Oct 3, 2011

Modularity + Construction Kits: A few thoughts

Construction kits are great. Construction kits that have a life span of two or more uses are even better. LEGO is by far and away the most pervasive (of current generations at least), and it is so successful because it allows innumerable recombinations. Lately I have been trying to decide the form of my project as it aligns with my conceptual goals. From here, I would like to classify the possible recombinations of such construction kits into two manifestations: the mini-world and the reconstruction of a object, device, or setting at a real world scale.

At this point in my research, I see an interesting opening in the recent toolkits that have been developed: almost all are descendants of the block paradigm. Perhaps modularity is easier to grasp as blocks, but this runs counter to the real power of modular components in the real world, i.e. being able to recombine objects of various shapes, sizes, and functions into new entities based on context. Indeed I believe that modularity can be abstracted to apply to the properties of any object or group of objects given the correct context.

Applying modularity from the top down in design denies the properties of objects that might make them most interesting and compelling to play with. It often results in a block like form, or at least a set of objects that are uniform in shape and usually size. While I am attracted to the idea of a modular set such as this to create a learning tool*, I find the opposite approach much more intriguing. I think there is still room in the current environment for new and exciting programming and especially sensor integration into these type of construction kits, but so much has already been done. Some of the most interesting work being done is by Mike Eisenberg at University of Colorado (Craft Research Group) and Leah Buechley at MIT (High Low Tech Group), specifically for their introduction of personalization and greater ability for self expression based in the types of materials that they use.

This is the main reason I am focusing on the actual construction of the kit. I suppose you could say I am building an approach to modularity. (I had initially wanted to type modular process, but found it inappropriate for the current discussion. This idea however, is something else I am extremely interested in exploring.)

*By learning tool, I mean a physical object that learners can use to think about abstract ideas concretely, much in the spirit of Seymour Papert. This definition needs to be expanded, but this will suffice for the moment.

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