Things are going well for MakerBloks CEO Francois Poirier and his Montreal-based team. Having now far exceeded their $25,000 ask on Kickstarter, Makerbloks is ready to offer backers its second stretch goal, a special LED block, provided contributions hit $35,000.
Every $5,000 raised above the initial goal lands backers an new trinket to add to MakerBloks, a new electronics learning platform for children that utilizes both tangible building blocks and digital information on the iPad to deliver a fun experience.
For the CEO Poirier, much of the impetus for building the system came from his two nieces, aged six and nine, the children of his older brother. As an industrial engineer he had spent time building a wireless breathalyzer test with a friend, who was an iOS designer. The problem was that neither of them understood the electronics side of building the product. They ended up hiring third-party engineers and friends who could help, but it was a thorn in Poirier’s side. He wanted to learn more about how capacitors and resistors work, and he figured he could make a challenge out of it: why not try and learn it with his young nieces?
“I thought it would be something fun to do with them, since really we were all at the same level,” Poirier told MTLinTech with a laugh.
But he couldn’t find much in the way of useful children’s learning toys that really helped his nieces learn. Poirier bought toy platforms like Snap Circuits, littleBits and more, but “they were all incredibly boring for me and for my nieces,” he said. He felt users needed to have at least some knowledge of electronics beforehand, or else learning would be more difficult. So he set out to learn all about the world of electronics himself and build something better.
MakerBloks is a unique, intricate platform that includes an iPad app as well as a collection of reactive, colour-coded building blocks that kids can physically create electronic connections with. The team calls MakerBloks “the first electronic building system that combines the real and virtual worlds.”
Anyone can build real electronic circuits without any technical experience. It uses a four-way magnetic connector and activates when connected correctly by children. “When you bring these things together I think it’s really beneficial for their neurological development,” said Dr. Kamal Fox, a Adjunct Professor at Concordia University’s School of Extended Learning.
Tablets can recognize the blocks and how they’re connected, thus allowing the iPad app to align the child’s level of understanding with new levels. Kids can battle monsters, launch rockets into space and conquer several other exciting missions in the game. “They can build real circuits, play with switches, play with burglar alarms and voice changing microphones, all with hardware,” said Poirier. “So even thought they’re learning how to build light, on the iPad they’re controlling a giant spaceship, travelling through different planets and solving different puzzles. Now what they’re doing feels so much more important than flipping a switch.”
But it hasn’t always been like this for the majority of modern gaming for children. All too often we see parents simply shoving an iPad into their children’s faces to occupy them. Moreover, many of today’s most popular games today don’t actually teach kids any fundamental skills. “Right now we’re surrounded by Candy Crush and Angry Birds. So if you play an hour of Angry Birds you have literally lost an hour of your life. You haven’t learned anything.”
But Poirier says it’s much more than that. Parents are still struggling to figure out the iPad. Some use it to buy time with children, while others actively try to get their kids away from it, preferring instead to try and get them interested in physical toys from their own childhood. However, the CEO said parents need to find ways to incorporate the iPad with better tools and learning experiences, because it won’t go away. Kids born in the last little while have been born with tablets, and touch screens are their reality whether we like it or not.
“By simply not thinking about a new way to incorporate this into new products we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. We can’t simply take [the iPad] away either,” he said.
However, said Porier, “You could use an iPad to teach you something and always link it to something tangible, to teach them a new skill or interest them in a new field, not just crushing candies or running through an endless stream of coins.”
It sounds like several people are ready to embrace the CEO’s way of thinking as well. Thus far nearly 30 backers have helped Makerblocks reach $34,177 in their campaign. The tech community has too: the team won the Founder Institute’s Montreal chapter’s Top Graduate in Canada, they won cdec’s Innovation Award and even Techcrunch’s Montreal Pitchoff.
Now it’s just a matter of how much seed cash they’ll bring in from an already successful crowdfunding campaign.