Electrical Childhood Inspires Career Choices

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Robert Leyland's Electrical Engineering ChildhoodRobert Leyland's Electrical Engineering Childhood

Robert Leyland’s Electrical Engineering Childhood

It’s daunting to realize how much impact we have on our children’s future. However, my conversation with Robert Layland gives me cause for hope. I’m heartened by the knowledge that every encouragement, every weekend project and every late night bedtime chat has within it the power to set our small people on track to discover their dreams.

I had talked to Robert Leyland on a previous visit to Toys for Bob, the makers of the Skylanders games, and back then I had been intrigued by not only his desk full of electrical engineering goodies but his unconventional solutions to problems. It’s not just that the technology in the Skylanders portal is cutting edge, but its implementation and the user experience it creates simply hasn’t been seen before.

Returning to the studio for Skylanders Giants I was looking forward to talking more with Leyland about how the portal technology evolved to include Lightcore figures and why they had moved away from wireless to wired hardware this time round.

As you can see below, we covered those basics, however what was much more interesting was how he credited his father and childhood as the inspiration for his electrical engineering smarts.

“When I was a little kid my dad built a crystal set for me. That got me interested in electronics as a hobby. I played with electronics, amateur radio and I built a TV camera and computer and all that kind of stuff — when I was a teenager and then through high-school. Over the years I occasionally accumulated electronics in my basement and played around with them.”

I often wonder whether the obsessive nature of my children, and their endless desire to horde all kinds of electronic detritus was something I should be worrying about. Hearing Leyland talk in such endearing terms about the support he had from his parents in his hobbies, I’ve been inspired to encourage my kids to delve deeper into the things they love rather than damping down their enthusiasm.

Leyland talked about how these skills perfectly placed him to make a key contribution to what we now know as the technology behind Skylanders. “When Skylanders came around we had this challenge about how to bring this toy to life. We built an Arduino controller with an RFID interface and said well how are we going to do this. I said, ‘Well I could do that.’ and wired it up on my Heathkit training board and did some of it in my basement and brought it all into work.”

It reminded me of the conversation I’d had with I-Wei Huang (Character Director at Toys for Bob), where the skill set he had from his hobby of making steam powered robots had led to him modelling and designing the characters for the new Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure game.

As we talked it became clear that Leyland was also keen that subsequent generations catch the electrical engineering bug. “A large part of this I credit to having it as a hobby as a kid and my parents who encouraged me to pull things to bits and enjoy the process of understanding how something works. If any kid opens one of these up and figures out how it works my job is done. I brought someone along to the next generation of engineers.”

In an age where we are often warned off taking things apart, either from the dangers of what’s inside or from legal ramifications of disclosing company secrets, it’s good to hear someone encouraging youngsters to get their hands dirty with electronics.

I’m all too aware that my kids easily default into consumer mode, assuming that they can’t possibly understand what’s going on under the hood of their favorite gadgets.

I took a step towards changing that perspective by opening an old calculator up and tracing the circuitry and chips to describe how the answers are computed. It’s actually proved quite revolutionary and got them asking to take all sorts of other things apart (with the appropriate supervision). But more than that, it’s been one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had with them and a real privilege to open this door to a world of possibilities they didn’t know previously existed.

Skylanders Giants is available from Amazon for $59.96.

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