Culture

Roll Over Thomas the Tank: Intelino Is the New Smart Train in the Toy World

YouTube screenshot of the Intelino train.

“There’s something about a train that’s magic,” the late Richie Havens famously sang in his 1980s-era Amtrak commercials. While I don’t know about the “magic” part, there’s definitely something that’s hardwired in kids that makes them fascinated by trains. Many of us can recall having Lionel or HO scale trains around the Christmas tree as kids, and plenty of kids – and adults – have built freestanding permanent layouts.

Intelino is a new endeavor, by Innokind, a California start-up, to bring kids’ love of trains into the 21st century and add some extra magic. It’s also a sly way to teach them the basics of computer programming. But more about that later.

The basic set ships in an attractive 10.7 x 5.6 x 4.5-inch box. Inside are: twenty pieces of track, including straights, curves, and switches; colorful “action tabs” that program what the trains will do; a locomotive and a passenger car; plus stickers to apply colorful stripes to the rolling stock; and a USB charging cable for the locomotive’s built-in Lithium Polymer battery. The overall feel is bright and colorful. More a futuristic light-rail commuter train than a nostalgic early 20th century Thomas the Tank approach to make railroading accessible to modern young tikes.

For older kids (and adults), there is also a free downloadable app for the iPad, iPhone, and Android, that can also control the locomotive via Bluetooth, overriding the action tabs and allowing users to play the locomotive’s whistle and bell, along with a speedometer and other features.

But the app isn’t necessary to get started as the action tabs, read by an optical sensor at the bottom of the locomotive, program the train to speed up, slow down, stop, reverse, and decouple, depending on the combination and order of the tiles. It’s almost like magic.

For example, if you put a white tile and two green tiles on the track, the train will speed up. If you put a white tile and three green tiles, the train goes even faster (and what kid isn’t going to do that?) But if you reverse the train’s direction so the optical reader sees green-green-white… nothing happens. And like magic, a three-year-old not only learns the commands faster, but also that you have to put your commands on the track in the right order. I guess that’s not magic, it’s very basic programming. (But don’t tell the youngsters that.)

The track can be assembled in a variety of layouts, and additional track and cars are promised by the manufacturer. And while the train itself is backward compatible with existing wooden tracks made by the best-selling Brio company, a link to join Intelino’s plastic tracks to Brio’s wooden tracks isn’t available yet, but is promised for the future. Right now you have to run the train on one type of track or the other. And of course, on the wooden tracks, you have to use the app to control the train, as the magic tiles only click into the Intelino track.

When some of us were growing up, model trains evoked the era of steam locomotives and were the domain of little boys and their dads. The Intelino train’s design evokes the 21st century and while it is clearly a train, it has a bit of space-age look to it. And to quote my wife – it’s just adorable.

There’s no doubt that 21st century Christmas trees will look great with an Intelino train speeding around them. But Intelino will provide kids with fun – and subtly teach the rudiments of computer programming – long after the holidays are over. And we adults, who remember our inchoate childhood love of trains, will enjoy it as well.

Not having children, I am not as in tune with today’s kids as many of you readers are. But as Groucho Marx once said, “I must confess, I was born at a very early age,” and having passed through the ages of your kids and grandkids, I’m pretty sure I would have loved Intelino as a tike. And speaking to my friends who have kids, I know how important it is these days to get those little brain cells working early on. Intelino is fun, and can allow parents to feel like they are giving young kids a step up in the STEM race.

Currently, Intelino is available at Amazon.com, in U.S. Apple stores, and in Canada at Best Buy.

AUTHORS NOTE:  I do have a relationship with the manufacturer, Innokind.  My wife is Innokind’s attorney, and I first saw the Intelino train when we went to CES (the giant Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas at the beginning of the year. While I was wandering around looking for new and interesting technology to blog about, she was helping at the Intelino booth.  So, of course, I played with Intelino before it ever came into production, and wrote about it at PJ Media’s sister site, Instapundit.com. But I did buy my Intelino on Amazon for real cash money. I did play with it (and it’s still actually set up on our old dining table), and did have a bunch of adult friends play with it too. So the above is my honest view of the product.