Using e-waste to create educational toys, with ThinkerToys


March 27, 2012

Dhairya Dand's prototype ThinkerToys are edutainment modules designed to put functional e-waste such as PS/2 keyboards and mice to good use

Dhairya Dand's prototype ThinkerToys are edutainment modules designed to put functional e-waste such as PS/2 keyboards and mice to good use

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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

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag. All articles by Paul Ridden

As a youth in the 70s, I would regularly go dumpster diving in the industrial area where I lived to come home with all sorts of items businesses threw away. This is how I made...from scratch, my first computer. Nixie tubes from some kind of meter, hexidecimal keyboard with keycaps missing, which I replaced with others I found and modified to fit. Chips I burned off of the PC boards to use as the CPU, memory and I/O. Wire from transformers that I used as wire-wrap to do point-to-point wiring...very little money out of pocket and yet, I had my first computer in the mid 70s all from repurposed parts... I find it sad that these children, with the plethora of discarded tech, do not find the same level of excitement or imagination to repurpose these discarded items for their own purpose!


I suspect that given the kids are working in e-waste dumps in Cambodia instead of going to school, they don't have the resources to research how all the discarded tech fits together, or have higher priorities, like finding food. Even if they did have free time to do this, I suspect they don't have access to power to run the more power hungry tech around them, or even something as simple as a soldering iron, so they'd be limited to whatever tech can run off batteries.

If these toys take off they might inspire them to find out how they work or to make them build their own toys that use it though.

Paul Utry

What would be better is a dirt cheap, small tablet computer, distributed free in huge numbers.

Marc Stiegler used that idea in his 1999 SF novel "EarthWeb". The goal there was to tap into the collective creativity of as much of the human race as possible, to stop a succession of alien space probes apparently bent on attacking Earth.

Stiegler called the distribution the "top drop" with top short for palmtop computer, I assume the things were airdropped in many areas where local governments would have been opposed to their people getting educated.

Gregg Eshelman
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