ATLANTA -- It's fairly easy to pick a holiday present, stick a bow on it and say "enjoy" when you give it to someone. It's tougher to give a gift that keeps on giving and challenges the mind.
Luckily, there are plenty of gift projects for "makers" -- from robot kits to programmable microcontrollers to musical instruments. The time is right to give the gift of making.
-- LittleBits ($99 basic kit, $149 premium kit):
LittleBits electronics kits are an attempt to engage young minds, without stickers of flowers or cartoon-themed flourish. The kits help kids get started on building powered things and customizing their creations. The kits come with modular components fixed to colored blocks that connect together. When sequenced right, they can do such things as shine, twirl and beep.
One Saturday afternoon, my neighbors' daughter quickly dug in to the basic little Bits kit. Within a half-hour, she had crafted a powered crawling device, which later morphed into a gizmo that would swing at Ping-Pong balls her brother tossed at it.
Children like to incorporate things from their environment. Within a day the little Bits kit had morphed into a flashlight using a cardboard tube. Knowing how smart she is, cold fusion won't be far behind.
This kit succeeds where other child-themed robotics kits fall short: by giving lessons in the fundamentals of electricity, circuits, motion and sensors and letting the child add extras from their local environment.
I had fun with this kit myself. The build quality of the components is sturdy enough to withstand drops and the occasional attempt to connect modules the wrong way.
Best yet: little Bits is gender agnostic. In a world of pink toy aisles targeting girls, this is a welcome design.
-- Moog Etherwave Theremin Kit ($399):
If you've ever watched a 1950s science fiction film, you've likely heard a theremin. It's the instrument making that ooooo-eeeee-ahhhhh-waaaaah sound when the aliens are sneaking up behind the teens necking in the parking lot. It's also unusual because it is played without actually touching it.
I had to touch the Moog Etherwave Theremin to build it though, and I learned a lot in the process.
The kit consists of a few bags full of wires, screws, antennae and knobs (potentiometers really, to adjust signals that will eventually become sound). Also included is a gorgeous but unfinished wood cabinet to stuff all the electronics into once you've screwed, glued and soldered things into place.
In rough order, I spent a week staining and lacquering the cabinet, learning how to solder, measuring off angles with a carpenter's square and redoing a few steps I got wrong the first time around. Special thanks go to a friend and YouTube for lessons on some of the carpentry techniques.
Building the theremin from a kit is a bit of a grind. I got a working theremin, but tuning it is another matter. That has to be done each time the device is powered on because the position of your body and hands play an integral part in affecting the volume and pitch of the emitted tones.
Playing something that sounds like a song takes work. It's not like teaching people a guitar chord by placing their fingers near the correct frets. There is nothing to touch here. Rather, you adjust the position of your hands near the pitch and volume antennae and gradually get used to a hovering scale of notes in the air.
This is a sweet project to give the musician who has too many guitars and too much time.
-- Parallax Boe-Bot Robot Kit ($179.99):
Robots. Now we're talking. Rolling, beeping, spinning, blinking robots.
The brains of this three-wheeled robot project is the Parallax Basic Stamp microcontroller. It holds the instructions for navigating the robot with pre-designed routes or various sensors attachments, such as an infrared proximity sensor to detect walls before hitting them.
Building it was easy and requires little more than a small screwdriver, which is supplied. The programming is done through PBASIC, a computer language created by Parallax to handle the tasks you're most likely to want the robot to do. PBASIC isn't terribly useful for tasks beyond programming Parallax's own microcontroller, but it will introduce you to instruction loops and subroutines that are called frequently as the finished Boe-Bot rolls around chair legs and sleeping dogs.
It's a beginner-friendly project, though there are some tiny parts involved and dexterity is required when plugging in small, wired current resistors to the solderless board.
-- Make Ultimate Microcontroller Pack with Netduino ($174.99):
Along the lines of the Boe-Bot, the Ultimate kit features a programmable microcontroller, called a Netduino. It's about the size of a deck of cards and is programmed using Visual C (hash) Express 2010 and. Net tools from Microsoft. The download is free, but Visual C (hash) takes longer to learn than PBASIC. The apps run on the Netduino and control a variety of things you connect to it.
If you want to monitor the temperature in a chicken coop and adjust it automatically to keep your birds from freezing, Netduino can do that. Bluetooth add-ons for the Netduino can bring wireless networks into play for your projects as well.
As I dumped out the contents of the kit, it became apparent that this was less about an end-result project, like a robot, and more about the possibilities of smartly controlling an array of home devices. The best approach is to search for Netduino-based projects online, learn how they work and slightly modify the design to fit your personal needs.
Fortunately this kit will save you a bunch of trips back and forth to Radio Shack because it comes with loads of LEDs, resistors, capacitors and other small components that are necessary to learn and explore the world of electronics and the software that can control them.