When Raul Gutierrez’s son was younger, he came up with a great name for his father’s smartphone. “He’d call it the everything machine,” says Gutierrez, founder of childrens’ app company Tinybop. “Because to him it could do everything.” The kid was onto something. A smartphone really is an everything machine. It’s a phone, a camera, a movie screen, and so much more, stuffed into a glassy rectangle that fits in your pocket.
For many youngsters, a smartphone is like magic. “I realized that it’s hard to deconstruct how much technology is hidden inside the supercomputers we all have in our hands,” Gutierrez says. And that’s a problem. The way Gutierrez’s sees it, it’s not enough to know how to play that race car game; kids should understand how the gyroscope in the phone makes playing that game possible. Gutierrez wanted to turn his smartphone inside out and expose its guts. So he created an app.
The Everything Machine—a nod to his son’s observation—runs $2.99 and follows Robot Factory in Tinybops’ Digital Toys series. Everything Machine breaks down a phone’s components—camera, microphone, display, and so forth—into friendly illustrations. Using a basic visual programming language, these components can be dragged and dropped and mixed and matched to create new machines. A facial recognition camera that takes a picture when exposed to light. Or a motion detector that triggers a sound recording when someone enters the room.
Every machine starts with a battery. From there, kids add to it by dragging and dropping controls (toggles, buttons, timers) or detectors (light, motion, or sound, for instance) that trigger inputs like a camera, microphone or sound recorder. If you want to alter that data, you can turn photos into kaleidoscopic images or alter the pitch of recording by dragging and dropping modifiers onto your screen. Outputs allow you to save photos, recordings or motion to your device or activate things like your phone’s flashlight or vibration mode. The components are connected by a dashed line that indicates the path along which each will be activated.
The app might look like a toy, but it’s a programming tutorial for beginners. It uses cause and effect logic—if this happens, then that happens—and Gutierrez says the app teaches the same basic skills kids learn in computer science classes. “Programming is essentially stringing together these parts of a machine,” he says. The app teaches the principles of very simple logic gates. “So if you have something coming in on one side and something coming in on the other side and both are turned on, the signal will go through the gate,” he explains. “That’s normally not taught until high school.”
Gutierrez says the key to making programming accessible is making it tangible. “A lot of times in school the way that it starts is very esoteric and I wanted something that was purely visual that lets kids get their hands dirty and get excited by the idea,” he says. “Once they’re excited by the idea, that esoteric stuff doesn’t seem so esoteric.”
It seems to be working. In one use case, a kid used the phone’s motion sensor to capture students as they were walking into a classroom. Every time someone walked through the door, it would snap a photo and a counter would tally attendance. And though there are plenty of practical applications of Everything Machine, Gutierrez says the app is an ideal tool for pranks. His kids, for example, programmed the phone to become a light detector and hid it in a dark closet. Whenever someone opened the closet, the light detector triggered a video of someone screaming. And of course there’s always the old standby. “It also makes an incredible fart machine,” Gutierrez says with a laugh.