Technology Will Save Us is a UK-based startup that wants to teach kids not to be scared of — you guessed it — technology. The company makes hardware kits for children to assemble into basic devices, and has now unveiled its first "DIY wearable," the Mover, which launches on Kickstarter today. Early-bird prices start at $45, but Technology Will Save Us (TWSU) says the Mover will retail for somewhere below $65.
When fully assembled, the Mover resembles a bicycle bell made out of plastic. Inside, there’s a pair of circuit boards with components including an accelerometer and magnetometer. Underneath the transparent housing, there’s a ring of LEDs that light up in a rainbow of colors. The idea is that kids will take these basic elements and mix them together to create their own uses for the Mover, programming it using TWSU’s coding software to create anything from a headlamp to a police car’s lights to a toothbrush timer to Iron Man’s Arc Reactor.
"by putting it in a new context, it’ll have a new meaning."
"It becomes part of how they express themselves," Aaron Johnston, TWSU head of product told The Verge. "It comes with attachments, like a snap-band and a lanyard. You’ll be able to put it on your bike, on your dog, or your backpack. And by putting it in a new context, it’ll have a new meaning."
Kids program the Mover using TWSU’s block-based programming language — similar to educational favorite Scratch. You drag and drop logical functions and outcomes into place like they’re parts of a sentence, programming in a command like, "If the Mover is being shaken for two minutes straight, light up in this way," with just a few clicks of a mouse. The LEDs are also fully customizable, in both patterns and colors.
It might sound a bit daunting and so to help kids along, TWSU has an online portal for tutorials and challenges. The site Make was launched two months ago and is run in partnership with the BBC, incorporating the broadcaster’s programmable microcomputer, the Micro Bit, which TWSU designed. Children can visit the website to look up tutorials, and TWSU promises projects will be released on a regular basis.
"Our challenge one week might be to celebrate the Olympics," says TWSU CEO and co-founder Bethany Koby. "Or — my favorite — to write your name in lights." She adds that the primary goal for the Mover is to encourage children to discover things on their own, but obviously it doesn’t hurt to suggest a few places to start. "We think kids are best when they’re playing and inventing," Koby tells The Verge.
TWSU worked with more than 300 children to prototype the Mover kit
She adds that TWSU tested the Mover kit with more than 300 children, prototyping their design by bringing it into homes and schools in the UK. "We started with the kids," says Johnston. "And we worked with them in environments where parents aren’t necessarily looking over their shoulder."
But while the company’s enthusiasm and sincerity for this sort of cooperative design process is obvious, it’s hard to say whether the Mover will be a hit with all children. The design, for example, is simplistic bordering on the opaque. You hit a central button to switch between different modes, but there’s no way of checking what functionality has been programmed into the device without plugging it into a computer.
Similarly, there are some obvious components that are missing — like a Bluetooth connection to transmit data and instructions to and from a smartphone. TWSU says this was left out partly because of cost, and partly because it would turn the Mover into too much of a practical device.
"It’s not a smartwatch, it’s not a tracker, and it’s not about data," says Koby. "Kids don’t want Fitbits because they give a shit about the number of steps they’re taking, they want them because they’re cool accessories with tech in them." She says the Mover gives kids the cool tech, but doesn’t ask anything of them. Kids shouldn’t be like adults, worrying they’re not getting enough exercise, says Koby, they should be just free to play.
It’s a reasonable argument, but it’s difficult — impossible, even — to say what appeals to all children. Surely some kids would want a Bluetooth connection to fiddle around with; surely some kids are pretty interested in data, and might be disappointed that their new wearable doesn’t record any more precise metrics? The answer to these criticisms is that like any toy, the Mover isn’t going to please all kids, at least not without some healthy prodding from parents. But it should still delight more than a few.
chunky and pleasingly destructible
I tried my hands on a prototype Mover in TWSU’s offices in northeast London. It feels chunky and pleasingly destructible — you can take it apart just by unclipping a plastic band. Essentially, it doesn’t feel like the sort of object you need to be precious with. The first time that the LEDs light up in a spiral of colors gives even the adults in the room a feeling of curiosity and excitement ("It’s like a gateway drug," says Koby), and the software interface TWSU has built is simple enough that an adult could use it. Kids will probably find it even easier.
TWSU, on the other hand, is genuinely interested in making a fun thing, first and foremost, and just incidentally introducing kids to the idea of programmable tech along the way. Given its limitations, I do wonder if the Mover will be enough to hold a child’s interest for longer than a week or two, but maybe that’s enough time to spark something.