Hacking Lego – Toys for the Maker Generation
Children and adults all over the world love building things with creative toys like LEGO® bricks. There is one disadvantage though: the building blocks from different brands don’t fit together. This can be an expensive inconvenience for people who build models with the bricks. The minds behind MakerBrane modules have the solution, allowing you to link up anything and everything and build whatever you like. Read More
Urban designer Ayssar Arida is a LEGO addict. There is very little he has not built out of those small, plastic brick we all know from childhood. He coded his first lunar lander on the ZX81, built it with the classic LEGO Space set, and has been hooked ever since. The LEGO system has one shortcoming: LEGO play materials usually only work with other LEGO play materials. That means your creativity is limited by the shapes and pieces available in the LEGO universe. And you are committed to the system, which keeps LEGO top dog in the branch.
LEGO® play materials usually only work with other LEGO® play materials, which means you are committed to the system.
His partner, curator Sabine de Maussion, shares his passion. A few years ago, the couple developed a construction set to overcome this annoying limitation. Their first invention was called urbacraft, the City Crafting System that can be used to build literally any city and any building in the world. It consists of just two plastic interlocking modules, a wall and a floor, that can model the internal structure of any building. This skeleton can then be covered with customisable architectural facades printed on photo paper on your home printer. The flexible and easy-to-use system quickly made the rounds of the maker community, and the couple even received orders to create sets for famous buildings like the Cooper Hewitt Museum of Design in New York, the Musee Carnavalet in Paris, and the Sursock Museum in Beirut, and for Dover Street Market's in London.
But urbacraft was only designed for buildings. And while the kit continued to climb in popularity, customers also asked why urbacraft was limited to just buildings. Ayssar wasn’t satisfied either: “We set out to create an open design system, and instead urbacraft was changing into ‘LEGO architecture-like’ build-once-and-display sets. And everyone kept asking: why just buildings?”
A revolution in the world of modular systems…
The couple decided to relaunch and amplify the system under the MakerBrane name. What makes MakerBrane special is that the modules – or branes, as Aysaar and Sabine call them – are connectable and combinable with every other modular system, no matter the brand, and a whole host of different pieces. Each brane has holes and slits that link up with almost any item you would like to add: parts of other modular systems, electronic modules, 3D-printed structures, and craft items and toys of any kind. It is revolutionary in a way, since no other modular system has ever offered this range of functionality before.
“A MakerBrane starter set acts like an infrastructure that you activate with other things like LEGO wheels or modular electronics like littleBits or Microduino mCookie ™ (Arduino based). It really is a great framework to build your own stuff around. If you want to prototype something, MakerBrane will probably get you 80% of the way there and then you can 3D print your own custom additions to make it unique.”
It is revolutionary in a way, since no other modular system has ever offered this range of functionality before.
Meanwhile, the beloved urbacraft brand was kept on as a line of city-themed sets powered by MakerBrane. “When we decided to make more than buildings, the challenge became how to make the new modules retro-compatible (so you could also still make buildings), while at the same time connectable in more ways and with other things, including toys that each have their own modular dimensions and connectors,” Ayssar told us. “The biggest challenge was creating a system that is flexible, fun, easy to start, and challenging to master – all at the same time.”
The aim of MakerBrane is to inspire unlimited creativity among its users, as it allows you to transform your entire world into a construction set, and move beyond the few bits and pieces you buy to build only what’s on the box. “MakerBrane is a whole ecosystem that is open to anyone and lets them reuse what they already have in new ways. It wants to be the toy company of the Maker Generation – the generation empowered with new tech and natural imagination to create new things – and not just to consume ready-made stuff. We wanted to bring together STEM/STEAM skills (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts & Design, Maths), hands-on creativity, and playfulness. So we borrowed the word ‘brane’ (as in membrane) from theoretical physics, where branes are defined as elementary particles that can build – or contain – entire universes. We also love the play on words of course – branes and brains work very well together.”
“We’ve seen people make drones and remote control cars, but also cool colourful buildings, playful city kits, educational toys and even a physical version of Sim City.”
Another interesting feature of MakerBrane is that not only can you build your prototypes in “real” life, you can also design them online as 3D models. For instance, architects can set up a 3D portfolio on the MakerBrane platform, where they can recreate all their designs using the modules and the customisable facade system.
Though MakerBrane is still in beta mode and not yet publicly available, it has already become evident that there's huge demand for a hyper-compatible construction option like this. “We’ve done hundreds of workshops and events in the Middle East, Europe and the US, and people love it,” Ayssar says proudly. “They are calling it ‘The hacker’s LEGO’ and ‘the white canvas of toys’, and we love that! We’ve seen people make drones and remote control cars, but also cool colourful buildings, playful city kits, educational toys, and even a physical version of Sim City with weekly building challenges. Companies have made corporate gift sets; others have used it for brainstorming and team building workshops. It’s incredibly versatile.” Which is why they are preparing for launch: “We’re now scaling the manufacturing of the MakerBrane system to make it public soon, including an app with over 400 designs to build.”
… and a revolutionary business model
As a next step, Ayssar and Sabine want to turn the business of making and distributing modular systems on its head. “To really make a difference in the toy industry, it was important to open the system up to the community of makers and designers,” Ayssar explains. Hence, the couple doesn’t create the designs themselves. Instead they encourage others to join in the business of designing lines of toys. Illustrators, product designers and storytellers can come together and envision entire worlds with their own logic and brand aesthetic. In future, they can then sell their design recipes on MakerBrane’s marketplace and keep 70% of all revenue, like on the app store.
“Our vision is to launch with a crowdsourced design catalogue bigger than LEGO itself produced last year.”
To directly address the creative maker community, Ayssar and Sabine often hold design workshops at different universities. Their ambitions are high: “Our vision is to launch with a crowdsourced design catalogue bigger than LEGO itself produced last year. We partnered with some of the best design and architecture universities in the world, including Parsons in NYC, to encourage students to imagine additions to that catalogue. And we’re inviting interested designers, makers, creatives, and anyone interested in making cool stuff to join. You can request an invite and receive a free pack of our modules at makerbrane.com. We can’t wait to see what happens when you democratize the toy creation process!”