Buy half-a-dozen bananas, plug them into your laptop via a simple circuit board, and they become keys to a virtual piano. Load a piano application on the screen, and play it by touching the bananas.
You can plug in oranges and tap them to play drums on the screen, or play the old favourite Pac-Man game without touching the left-right-up-down keys on your laptop.
Now, why on earth would you want to do that when you have access to a keyboard and a mouse? Answer: Because it’s a lot of fun, encourages the geek in your child, and the possibilities are enormous.
You can pick up any object that conducts a tiny bit of electricity (any wet surface, fruits and vegetables, foil, cutlery or any part of your body, except rubber or dry wood), connect it to the laptop through this circuit board, and you can do a number of amazing things on your screen, without touching the keyboard or the mouse.
The circuit board is called MaKey MaKey (Amazon price: $50, or Rs.2,950, plus shipping costs). It’s the creation of two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab students; they call it “an invention kit for the 21st century”.
The pre-programmed board plugs into a computer via USB and lets the user reassign the arrow keys, the space bar and left mouse click to any chosen object that can conduct electricity. Connect one end of a wire to MaKey MaKey using a crocodile clip (also called alligator clips); clip the other end to bananas, oranges or whatever, and you are all set. There’s a delightful video of a young boy who uses carrots, bananas and juice in a glass to play the American national anthem.
Draw some Pac-Man figures on a piece of paper (sketch a circle and slice out a wedge) with a pencil, then connect the paper to the circuit board with clips, and touch the drawings with your fingers to play Pac-Man on the screen. The graphite in the pencil that you have used to draw a picture actually functions as an electrical conductor.
Like many interesting ideas and products these days, MaKey MaKey too raised money through Kickstarter, a website where anyone with a creative project—it doesn’t necessarily have to be a piece of technology; could even be a movie or a graphic novel—can turn to for fund-raising. Their target was $25,000; they raised $568,106.
I visit the website once in a while and recently spotted an interesting gadget: a pen called Lernstift that vibrates when you make a mistake. It looks like your regular pen and has real ink in it. When in orthography mode it “vibrates once for a misspelled word and twice to point out grammatical errors in a sentence”; in calligraphy mode the pen “vibrates once if a letter is written wrong or illegibly”.
There is a choice of writing tips: pencil, fountain pen or ball-point. You start by writing a few words to calibrate the pen, and then the pen becomes your guide. To start with, it will be available in English and German but they plan to add many more languages.
The brainchild of two German entrepreneurs, Lernstift (German for “learning pen”) could be a pioneering tool for teaching children spelling and handwriting. I guess it’ll also be a useful tool for adults interested in improving their handwriting. I don’t know how long they will take to raise the targeted £120,000 (around Rs.1.1 crore), but you can pre-order it with a pledge of £99.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.