I loved LEGO as a kid, and I still love the big Star Wars sets that they release today. I was never really into the other toys, but some of my friends were. It would would have been awesome if we could have used my LEGO sets and their Duplo or Lincoln Log sets together. If 3D printers didn't cost a large fortune in the early 90s, we could have made our dream a reality.
F.A.T. Lab and Sy-Lab have created the "Free Universal Construction Kit." This kit allows users to download the schematics and use a 3D printer to create connector pieces that allows different toys to connect to each other. You want that LEGO to work with Duplo? No problem. Want to connect some Lincoln Logs and K'Nex? You can do it. It's all very cool and should makes kids whose parents can afford a 3D printer very happy.
Here's a handy poster of all the parts and toy sets that can work together with the kit:
To get a sense of how these things look when combined together, here's a picture of four different construction toys combined using the Free Universal Construction Kit:
As TechCrunch points out, there are a few legal ramifications the team faces with this kit. The toy companies hold patents over their inventions and defend them to the death. That's why all the LEGO competitors have vastly different shapes and sizes for their bricks to avoid infringing on LEGO's patent. The team lays out their feelings on the matter:
Today’s manufacturers have little or no intrinsic motivation to make their products compatible with anyone else’s. Indeed—despite obvious benefits to users everywhere—the implementation of cross-brand interoperability can be nearly impossible, given the tangled restrictions of patents, design rights, and trademarks involved in doing so. So we stepped up. The Free Universal Construction Kit is the VLC of children’s playsets.
As we can see from the example above, interoperability is a question of power and market dominance. Most market leaders regard interoperability as an anti-competitive nuisance, a regulatory check on their ambition, or a concession to the whining of lesser players. Quite simply, interoperability is the request of the disenfranchised. And which end-user, in so many ways, is less enfranchised than a preliterate child?
The simple fact is that no toy company would ever make the Free Universal Construction Kit. Instead, each construction toy wants (and indeed, pretends) to be your only playset. Within this worldview, the other manufacturers’ construction sets are just so many elephants in the room, competing for your attention on the shelves of Toys-R-Us. No longer. The Free Universal Construction Kit presents what no manufacturer could: a remedy providing extensible, post-facto syntactic interoperability for construction toys. Let the fun begin!
Likewise, they find that only providing the blueprint for people to create these tools at home is completely legal. If they were selling the kit, that would be one thing, but 3D printers are creating this new challenge to copyright holders the world over. It soon will no longer be a question of a digital copy cutting into sales, but physical copies being cheaply produced that invalidate the need for industries like hardware and toy makers. Why buy a wrench when you can make your own?
The Pirate Bay has recently dabbled in this as well by offering Physibles for download. They are schematics for physical objects that users can create using a 3D printer. They even made the lofty claim that users would soon be able to print and assemble their own car using a 3D printer.
3D printers are fascinating while presenting new challenges and opportunities for our connected world. The Free Universal Construction Kit is the first 3D printer aided creation that I think people can fully support. Letting different playsets work together would only expand a child's imagination instead of limiting it.
The ad for the Free Universal Construction Kit is an amazing piece of nostalgia for those who remember toy commercials from the 80s and 90s. Check it out:
Do you like the Free Universal Construction Kit? Or do you think it pushes too far into violating patents and copyright? Let us know in the comments.