Electronic waste is a huge global problem, and its often devastating impact on our environment is not going to lessen any time soon – in fact, it's predicted to get worse. Faced with a panorama of mountainous e-waste when passing an immense landfill site in suburban Phnom Penh, Cambodia and seeing young children working there instead of going to school, a researcher at Keio-NUS CUTE Center and Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore came up with a novel idea to help tackle both issues. His plan involves creating simple and cheap-to-produce edutainment kit modules that could be shipped out to those unfortunate areas of the world where e-waste is transported for disposal, where they would be paired up with discarded but functional tech such as PS/2 keyboards and mice, speakers and old CRT monitors.

Dhairya Dand has so far created four ThinkerToys prototype kit modules with the ever-versatile Arduino computer as a platform, added custom chips, authored some code, and fitted kit-specific components like a serial LCD screen, speaker, and VS1053B MP3 decoder. He told us that the project is still very much in the early stages of development, with the final goal being "production quality custom hardware that can go out and be used as toys for kids in the developing world, especially starting with kids who work and live near landfills."

The Keyano module features a small speaker, and maps each of the keys of a connected PS/2 computer keyboard to a different sound. RandoMath sports an LED screen that flashes mathematical puzzles which are answered using the keyboard. An old pair of headphones or earphones, or some working speakers are all you need to hear the pre-recorded audiobooks contained on the Storynory module, each of which is read out in the language local to the user. If there's a functional TV or CRT monitor kicking around, the onscreen action of simple educational games offered by the TV++ module can be controlled by a good old-fashioned wired mouse and keyboard.

"One of the major goals is to have modular hardware," said Dand. "This means that any kid could walk down with the box and plug any keyboard - brand immaterial - and boom, it works. With that in mind, I designed the boxes to be centrally (or decentrally through fab-labs) manufactured and then distributed all around, and kids could just walk up to a landfill, pick up e-waste and have fun."

Dand also told us that it was his original intention to use post-upgrade consumer e-waste components in the kit modules as well - earlier versions of RandoMath made use of old calculator screens and Keyano was home to a BIOS speaker - but practicalities got in the way.

"I realized quickly that this approach isn't scalable," he said. "You'd have to hunt hard for components in e-waste, sort them, take them to the factory, disassemble them, have different manufacturing runs customized for each e-waste component, and so on. That wasn't cost and time effective, and would add considerably to the target price of US$5 per toy."

Such issues also halted the development of something called Mousepedia - a mouse-controlled audio encyclopedia. The cost associated with recording and storing the source material proved prohibitive, although Dand hasn't completely abandoned the idea and may revisit the design at a later stage.

ThinkerToys began as a one-man-mission, but Dand is in the process of setting up an openToys community of designers and engineers tasked with coming up with new ways to re-use e-waste. All community designs, circuits and code will be open source. He's currently in the process of documenting the code and the builds for the prototypes, which will shortly be available on his Github page for those interested in building toys for themselves, and intends to add things like video build tutorials in the near future.

Dand also plans to return to Cambodia in May 2012 to start a pilot production run in collaboration with a rural school. He intends to live with the kids while evaluating which kits prove the most popular, and "figure out the power problem - one solution is to have a single solar-based charging station in the village, where kids come charge their toys and play."

Once any problems are identified and dealt with, the project will be scaled up for production - so long as adequate funding can be found, of course. Be sure to check out the ThinkerToys source link for details of how to get involved.

Sources: ThinkerToys, github