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Creative construction

Engineer hopes a new type of toy will pry older children from video games


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Creative construction
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Creative building toys such as Legos and Duplos seem to fascinate young children—right up to the age when they migrate to more passive video games. Electrical engineer Charles Sharman noticed this trend in the children he taught in Sunday school and wished there was a building toy that appealed to older kids and encouraged them to create rather than be passively entertained.

So he designed it himself.

Sharman’s concept, called Crossbeams, is what he refers to in his company website as a creating toy rather than an assembly toy. He researched building toys and found that many of them have a huge number of specialized pieces such as those for airplanes, cars, or special angles and shapes. He believed that too many piece types tended to stifle creativity.

Crossbeams claims it requires only 18 distinct pieces to create the frames that form the basis for many types of structures. The same set, according to the website, can make an airplane, a train, a house, and a mountain.

Sharman also designed his building toy concept so the structures would be sturdy. He noticed that in traditional building toys, the force required to join the pieces is equal to the separation force, which significantly limits the strength of the joints and the complexity of the structures.

Crossbeams solves this problem with joints that are connected in a simple, two-step process involving a slight twist of a small ring. The resulting joints are strong enough to create models with real functionality. The product website shows examples that include an outdoor pet run, a book prop, and an elevated trash can holder.

Kits are available with instructions for building anything from a 123-piece fighter jet at $26.02, to a 1,482-piece model of the Brooklyn Bridge at $266.03. But Sharman says he is committed to keeping costs down by limiting the number of distinct pieces in a model.

“Once you own a few thousand pieces, you can build nearly anything,” he says. “And you no longer need to purchase new pieces. In our opinion, however, increasing your creativity is more important than increasing our profits.”

Graffiti sniffer

Vandalism of railcars is a worldwide problem. Removing graffiti spray painted on train cars is expensive and catching the perpetrators—called “taggers”—is notoriously difficult. But Australia’s Sydney Trains is fighting back with a new technology that sniffs out spray paint vapor.

The project, called “Mousetrap,” uses chemical sensors to detect vapors from taggers’ paint cans and marker pens. Once the vapors alert the electronic “nose,” the system cues live cameras at the location to capture images of the vandals and forward them to police.

According to the New South Wales website, the system has so far led to the arrest of more than 30 offenders. —M.C.

Clearing a path

The International Space Station (ISS) has altered its trajectory many times over the years to avoid collisions with space debris. But nearly 3,000 tons of space junk orbiting the earth make it difficult for the ISS to step out of the way, and an alternative may be for the ISS simply to blast dangerous space debris with a laser cannon.

Researchers from Japan’s Riken Computational Astrophysics Laboratory are proposing a space-debris tracking system coupled with a 100,000-watt ultraviolet laser that would vaporize the surface of a target, pushing it away from the station and toward the atmosphere. A smaller-wattage proof-of-concept laser is scheduled to be delivered to the ISS as early as 2017. —M.C.


Michael Cochrane Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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