I, Robot: A look at the long-running love affair between toys and tech

Following a tech-filled visit to Nuremberg back in January, Richard Heayes glances back at the history of automatons and why, in 2016, toys and tech remain a match made in heaven.
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Technology has been at the heart of the toy business since, well, forever.

Every year, the industry works its magic a little harder to bring all-singing, all-dancing, hi-tech playthings to life with movement, sound and lights. Literally all-singing, all-dancing, if Nuremberg was anything to go by.

With the recent threat of AI and robots ‘taking our jobs’, it was comforting to see the toy fair abuzz with choreographed, bopping robots. I can rest easy for now, I think.

Admittedly, they were cute to watch, but are they really that impressive? Their workings are fairly straightforward (and not exactly concealed): some quality servos, a scattering of sensors, a good IC and some decent cladding.

With that in mind, let us go back in time for a minute, to the age of automatons.

All the way to Fifth Century China, in fact, where you could find handmade wooden birds that flapped their wings and actually flew, according to the Han Fei Zi and other texts. Kind of puts the drones of nowadays into perspective, doesn’t it?

If we go back even further to Ancient Greece, we find documentation on giant animals that moved and made sounds, and public statues that gesticulated on their plinths with the magic of water, which powered hydraulic limbs and sound boxes.

It’s likely that the average Joe (or Georgios) back then had little idea of how these wonders worked, but I imagine that the joy of playfulness was at the essence of their creation. While they inevitably would have lifted the spirits of passers-by, they served little practical purpose, but they certainly gave rise to further inventions. Who knows which of today’s everyday utilities have these early amusements to thank for their existence?

Undeniably, toys and technology go hand in hand. Toys boast that truly magical ability to spark imagination in young (and not so young) minds. In my case, they also spark the urge to prize them open and suss out how they work.

Looking ahead, there are some incredible technologies about to pop.

Printed electronics are making big advancements and soon we’ll be able to print complete working mini computers onto any substrate. The era of disposable displays is also close. New materials derived from nanotechnologies could enable the creation of super strong, super light, super flexible toys.

Solar inks and paint that absorb sunlight and converts it to power, along with batteries that recharge in 60 seconds, will power the next wave of tech toys. And then?

If I had a time machine, I’d love to pop back to Ancient Greece and take a few toy gadgets with me. But who would be more amazed? Them, or me?



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