Young kids love trains, but many of the popular sets designed for this age group are decidedly low-tech, using wood tracks and unpowered cars. Available this March for $99 in the U.S., Intelino’s Smart Train set is engaging and simple enough for a toddler, while providing a fairly complex set of action blocks kids of all ages can use to program the trains and a powerful app to drive them.
The brainchild of Dr. Armen Kroyan, who previously worked on Ozobot, the Smart Train comes with 20 interlocking plastic tracks, a lead engine car, a caboose and a set of 40 plastic snaps in various colors. By attaching the snaps to different parts of the track in sets of two to five, kids provide code for the train to read as it rolls over them.
The system comes with a laminated card that shows 17 different actions you can program with the snaps, including going forward, reversing, turning onto a branch track and stopping temporarily. So, for example, if a kid wants to make the train go as fast as possible, they put down one white, three greens and another white. If they want the car to reverse, they attach one white and one blue action snap.
Snapping together color patterns and showing that each can perform different actions is a great way to teach young kids, even preliterate preschoolers, the basic idea of programming. Also consider that kids can string together an entire program that moves the train around by placing different sets of color snaps at different locations on the track.
One action that’s pretty neat is that you can program the lead train to decouple automatically from the wagon. The cars connect via a magnet, but the lead car’s magnetic is electric so the program deactivates it.
The Smart Train cars are also just the right size to fit onto traditional wooden train tracks and to couple with traditional wooden cars that attach by magnet. So the possibilities for these trains are endless.
In addition to using color snaps, kids can control the Bluetooth-enabled train using an iOS or Android app allows them to change the train’s direction, make it play different sounds, control its speed or even set sounds for the train to make. Much like real programming where you write your own functions, kids can create custom actions using the app that they can then invoke by placing their own color snap patterns patterns on the track.
During a brief demo at Intelino’s CES booth, the trains seemed speedy and sturdy. I really like their modern aesthetic, which reminded me of sleek, European trains or high-tech subway cars. The lead train has a lot of tech inside, including an ARM Cortex processor, a Bluetooth LE radio, capacitive sensors on the front and back and an accelerometer.
Intelino says the train is targeted at kids aged, 3 to 9 and it’s easy to see how older children can have a lot of fun with this by expanding it, coming up with custom programs and combining it with different train cars. It’s also interesting enough for parents to enjoy together with their kids.