Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Sensorimotor Master - Finding value in auto-morph gimmicks and one step transformations

- Leigh Gregurke

With the act of the transformation so integral to the transforming robot experience it is little wonder that auto-morph toys, 1 step transformations, spring loaded auto mechanisms and all of their engineered brethren are seen as outsiders. Forever identified as a gimmick and rarely considered great designs they are however a regular attendee on the transformers time line recently finding a revival in Hasbro's new approach to more accessible designs and play pattern transformations. There has been that association of simple, the inclination that they deny the viewer the traditional pleasure of the transformation process and an assertion that they reduce some of the value by taking away our interaction. I remember as a child a distinct memory of a friends parent scoffing at my knock off Twin Twist, "It's not even... educational without the transformation."

They were wrong, I am just 25 years late with my explanation why.

The importance of play can be seen in its capacity to promote learning and development of cognition (the processes of gaining understanding through experience, action and thought) . With play comes inner or shared social dialogue, imagination and self talking through problems and decisions, it builds pathways and promotes new language and understandings. Russian psychiatrist Len S. Vygotsky's research on play and cognitive development was a big influence on my thoughts and practice as an educator and artist. Despite his primary focus on play with a focus on imagination rather than object interaction there is still tremendous relevance. “...As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior” (1967, 16).  Play becomes a vessel in which we build our experiences and understandings, it is a pathway to new knowledge.

The process of play is underpinned by experimentation and inherit rules that are both followed, broken and re-established, a formative transformation process it is a combination of physical and mental efforts. Play I think is pivotal in developing an understanding of the object and understanding symbolism and representation. Vygotsky notes, “Play is a transitional stage in this direction. At that critical moment when a stick i.e., an object becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of horse from a real horse, one of the basic psychological structures determining the child’s relationship to reality is radically altered” (1967, 12). As toys for development there of course is the representational element, does this car represent a car or is it a car? can it be something else through play?  This understanding is further built upon through the act of play and in particular the learners interaction in the transformative process. The physical aspect of transformation is a way of developing an understanding of change, does this still have the same value if the learner however is removed somewhat from that change through auto-morph mechanisms?

Constructionist learning theory suggests it has tremendous value and sees that knowledge gathered by the learner themselves as having raised potential to be more widely understood and transferable than information presented from another in an educator/expert role. This model presents the learner as a scientist whom observes, builds knowledge through experimentation and their own experiences, a theory built on concepts presented by Piaget the Swiss
psychologist whom also has been profoundly influential in Educational Psychology. The observation theory suggests the importance of social demonstration, social learning through viewing another do a task, a model performing an act or demonstration. I know it could appear a stretch but when I let that Jumpstarter go or when a Battlecharger scoots awkwardly across my table and changes.... it is a demonstration, a performance, it is the task of transformation being carried out by another, in this case the carefully engineered toy that I initiated. I find that rather than dismiss the process as finished, rather than feel I have seen the act and there is nothing more to explore I want to know how it works. I want to test it again and watch it slowly. I want to be a scientist and through observation understand the mechanics. Play becomes an experience of learning in this moment.


Recently purchasing a Rescue Bots figure for my daughter I found myself fascinated by its one step transformation. At first I just did the motion and paid no mind to the moving pieces, assuming it only had a few complex parts I judged prematurely that little depth was to be found. Instead I began feeling the movements in my hand as I triggered the motion, I realised it was multiple parts and tensions at work. I observed closely as a hinged joint in turn pushed elements aside while itself sliding downwards creating motion for other parts. My daughter experienced the situation slightly backwards, as one of her first experiences with transforming toys it was interesting yet not remarkable. As she however started to experiment with more complex non auto-morph toys she recognized the difference and I think also the magic of very direct cause and effect. 

It was fascinating to observe what aforementioned theorist Piaget's 'Sensorimotor Stages' of development in action. Observing her demonstrate what he identified as 'Tertiary Circular Reactions', Piaget's suggested stage of experimentation of different techniques to attain responses and 'Early Representation Thought' as she created an understanding of the toy as a representation of a truck but also not a truck and also as an object of play that when manipulated represents a figure. Piaget placed emphasis on the way in which young minds build an understanding that an object has a permanence and continues to exist outside of simply seeing it. To watch her play and know that one form did not mean the other no longer existed was fascinating, an understanding had been created that a very simple physical motion would restore or dismiss one of the forms but it still remained, hidden but accessible through a now learned action.


While obviously hard to recall my own formative experiences I can trace paths to certain memories. Whilst I never owned a Twin-Twist or Top-Spin during my life I owned a steady flow of knock-offs that I tested the limits of regularly. I never saw their feature as a gimmick, it was to me a piece of genuine wonder watching them sometimes... and often not change in front of my eyes, bouncing up on their sides or flipping. It was such a kinetic experience and I tried it on different surfaces, downhill, uphill, tiled laundries and carpeted lounge-rooms and even sand pits and grassy yards. The process was both observation and interaction. The focus on early development might seem to validate these figures as early educational tools and promote relegation to being lesser valued to collectors/adult purchasers, does their value extend further than developmental benefits though?

The Beast Wars basic line contained a number of spring loaded toys that are sized perfectly to be played with one hand. Like a mindfulness exercise they are somewhat relaxing to observe rarely providing challenge, their simplicity in final design though obfuscates a mastery of execution and elegance. They suffer no consequences of their spring loaded mechanism that forebears were constrained with. Well past my early stages of cognitive development these experiences were a pleasant series of reminders but also past the initial surprise pop were highly presentable action figures capable of a plethora of dynamic and interesting poses, no longer hobbled in simplicity like their ancestors they made the most of Hasbro's embrace of ball joints adding extended user creativity and play past the functional automatic mechanism.

A line that would later see the spring loaded heritage passed on was the brilliant Animated Activators line. More ball jointed wonders with no limit of articulation and in some cases designs that eclipsed the silhouettes of their up-sized line entries. Activators Bumblebee scales perfectly with the rest of the mainline and I would suggest is a better all round toy than the deluxe class barely hampered by his automated mechanism. What this line also gave was a genuine pop, there is something entirely kinetic and cartoon like about pressing a integrated red button to kick-start the process. Much like the aforementioned curiosity of engineering I find myself now still fascinated by the motion, wishing I could see it slowed down. Even now I still engage that scientist element of my brain, fascinated and interested in observation and understanding.

From both an educational and development platform to one of valuing surprise, engineering and the value of simple play, I like to believe that automated and semi automated transformations should be considered as worthy of examination from both collectors and learners young and old alike. The process that we might consider lost, the transformation still occurs just in a different way and we are still a key agent in that process. To be able to go back with my gained knowledge now and justify the value of play to a detractor... I wonder now if that formative experience had any role in my passions for building an understanding of the value of play. Play at the time then and still now assisted in understanding the viewpoints expressed. Play allows us a space to experiment with our understandings of both the socio-cultural world and the physical world. It promotes us to re-create roles in a creative space that over time transfers, underpinning our everyday behaviors (Fisher 2011 , 348).

Next time you pull back one of those Battle-chargers hoping dearly its aged mechanism will work try not to think of the process as finished once you let go, ask yourself, how does it work, what is going on and why? Be a scientist and try different methods, understand how it works, make it work and reflect on your observations. Play. 

Follow Leigh on Twitter @AmbushThem

Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D. G., and Berk, L. (2011). Playing around in school: Implications for learning and educational policy. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play. Oxford University Press.
Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. In P. Mussen (Ed.) Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.

Vygotsky, Lev S. (1967). Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child. Soviet Psychology. Translated by Scripta Technica,