Adaptive Ingenuity

Golan Levin

Golan Levin

Adapter bricks

Levin's adapter brick kit

Move over Elmo, the kids have a new hero — Golan Levin. The Carnegie Mellon University art professor has come up with a digital blueprint for pieces that connect your Legos® to your Tinkertoys® to your K'Nex® — and much more.

In collaboration with Shawn Sims (A'11), an alumnus of CMU's master's program in Tangible Interaction Design, Levin's company Adapterz.org released the "must-have" kit: a collection of nearly 80 adapter bricks that enable complete interoperability between ten popular children's construction toys.

But there's a twist.

The tangible adapters aren't for sale; instead, the kit comes in the form of free downloadable CAD models, suitable for do-it-yourself 3D printing. And while the average home may not have a 3D printer — "yet," says Levin — the project's website suggests online services that will fabricate the toy adapters for a modest fee.

Inspired by his four-year old's frustrated attempts to build a hybrid Tinkertoy–K'Nex car, Levin designed this kit that has already created serious online buzz in major technology and design blogs, like Wired and Gizmodo. One of the project's videos has received over 100,000 views, and most recently, the kit is the subject of an article in Forbes Magazine.

Levin and Sims's goals, however, are larger than mere entertainment.

"We want to enable new forms of creativity for kids, both small and large," Levin explained.

"Personal fabrication systems, like 3D printers, are radically expanding people's ability to make things. Many people tweeted that our project was a 'killer app for 3D printing' that enabled them to understand, for the first time, why someone would want such a tool."

"Another goal was to demonstrate how people could take a more active role in adapting mass-manufactured goods to their imaginations. People should feel confident designing and fabricating anything they need," he added, "especially things that no company might ever produce, like our toy adapter kit."

Levin, a 2004 and 2009 TED conference speaker, is an intriguing combination of artist and engineer. He's interested in 'empowering people through interactivity' and is currently associate professor of electronic art and director of CMU's Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a center for "atypical and anti-disciplinary research" at the intersections of arts, sciences, technology and culture.

Levin's past projects range from software that visualizes the sound of your voice, to "Double-Taker (Snout)" — an eight-foot tall robotic eyestalk that peers out and reacts to you from atop a building entrance.

His latest product is an example of the kind of creative ingenuity rooted in CMU's culture of entrepreneurship and business creation supported by CMU's Greenlighting Startups initiative.

And Levin's son? He can finally finish that car.
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Related Links: College of Fine Arts | Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry | Adapterz.org | Forbes article