Psychologists are fascinated by the subject of play. Play is one of those complex behaviors that is difficult to define and understand. Is it a complex activity in human beings that can take many forms. An interesting aspect to contemplate is the change in play over the last 50 years. How did we get from Easy Bake ovens and cap guns to car chase and combat video games? Not that the current video generation of play is necessarily a bad thing, but there have been commentaries from the psychological field about the negative consequences if this is the primary form of play for people.
More interesting are the aspects of how we play in the modern age and where this takes us in the future. A great example of how we play can be seen in the migration of Lego toys into mechatronics platforms like the Lego Mindstorms. Lego Mindstorms are widely used in education to introduce and demonstrate basic principles of science and mechanics to young students.
More sophisticated programs like the First Robotics and Vex Robotics competitions promote the STEM learning process to junior high school and high school students. These programs are helping to engage tens of thousands of students who are developing very sophisticated problems solving skills at an early age. As the field of robotics, manufacturing, healthcare and defense continue to apply technology, a population that is skilled and able to advance the technology is crucial to success.
The other aspect to consider is less obvious. As the notion of play changes to complex electromechanical toys, radio controller cars, helicopters, boats, and now robots, the cost levels to sell these toys must be much lower than what we are used to in the industrial world. This has created an entirely new level of supply that is meeting the need of the emerging “hobbyist” robotic and CNC experimenters. And for people engaged in these activities, the expense of the project is all paid for out of pocket. There is no “return on investment” here, just the desire to learn, the desire to create and the sense of accomplishment in building something useful.
In the “hobby” world a servomotor, gear reducer, drive electronics and networked communications capability can be had for less than $50. depending on the power level. In the industrial world you would be hard pressed to find the same package for $500. To be sure, the reliability is not the same. The industrial world demands 8000 hours per year of uptime in manufacturing environments. But there might be a useful middle ground where replacing inexpensive parts on a scheduled basis is more cost effective than the investment in high reliability?
All things we will see in the next decade.