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Culture

The weird world of circuit-bending

Do you have young children? Have they outgrown some of those annoying kids' toys that make noise? Welcome to your new hobby.

If you spend any time with young children, you've been exposed to talking, beeping, musical toys. Most of them seem designed to annoy adults, but as good parents, we're willing to make the sacrifice if it keeps our children happy. Unfortunately, the average child's attention span for one of these toys is no more than three months, after which it sits in a corner, abandoned, until dad trips over it and sprains an ankle. Next stop: Freecycle.

Circuit-bent Speak & Spell
A Speak & Spell toy modified by Casper Electronics. Casper Electronics

Not so fast. Last week I was introduced to circuit-bending, the practice of taking abandoned kids' toys and creating musical instruments out of them. The concept is simple: each of these toys has a built-in audio processor. When the child performs an action, a circuit is closed and the audio processor makes the appropriate noise. But if you remove the cover, then make connections between different points on the circuit board--say, by using a couple of jeweler's screwdrivers attached to both ends of a test lead--you can get all kinds of otherworldly spaceship sounds. Once you've mapped out some cool sounds, you can solder the connections together, add cheap electronic parts like potentiometers and LEDs to change the tones, and you've essentially created a new musical instrument. Some people even use their own bodies to complete the circuit, allowing them to change the sound by placing different amounts of pressure on the appropriate contact points.

You can see and hear (via an online playback application) some great finished circuit-bent products at Casperelectronics.com--the site also has a handful of creations for sale, if doing it yourself sounds like too much work. Seattle artist Christopher Olson has been putting on shows with circuit-bent electronics for several years now, and there's a band out of the U.K. called the Modified Toy Orchestra that creates entire compositions and puts on live shows using only circuit-bent toys.

By the way, if you're too young to remember the original Speak & Spell toy, which is commonly used in circuit-bending, check out this Web-based Speak & Spell emulator and you'll get the idea.