You’d think, by now, that technology would have figured out a way to fix the holidays, so that the process of picking out gifts to satisfy the disparate desires of one’s family wasn’t such a brain-drain. Shopping for the young people isn’t easy. And as the market of actual things gives way to a future of virtual realities, the mere process of picking an object to give as a gift — once such a natural part of the holidays — can feel old-fashioned, a strange symbolic exchange of instantly antiquated junk.
What to get the person who does nothing and whose phone does everything?
For those of us whose fondness for the traditional physical gift seems at odds with their offsprings’ devotion to the technofuture, I offer this quick collection of tech-driven gift ideas for the whole family that offer a little more substance than an iTunes gift card and require a lot less cash than that Juicero you bought the family last year. Man, was that a bad idea.
For the tiny tablet addict: What started as a cheap virtual babysitter has, over a couple years, become an inseparable extension of your child’s personality. Whoops! You may not be able to pry the iPad out of your child’s sticky hands without unleashing the beast within, but you can transform their experience of it in ways that gently turns them toward, you know, the real world, which is cool, too!
Take Osmo ($99- $189), an augmented reality playset. Using a simple iPad/iPhone mount and a camera reflector, Osmo cleverly shifts video games off screen and onto the tabletop, carpet, wherever. Using the app in tandem with custom playsets, kids can assemble tangram puzzles, play word games, practice drawing, learn basic coding, open a virtual pizzeria, and even hook up a Hot Wheels track. (HOT WHEELS!) For something even more hands-on, you could try a Kano, a Lego-esque laptop kit (for just under $250) that allows young ones to build their own computers from motherboard to display, learning everything from processors to Python along the way. (Also check out their extremely cool motion sensor and pixel kits.)
For the rising rockstar: The one who wears headphones to the dinner table every night would tell you what she wants for Christmas if she could hear you, but she can’t. Don’t bother bothering her, just buy her a Spire Studio. One of my favorite gadgets of the year, the Spire works in concert with an app and functions as a tiny mobile recording studio. You can plug microphones and instruments directly into the Spire, let it adjust your levels automatically, and with a tap or two record multitrack audio directly to your smartphone, where it can then be polished up with effects, mixed and formatted, and shared with friends (or the world). At $350 it’s half the price of most recording software, and will give your child the head start on writing the hit single that will carry you gently into retirement.
Or if, like my nephew, you seem to be headed more towards the DJ decks of Ibiza than the high school band, I recommend the line of tiny synthesizers in Korg’s Volca line — not a single one of them over $200. The Volca Beats, Volca Bass, Volca Keys, and Volca Sample are all interconnectible, battery powered, backpack-pocket sized, great-sounding powerhouses for budding electro stars on the go. Now’s the time at Christmas when we dance.
For the young dreamer: The frustrated genius (for there is no other type) in your family may dream of escaping reality. And while dolls are one way to do that, awesome augmented reality cubes are another. Like the Merge Cube! What looks at first like a puzzle-free Rubik’s cube covered in odd glyphs and icons transforms into virtually anything (or, as the company puts it, “a hologram in your hand”) when viewed through a set of Merge Goggles. From there, users (age 10 and up) can explore virtual worlds, use the cube to play games, and download different apps to change the experience altogether. (At $70 for the bundle, it’s an inexpensive foray into the still pricey world of VR as well.)
Said genius may have grander plans for taking over this world rather than some imaginary one. And for that young leader in training I recommend robot kits from Kibo. Ranging from $229 to $499, Kibo works as a screen-free open robotics platform. Using wooden blocks and simple parts, kids can build robots that dance, draw, and, maybe one day, do the Christmas shopping.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur.