It's another good week for makers and tinkerers on Kickstarter, with some cool new tools that make traditionally high-end technology available on a budget, plus another kid's toy that might catch the attention of a few grownups too.
For vehicles and robots of all sorts, autonomy is the biggest and most exciting innovative trend these days, and autonomous vehicles are generally powered by one core technology: scanning LiDAR. This is the laser-based sensory system that can map environments, detect objects, and let a computer "see" its surroundings — and while it's not entirely beyond the grasp of smaller-scale projects, until now getting a decent system was not cheap, and the LiDAR sensor was often the single most expensive component in a robot. That's what these two creators discovered when they were trying to build their own autonomous robots, so instead they set out to build Sweep: a high-quality LiDAR sensor that clocks in at a mere $250 but attempts to match the performance of systems that cost several thousands. If it works, the ultimate effect could be an explosion of autonomous devices for the average consumer, as makers and engineers everywhere can start having a bit more fun with this critical technology and keeping down the price of products they end up creating.
This one isn't especially fancy or revolutionary, it's just good. The Bela is a low-latency audio processor that does what it says on the tin, and aims to do it really well. One of the liveliest maker frontiers is music: digital technology enables an essentially infinite list of possibilities for modding instruments, building entirely new ones, and connecting instruments to other systems. But music is also still a precision art for many, and any fun or fancy new instrument needs one thing if it's going to be seriously usable: low latency. Any noticeable delay between hitting a key (or whatnot) and hearing the sound is infuriating and often intolerable. Bela is a tiny, embeddable, programmable audio processing board that boasts a response latency of less than 1ms — a fraction of that achieved even by MIDI on a powerful computer, or one of the iPhone's many high-end audio apps. If it can consistently deliver on that, it could end up in a whole lot of experimental synthesizers, circuit-bent keyboards and creative audio installations very soon.
Two weeks ago, I highlighted another tech toy that lets kids build robots. That one took the form of a single unit, with the focus primarily on the programming. The Tio is a neat twist, taking the form of two (or more!) controllable "blocks" that are designed to be mashed together with all sorts of other stuff — Lego pieces, paper and craft materials, old toys, 3D-printed components, and some custom accessories like wheels and pulleys. The focus is more on building (though programming with the app is possible) which opens them up to kids who might still be too young to dive headlong into code — but that's just a guess, because I'm not a parent. Truth is I just think I'd have fun playing with them myself.