The barrier to new technology for children is rarely that they don’t understand it. More often it’s that they don’t know how to access it, or that creation tools aren’t visible to them.
Minecraft is successful not only because its technology enables children to create their own virtual worlds, but because it grants access to the tools to achieve this right where children play - on their tablets and consoles.
3D printing is something that children may come across in schools and libraries but hasn’t so far become ubiquitous. Toy manufacturer Mattel is hoping to change this though, with its ThingMaker 3D printer for children.
The printer itself looks simple to use, has a range of safety features - printer door locking for example - and promises to simplify the loading of colour with a “filament system”. It comes with a $300 (£212) price tag, so isn’t cheap, but for the level of definition and quality of printing it provides it represents good value.
More significant than the friendly stylings of the hardware is the accompanying app. This presents children with the tools they need to create, customise and print on the iOS or Android devices they are already using.
The ThingMaker Design app comes with considerable heritage too, being created by Autodesk. This is apparent when we flicked through the menus to design our first 3D printed figure. Different parts could be pulled in from a menu and then altered in colour, size and texture to fit our design.
Like Minecraft, things start simple but there is the opportunity for huge ambition. This isn’t about creating simple one piece toy prints. Rather, it encourages children to print objects that lock together and create complex articulated play-things.
We were happily surprised to discover that the app doesn’t lock you into the proprietary Mattel 3D Printer hardware. Designs can be exported as images directly to Dropbox or Google Drive. Better still, you can export STL files to then use with a printer of your choice.
There are a number of exciting directions Mattel could take the new product. It has already mooted that branded printables will be part of the offering in the future. Being able to design and print your own branded toys is a neat way to de-commercialise licensed products, as well as having additional appeal for children.
Having seen the output first hand at the New York Ty Fair it all looks impressive. As ever with 3D printing the time to produce each element is considerable though - something that will particularly grate with children used to the instant gratification of Minecraft building.
But if Mattel supports ThingMaker with on-going content and the printer lives up to its promise, this could be one of the must-have products when Christmas approaches.