Tickle Me Elmo? How About Dissect and Modify Elmo?

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Toys provide a great opportunity for exploration and building your basic electronic skills. They’re usually fairly simple and can be bought at low cost. When I was a kid, and something inevitably broke, I always used it as an opportunity to take it open and find out what was inside. As the excitement of playing with a toy faded, the curiosity about what was underneath the plastic shell grew. When I was a kid, I didn’t have the tools or know-how to fix whatever was wrong. As an adult, I’m still an electronics novice, but my curiosity hasn’t waned.I was recently at a thrift store and picked up a Chicken Dance Elmo. I immediately knew I wanted to perform a toy autopsy and figure out what was going on under the skin. Once I cut away the exterior fabric with a craft knife, I learned there were two buttons that controlled which audio clips played and which set of dance moves Elmo performed. Only one of the buttons was working. By exploring how the toy was constructed, I was able to trace the wires from the non-working switch and figure out where they’d broken and get it operating again.

Over the years I’ve seen people circuit bend toys to create distortion and change the pitch. After some experimenting, I couldn’t get Elmo to cooperate, so I went in a different direction to get the desired result. I decided to add volume control and an external audio jack so I could connect Elmo to the audio input on a guitar amplifier. The process was made fairly simple by using the ideas in this Make: article.

After wiring in an audio jack and potentiometer I was able to control the volume coming from the toy’s internal speaker, or cut it off altogether by plugging it into an external speaker like headphones or an amp. After I had the new components mounted, I decided to modify Elmo’s looks with some hot glue and foam core to reflect his new twisted sound.

If you’re curious about electronics—check your kid’s toy box for broken toys to hack and modify. Thrift stores and the clearance aisle are another great source for low cost gadgets to experiment with. And there’s something deeply satisfying about getting under the skin of a toy and turning it into something the manufacturer never intended.

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