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On Slip Rings & The Future Of Intelligent Toys

Blog entry posted in 'Tim's IOT, Tech & Toy Blog', Jan 25, 2017.

I can still vividly remember the Christmas now. The lights. The tree. The too-many-to-count boxes that sat beneath it. There was just one I was obsessed with, though, and come Christmas morning I’d rip back the wrapping to find a Furby - a black and white one, to be exact - staring back at me with what I’d later decide were definitely creepy and nowhere-near-as-adorable-as-I-thought-at-the-time eyes. Hindsight is 20/20, right? And with eyes like those, oh boy, you’d have hindsight for days. But that’s beside the point.

My actual point? I spent much of my holiday break that year playing with the thing. Feeding it. Playing games with it. And poking it in such a way that approximated patting. I enjoyed every minute while other toys gathered dust.

Since then? I’ve moved on. Though that Furby still sits on a high-up shelf, unmoving, its insides gathering dust and rusting over (which is probably why it doesn’t blink anymore), I’ve progressed from the tactile to the digital. I’ve visited digital battlefields, toured virtual warzones, controlled single soldiers through to grand armies. Despite it all, there’s always been something enjoyable about the tactile nature of physical toys.

Nowadays? Those worlds are starting to collide, and I couldn’t be more excited.

It’s starting small. From Nintendo’s Amiibo, Toys for Bob & Vicarious Visions' Skylanders and LEGO's Dimensions series, physical action figures usually relegated to being smushed together by over-eager hands are now tech savvy. Fitted with NFC chips and wireless technologies, they bring new content to the digital videogames of our time, and start to bridge the gap between physical and digital. It's also showing no signs of slowing down. Sure, Disney Infinity may have met an untimely end, but new prospects like Lightseekers - which recently hit Kickstarter - are looking to push those boundaries even further.

What about the regular ol’ toys getting tech-savvy? The mainstays of any kid’s wishlist? Robots are already there, and getting that much better by the day. They’re a far cry from the Furby I had as a kid whose blinking, grumbling, and ‘Feed me!’ voice were about as sophisticated as things got. The role new or time-honoured technology like slip rings is playing in this is already indispensable. Most would see them as nothing more than an industrial part, but they're a major part of the internal structure and design of these robots and toys, operating much like human joints, providing an easy, reliable way to deliver power to the moving components.

Heck, even R2D2 and BB8 wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for slip rings. God knows I need me one of those 1:1 scale BB8 robots but that’s a matter for me and my wallet. Spoiler alert: the discussions have not gone well up to this point.

Emerging technologies should only hasten the advances. Due to the size of these devices shrinking by the day, small, miniature or even wireless slip rings will play a much bigger role in providing the necessary power and data to the small areas and rotating joints of the robots and other tech-savvy toys of the future.

There’s also already examples of it being used in the likes of model trains

In truth, the industry is only just starting to explore the possibilities and capabilities of this equipment. So where to from here? Who knows. It’s exciting though. What will my kids be opening up 10 years from now, and what will they remember? More importantly, what will I be buying them with the excuse to use myself? Turns out slip rings, like batteries, NFC and other tech before it, are an exciting next step. I’m looking forward to being there when it’s taken.