The box says it all: “Make an electronic musical instrument controlled by your hand! Learn about electronics, light sensors, and sound waves.”
Inside is Musical UFO, a flying saucer-shaped toy “project kit” for ages eight and up. It's an offering from Geek & Co., a new product line from Thames & Kosmos (T&K), the North American subsidiary of Kosmos—short for Germany’s venerable publishing house Franckh-Kosmos Verlags-GmbH.
T&K translates, rewrites and distributes English language Kosmos’ science- and technology-related children’s educational product in the U.S.
"The idea behind the Geek & Co. science line is to sneak some science into fun building projects that kids can do, that are simple and have a low entry barrier and teach science,” says Ted McGuire, T&K’s president, who showed off the new line as part of the company’s display at last month’s Sweet Suite 2014 toy trade show in New York.
Musical UFO builds an electronic musical device that works like a simple theremin—an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact, in which the pitch is controlled by the movement of your hand. In this device, a light sensor inside the UFO's dome senses the changing light level as you move your hand above it, changing the sound.
“The idea of a light sensor connected to a sound-producing speaker is a great way to teach kids about basic electronics, sensors, speakers [a simple speaker in the toy produces sound] and the circuit,” says McGuire. “We decided on the form factor of a UFO because the sound that the speaker produced is sort of reminiscent of a UFO, and the theremin has been used for a lot of old sci-fi movies—and even now, we don’t know what a UFO really sounds like, let alone if they exist! But society and modern media tells us what they should sound like, which is the 'wooing' sci-fi kind of sound of the theremin.”
Indeed, the theremin, which was devised by Russian inventor Léon Theremin and patented in 1928, has been used in Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack for the classic sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood. The Beach Boys famously employed an electro-theremin in their landmark hit “Good Vibrations.”
The instrument usually consists of two metal antennas that pick up the musician’s hand placements, which control sound frequency and volume.
“We use a light sensor connected to a microchip that puts out little impulses depending on the light level and changes the speaker output,” says McGuire. “It takes about 10, 20 minutes to build, and a 16-page manual teaches how the various components work. One page talks about theremins and how they work.”
“It’s really more theremin-like as it’s played with the hand—and the hand doesn’t actually touch anything,” notes McGurie, "but a real theremin uses more electrical impulses. So this is a subcategory of theremin—a light theremin. It basically uses shadows being cast from the hand that increases and decreases darkness, so it’s a different process but the same kind of user experience.”
At a $20 pricepoint, the Geek & Co. kits offer “a low barrier for entry into science,” says McGuire of the toys, which are now just shipping.
“I’m used to talking about elaborate 100-piece chemistry sets, but this is a great little gifty project that anyone can buy for any kid, that’s not complicated."
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