Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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Kid tech

iDo3Dart Vertical
$30
More info: www.ido3dart.com

If you’re looking to introduce the concept of 3D printing to the younger set, but without shelling out a lot of money to buy a printer, start them out with one of these 3D pen sets from IDo3Dart. These pens contain a special “ink” that comes out like glue or paint when you squeeze it, and then dry once you apply the included. The company calls this curing, which is basically a quick-drying process.

The vertical part of the pen is that when you squeeze the pen with the curing light on, the sculpture can then be made vertically. It takes a bit of practice with the pen to make sure that you’re going at the right speed – if you go too fast, the ink sinks; if you go too slow it hardens and sticks to the pen.

As long as your kids are patient, they can get the hang of things and start creating their own pieces of art, whether it’s on a flat piece of paper or if they want to go vertical. The initial system comes with some templates and starter projects to give kids confidence with the pen, but I’d also suggest buying some additional pens (additional colors are about $10 each, or you can buy multi-pen packs for about $20), as they will run out of the ink pretty quickly. Also, younger kids probably don’t have the squeeze grip strength that an adult or older teen-ager would have.

A huge warning: The ink itself is pretty sticky and goopy, even after it dries. Like any other art project, be ready with wipes, paper towels and other cleanup items. After a while, the goopiness of the ink got to us – I suppose we didn’t have the patience to really dry the ink correctly.

-- Keith Shaw

Skylanders Imaginators
$75 (for starter sets, individual characters and sets cost extra)
More info: https://www.skylanders.com/video-games/skylanders-imaginators

We took a break from last year’s installment of the Skylanders franchise (SuperChargers), but we’re back with a vengeance with this year’s offering in the toys-to-life video game space. With Disney shutting down its Infinity game and figures, consumers can give Skylanders another look (my personal feeling is that the market was getting saturated with so many figures to buy).

The theme for this year’s game is to have users “imagine” their own figure. This is done by offering hourglass-shaped figures with a “crystal” inside them. The player gets to choose from a variety of heads, arms, legs, chest, etc., to create a figure that is unique to them. Playing through the game unlocks other items for the Imaginator to access. But it wouldn’t be a Skylanders game without some new figures, so they’ve introduced them through the concept of “Senseis” – larger figures that unlock special battle modes within the game and also that can help train (level up) the Imaginator characters.

My son enjoyed this creation aspect, as he spent a lot of time trying to figure out which look he wanted to make. In the end, he gravitated towards his favorite color (red) and favorite element (fire), as well as effects like fart sounds and a “gassy aura” option. Everything you’d expect from a 9-year-old boy.

The game also includes support for all previous characters from earlier games, so you could take your favorite figure from previous games and run them through the different levels. This includes racing tracks from the Superchargers games. With the arrival of a Skylanders video series on Netflix, the franchise appears to be as strong as ever.

-- Keith Shaw

Batman Kid Safe over-the-ear headphone (or other characters)
$20
More info: https://www.amazon.com/Batman-Safe-Headphone-Limiter-30382/dp/B00ELPIWVY

If you have kids and mobile devices that they’re on all the time (seriously, ALL THE TIME), chances are you’ve told them at some point to put some headphones on so that you don’t have to hear the theme song to “Jessie” one more time (too specific?). But you also want to make sure that they’re not blasting the sound so high that they do long-term damage to their eardrums.

These headphones include volume limiting technology to keep the sound down, and work with any mobile device that features a 3.5mm jack (sorry, they’re not wireless). In addition, they include padded ear cups to keep ears comfortable, and are sized for a kid’s head (ages 3-9). In addition, the designs on the outside are very cool (we tried both the Batman ones and the Supergirl versions. Other popular brands are available (including Hello Kitty, Spider-Man, Barbie and My Little Pony), so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a pair for one of the little ones on your list.

-- Keith Shaw

iClever BoostCare headphones (cat, reindeer, bat)
$16 (each)
More info: http://www.iclever.com/boostsound/hs01-kids-headphones-pink.html

Let’s say that your kids aren’t really into super-heroes or other brands, but you still want a volume limiting headset for them. Check out the BoostCare line of headphones from iClever. They have three versions – one that makes you look like a cat (my youngest, cat-obsessed daughter loved these), a bat (Halloween is over but looking like a bat is cool), or the Christmas-themed reindeer version (with clip-on antlers).

Aimed at kids age 3 and older, these headphones have a maximum level of 85 db, and include soft, comfortable ear pads. The whole frame is made out of flexible plastic, they don’t seem as sturdy as some other headphones we tried, but not so much that they come off as cheap. These are corded, not wireless, so you can only use these with mobile devices with a 3.5-mm jack.

-- Keith Shaw

Air Hogs Connect Mission Drone
$150
More info: http://www.connect.airhogs.com/

If you want to get into the whole quad-copter drone space, you can invest lots of money into a high-end system that will likely fly a lot better than the ones in the under $100 set. If you (or your kids) have a lot of patience, you might enjoy this system, which combines drone flying with an augmented reality game/app for your mobile device.

The Air Hogs Connect Mission Drone is a small quadcopter powered via USB cable. Once fully charged, you place the drone on the AR mat and connect the app to the phone/tablet. From there, you can fly the drone, but in an augmented space (the app has something to do with rescuing people from invading aliens). The app is interesting in that you can play the app without the actual drone, so if you’re recharging the unit, you can still play the app and try to get better at your flying.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of patience with this, and my son even less. Getting the quadcopter to cooperate even during the training mission was a chore. The act of hovering took several attempts, and you have to position yourself so that the app can not only see the drone, but also the AR mat on the floor. By the time you sort of get the hang of it, you have to recharge the drone.

Still, I imagine that there are people out there with better skills and patience than I have, so if you’re looking for something that might get your giftee into the whole drone space without shelling out $1,000 or more, check this out.

-- Keith Shaw

Magic Sketch Deluxe Kit
$30
More info: https://www.magicsketch.com/?MID=8703401
Additional info: https://www.amazon.com/Boogie-Board-Magic-Sketch-Deluxe/dp/B01LW9LE3E

A few years ago we reviewed the original Boogie Board, a tablet-shaped device that lets you write on the screen and then erase it at the push of a button. I didn’t see how useful this was until my youngest started practicing her writing with the tablet at school (our school bought a lot of these to help kids write out the alphabet).

Now comes the Magic Sketch version, which adds art concepts to the Boogie Board. It’s basically the same tablet, but with different colors behind the screen as you’re writing with it. You can’t manipulate the colors, each part of the display hides a different color.

The tablet is also semi-transparent (if you take it out of its bracket), which means you can use this as a tracing tool. This was a lot more fun to do than freehand drawing, and it saves a lot of money than buying a whole bunch of tracing paper.

Like previous Boogie Boards, you can’t do anything with the drawing (like save it or export it or print it), you just push the button and the masterpiece is gone for good. But I suppose that’s not the point, it’s just a way for kids to develop their drawing, writing and tracing skills without having to worry about paper, pens, paint, etc.

The deluxe kit includes a bunch of different “brushes” and tools that help create different effects, but we found ourselves using just the pencil styluses the most. It also comes with some templates that you can slide in to help kids with their writing, numbers and games, but we didn’t receive those as part of our review sample.

-- Keith Shaw

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