi book covers than Terminator and Transformers.
The Joy of Physics
What makes the creative freedom of the workshop really fun is that you can test out your creations afterward. All of Tinybop’s apps—which include beautiful interactive books on subjects like anatomy and biomes, to name a few—are built around dynamic, physics-based animation. This one’s no exception. Every piece in the robot kit works differently, imbued with its own unique physics. One leg will have a different weight and motion than the next. In some instances, parts behave differently when they’re combined with certain other parts. My pogo stick bot bounded over blocks and plants. A little diminutive tank-like one I made got stuck straight away.
Realistic physics makes bot-testing fun. Tinybop
This is a “meaty engineering challenge,” Gutierrez says, especially when you don’t know what kids are going to make. “What we see is that, normally, a kid will start out and build these very conventional, symmetrical robots. Two arms, two legs, a head. And then very quickly, when they get to their tenth or twentieth robot, they start making these really wild creations.” For this reason, Gutierrez says, many robot-building apps out there just cheat. They have flying robots instead of walking ones. “With flying, you can just scroll the background. You don’t have to show the physics of how it walks,” he says.
For Tinybop, though, the laboriously engineered physics engine is the whole point. Frame-based animation can be beautiful, but it’s inherently repetitive, Gutierrez says. “We think that something becomes really sticky for kids is when they feel they have control over the animation.” I’m not a kid, but I can see what they mean. With the Robot Factory, there’s a real feeling that you’re driving the action, and a sense that you could very well build something the app’s creators had never imagined possible themselves.
Tinybop, which is based in Brooklyn, plans to add to the app in months to come: both more parts for kids to build with and more behaviors for the bots, including dancing and high-fiving. But one thing you won’t ever see added: baddies to engage in robo-battle.
“I think the more gamified it becomes, the more limited it is as a something you come back to over time,” Gutierrez says. “The adult mindset is, ‘what’s the game; how do I get to the next level; how do I win?’ Kids have a very different way of looking at the world. It’s like, ‘I built this thing, I want to see how it works. Let me tinker with it and then build another one.'”