Cool High Tech Toys for 2016

High tech toys can be great fun, or downright dangerous.  But if you are careful to select the right product, while considering proper safety safeguards, then high tech toys can be a great way to spice up your life.

For example in 2015 Hoverboards, aka self-balancing scooter, were all the rage.  We all saw how that turned out.  But if you did your homework, e.g. looked for the proper industry certifications, then you might have been able to avoid a lot of the battery trouble that befell a lot of those products.

Similarly with quadcopters, aka drones, if you consider who will be using it you can make an educated purchasing decision and possibly avoid a disaster.  For example if you are buying a drone for a 10 year old, is it a reasonable gift in the first place, what safety features does the drone have, are the spinning blades protected, and so on.  Proper thought should be given whenever buying a cutting edge product.

On that note here are some great high-tech products for kids, teens, and adults that we think would make awesome gifts this Christmas.

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

If you have not heard about Amazon Echo you might be amazed at what it can do.  This is a device that will listen to your voice for various commands and will reply or take the appropriate actions.  The highlight of this product is that it will play music from various sources such as your Amazon library, Pandora, Spotify, and more.  It can also read audiobooks as well as the news, traffic, weather, and other information sources.

The Echo fills your room with 360-degree omnidirectional sound, and this superior sound quality is confirmed by the complimentary user reviews it receives.

The Amazon Echo also has more advanced features for controlling your home, such as your thermostats, switches and lights.  This capability requires that your home is properly equipped with to take advantage of these features.  For example the Nest thermostat, the Philips Hue system, or Samsung SmartThings.

Best for: Adults or teens

buy-amazon-button2

Syma X5C Quadcopter

There are so many drones and quadcopters on the market that’s it’s like the wild-west.  Many of the brand names are new and unrecognizable, and the reviews are suspect (always look for a pattern of many reviews that were in exchange for free products – they are not to be trusted).  We recommend choosing a more trusted brand that you know will be around in a year or more.

Syma X5C Quadcopter

Syma X5C Quadcopter

One brand that’s been around for a few years is Syma, and we found an entry-level quadcopter that we think would be a good choice for teens.  It’s the Syma 2.4GHz X5C RC Quadcopter with Gyro and Camera.  This is a relatively small drone, but it has some features that make it attractive:  Gyros for stability, camera, and spare blades available.

The camera is a 2MP HD camera, so the quality will be so-so, but good enough for an entry level drone.  The spare blades are almost a necessity because it is inevitable that the drone will drift off and hit something or even crash if the operator is not trained or if the weather interferes (such as wind).

Note: The Federal Aviation Administration requires registration of many drones flown in the US, for hobby or commercial purposes. To learn more about drone registration requirements, visit Amazon’s Fly Responsibly page.

Best for: Teens

buy-amazon-button2

Star Wars BB-8 Robot + Force Band

BB-8 Droid with Force Band

BB-8 Droid with Force Band

Last year this BB-8 App-Controlled Robot from robot experts Sphero was such a huge hit that it sold out quickly from many stores.  This year they have upgraded the robot with a new Force Band which allows you to control the robot through hand gestures, and has the robot follow you as you move around.

Best for: Any Star Wars fan

buy-amazon-button2

Ozobot Programmable Robot

Ozobot 2.0

Ozobot 2.0

Check out our article about this really cool little robot toy for kids – the Ozobot 2.0 programmable robot.

Best for: Kids

buy-amazon-button2

Tested Safe: EPIKGO Self-Balancing Scooter

epikgo

EPIKGO Self-Balancing Scooter

Hoverboards are back!  But they are much safer than they were in 2015.  All of the hoverboards we see for sale in 2016 claim to be tested to US safety standards.

One such hoverboard is the EPIKGO Self-Balancing Scooter.  It is tested to UL 2272 standards, as well as UL 2271 for the battery. This scooter has 400W dual motors that help it climb slopes as steep as 18 degree and last over 1 hour at 10mph top speed on a single charge.  We appreciate that the reviews do not seem compensated for, as we see on other scooters on the market.

We recommend you thoroughly read the information before buying, and keep in mind that even though the battery is safe there are still operational risks when using a self-balancing scooter such as falling and crashing.  These risks apply to all age groups – being younger or older does not help when operating this type of machine.

Best For: Adults and older teens

buy-amazon-button2

Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.

Ozobot 2.0 Bit – The Programmable Robot

There is a wave of robotic toys on the market these days.  We have already highlighted a number of them already.  And this is a very good development for kids.  These educational bots both entertain kids and expose them to the type of technology that they may very well be designing themselves in future years. Video games merely entertain – educational robots prepare them for the future.

Ozobot 2.0

Ozobot 2.0

The Ozobot 2.0 Bit is a handy little programmable robot that can keep your kids occupied for hours.  Now first of all this device is a little on the small side – measuring in at just over an inch.  But the point of this bot is not its size but its capabilities.  You can program your Ozobot Bit to dance, race, and more.  There is a corresponding app that lets you play in-app games, download activities from the Ozobot website, and create your own challenges and games. 

One aspect that we find interesting is the various levels of programmability of this little device.  Younger kids can create simpler activities using basic OzoCodes, and they can command their Ozobot to do numerous actions with names like Nitro Boost, Zig-Zag, and Tornado.

Ozobot App Screenshot

Ozobot App Screenshot

Advanced Programming

As children grow they can advance on to more advanced skills in which they can fully program the Ozobot using a visual editor.  This is the real power of this toy – allowing kids to step beyond basic commands and activities and taking control with skills that they can master long before formal programming instruction in school.  The results of their efforts play out in 3D in the real world, not the virtual world like an app or a computer screen.  The Ozobot moves, races, and possibly crashes right in front of them.

The Ozobot 2.0 Bit is not very expensive, and for the potential it can offer your child we find it very attractive as an educational Robot, despite its small size.   This device is recommended for ages 8 and up.

buy-amazon-button2

Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.

Hands-On Test: Merge VR Goggles

I spent some time testing out the Merge Virtual Reality (VR) Goggles over the past few days.  These goggles are an interesting way to get started with virtual reality, and I’ll describe my experience while trying to use them with various VR media.

Disclaimer: These goggles were provided by the manufacturer free of charge, but we are providing an honest review that is not influenced by the manufacturer or anyone else. Now on to the review.

(No time to read the whole review? Then jump straight to our Conclusion)

Overview

First of all I’m no VR expert – in fact I’ve never used any type of VR hardware before at all.  So my review is coming from the point of view of a true novice, who is most likely the target market for these goggles.

Merge VR Goggles

Merge VR Goggles

There are two general classes of VR hardware available:

  • VR goggles that use a smartphone inserted in them to provide the visual experience.  These are less expensive, usually well under $100.  The most basic of these is the Google Cardboard.
  • Dedicated hardware like Oculus, Gear VR or Vive.  The full VR experience with these products can cost from $200 to $1500

The Merge VR Goggles are clearly a step up from the simplistic Google Cardboard goggles, with the following features:

  • They are made from a comfortable foam material, as opposed to, well, cardboard
  • Secure and comfortable head straps
  • Adjustable lens controls
  • On-screen Smartphone controls
  • Anti-fog vents
  • Support for camera operation during usage

360 VR Media Selection

Regardless of what model of VR goggles you use you need a source of 360 degree VR media to view.  I found that the quality of this media was a big factor in my enjoyment of the goggles.

I started with the Merge website Vrstart.com, as suggested by the product packaging.  This site lists a selection of Apps and YouTube videos that support VR viewing.  This website is a convenient starting point, but this is not the only way to find VR-supported media.  E.g. You can go directly to YouTube.com and search for 360 enabled videos.

Goggle Operation

I had a range of experiences with the Merge VR Goggles, to some extent driven by the quality of the media I tried. But for now let me stick to the goggles themselves.

The first issue I ran into is that my personal phone is a little too small to work in these goggles.  I have an older Samsung Galaxy S4. So I had to borrow an S5 from a family member for this testing.  So if you want to buy these goggles make sure you have a more recent smartphone (within the past two years).

Inserting the phone was a bit difficult – it was a tight squeeze.  This often caused me to press a button accidentally on the phone which forced me to take the phone out and get back into the proper mode.  It took a while to figure out how to insert and then later remove the phone from the goggles without pushing a stray button.  Once the phone was inserted properly I was good to go.

The adjustable lenses worked quite well.  They allowed me to set them just right for a sharp viewing experience.

merge4a

The control buttons were useful, but only for certain media.  When experiencing 360-enabled YouTube videos a button press would allow us to control the video (pause, restart, mute).  When using the Google Streetview app we were able to move our position by pressing the buttons.  But other media did not seem to react to the buttons, so these were not as rewarding to experience.

VR-Enabled Apps

I tried a couple of free apps but I was not particularly impressed.  One app would not run on my Samsung S5.  Another app was of surprisingly low quality.  Also the goggle control buttons did not seem to do much good with the apps. I’m sure if I tried some more apps I’d find some that I liked.  Although there is one I did like …

Google Streetview App

I really liked this app.  There are two kinds of media available here:  user-submitted 360-degree photos, and Google Streetview scenes.  The Streetview scenes allow you to walk through international tourist destinations, like Amsterdam and Rome.  All of the media that I watched is high-resolution and very sharp. Once I’m done writing this review this is the first app I’m going to go back to since the opportunities are almost endless.

streetview

YouTube Videos

I enjoyed watching 360-enabled YouTube videos on the goggles.  The goggle controls allowed us to start and stop the video and to adjust the volume.  There is a huge variety of high resolution 360-enabled videos on YouTube so this source of VR media alone may be worth the price of admission.

Conclusion/Recommendation

Considering that this is our first VR viewing experience we enjoyed using these goggles.  They are somewhat higher priced than the bare-bones Google Cardboard, but far less expensive than dedicated hardware.  Plus the foam construction is certain to last longer than cardboard.  Using these goggles with certain media is a very rewarding, and as an entry-level selection we give a THUMBS UP to the Merge VR Goggles.

Blank Mug Design

buy-amazon-button2P.S. Be sure to switch to WIFI mode when using the goggles.  We noticed a high amount of data usage when watching 360-enabled content.

Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.

Hands-On Test: da Vinci miniMaker 3D Printer

We got our hands on a really cool device that might be just the toy your kids will do flips over this Christmas.  It’s the da Vinci miniMaker 3D Printer, made by XYZ Printing.  It’s not the typical toy that we normally write about on this site, but we couldn’t pass up the chance to put a state of the art 3D printer through its paces.

minimakerThe da Vinci miniMaker is an entry-level 3D printer that is designed with kids in mind.  The idea is that it is easy to set-up, has easy-to-use software, and can get you started with lots of available pre-designed objects that you can create right away.  But the printer also supports the printing of designs you make yourself with more advanced software.  In that way it can grow as your kids grow, and it gets them excited about technology, and gives them some practical experience, at a young age.  But it can also unlock the artistic side of kids as well, so it is not a purely technology-focused product.

First of all … Full Disclosure:  We were loaned this printer by the manufacturer so that we could test and review it.  Our review is honest and is based solely on our own experience.

But enough legal-speak. Now on to the testing!  There are many aspects to this review, so I’ve tried to organize it into sections.  I am not going to provide every detailed step, but I will highlight areas that worked well for us and those that did not.

buy-amazon-button2Assembly

The unboxing and assembly was pretty painless, but not without a bit of confusion.  For the most part the printer is almost fully assembled.  You must first remove all of the packing material from the inside of the printer.  And then you have to install the extruder module, the filament spool, and then assemble the plastic protection box.  If you follow the instructions carefully these steps will be pretty uneventful.

dsc_0392-1

Box Contents

Assembled Printer - Ready to Go!

Assembled Printer – Ready to Go!

The confusion we ran into here was that the printed Get Started instructions say nothing about the plastic protection box.  We went ahead and installed it and figure out what it was for (to keep curious fingers away from the moving printer mechanism).

Make sure that you locate the printer on a solid, level surface.  The constant back-and-forth motion of the printer mechanism (often for hours at a time) could cause it to shift and fall of the table.  And instruct any small children to keep their HANDS OFF the printer.  It should be handled only by adults and responsible children that can understand that this is a complicated and potentially dangerous machine when it is operating.

Software

You can’t print anything on a 3D printer without the proper software.  This is where the miniMaker excels as a tool for young kids.  The manufacturer provides you with a package called XYZware, which can use to take pre-made designs and simply and easily print them out.  You are not required to know how to design your own three dimensional objects (although you can if you want, with different software).  The software lets you import designs, and perform simple manipulations on them:  change size, move, rotate, etc.

screenshot

Software with Bear design downloaded from the XYZprinting website

The good news is that once we got the software installed correctly we were able to print sample designs almost right away.  But one problem we ran into was not really knowing where to find the proper software to install.  The instructions mention the package XZYware, but we had trouble finding it on their website.  We eventually had to go to the Support area, then click on the miniMaker printer icon, then we could find the software to download.  This would not be obvious to most users, and we feel this could significantly impact the enjoyment of the 3D printer.

In fact let me say at this point that the XZYprinting website has no special portal or landing page which helps first-time users navigate the site and easily find what they need.  This is one area of improvement that we think the manufacturer could improve upon.

Printing

We were able to print a number of different designs with our printer.  For an entry-level  machine we think the printer did an adequate job.  The pieces had a few minor imperfections but nothing really worth mentioning in detail.  The printer is not noisy – it just whirs and buzzes as it goes about its job.

The printing process is fairly straightforward, but we did run into a few problems (described below).  Printing involves the software “slicing” up the design, sending the information to the printer, and the printer does the rest.  And then … waiting … and waiting … and waiting.  In fact you will need a lot of patience and planning when starting a print.  Smaller objects may take 30 minutes to an hour or so.  Larger objects can take 2 or more hours.  So when beginning any print it is best to ensure that you will be available to check on the progress regularly in case anything unexpected would happen with the print.

dsc_0492-3

Completed Bear Print

The problems we ran into were (a) not initially performing the filament loading step before printing (our fault), and (b) printing a design with a very small base, which did not adhere well to the platform and caused a messed-up print soon after the print started.  The object came loose from the platform and the result was a mess of tangled plastic threads.

Problem (b) could have been avoided by applying glue stick glue to the platform surface, to allow the design to adhere better and not move during the print.  This is the recommendation when the room temperature is lower than 77 degrees (which it was in our house). We avoided such designs for the remainder of our testing to make sure we could test the printing capability of the unit to complete our review.

Other

The good: We were able to create and print some custom designs with the XZYmaker software.  This software is rather easy to use (if you have some computer know-how).  We simply saved our design to an .stl file which we then imported into the XYZware software for printing.

Custom design created using XYZmaker software

Custom design created using XYZmaker software

Also, the XZYprinting website has thousands of uploaded designs in their 3D Gallery that you can view and download for yourself.  There are categories for Toys, Gadgets, Art, and a few others.  Once you find something you think you’ll like you can download it, import it into XYZware, change the size as needed, and print it out.

xyz-3dgallery

The not-so-good:  The included documentation is incomplete and can lead to delays in getting started. The document is a mediocre black-and-white copy of the original full-color manual that can be found online.  It is better to download the latest user manual from the XZYprinting website before getting started.  The downloaded manual has all of the information you’ll need to operate the printer.

manual-download

One more thing – this is a one-color printer.  Our printer came with yellow filament, so of course all of our objects are yellow.  You could probably buy a different color of filament to make objects a more pleasing color.  We may do that in the next month or two (we’re already getting tired of yellow)

Other items printed using XZYware

Other items we printed using XZYware

So what comes next?

You may ask what can you do with this device after printing out a few little toys.  Here are some ideas:

  • Smooth and paint them to create really beautiful works of art
  • Start creating your own designs, using more advanced software
  • Find interesting 3D design files on the internet
  • Convert photos to 3D files.  We found a few websites that will do this by simply uploading a photo.

There are tons of 3D printing related websites on the internet – it is a HUGE are for both professional companies and hobbyists.  If you want to get serious about 3D printing there is no end to the information you can find on the internet.

Conclusion

If you bring some patience and perseverance to the table the daVinci miniMaker 3D printer can be a really enjoyable first 3D printing experience for you and your children.  Once you work through the website navigation, the software installation, and locating and printing your first design you will feel very satisfied and motivated to think about what other objects you can create.  There are lots of small household gadgets and toys that you could print.  You could even create custom gifts for friends and relatives, for example a personalized cell-phone stand or Christmas ornament.  We give a THUMBS UP to the da Vinci miniMaker 3D printer.

buy-amazon-button2

Disclaimer: This post may contain Affiliate links. Prices may change at any time. Do your own research before purchasing.