Nintendo changed the landscape of video games over a decade ago with the revolutionary Wii remote which came bundled with the Wii console. Never before had such a broad span of the population been caught up the world of video game entertainment. The very young, senior citizens, whole families getting together to compete at Wii Sports golf, ten pin bowling and more.

What suddenly made this previously techno-cryptic sub culture more accessible was the motion sensing capabilities of the Wii remote. It brought a more natural means of physical interaction with the software. It further democratised video games. Using playful mimicry users could swing a bat or bowl a ball. The user was more fully immersed in the interaction. By engaging a greater proportion of their bodies in a kind of theatrical improvisation or pretend play they acted out their on-screen role in a more involved way. In addition, this exuberance tended to be quite disarming and humorous in a social scene. Groups would compete, laugh and play together.

With Nintendo’s newest console, the Switch, we have the next generation of sensing controller called the Joy-Con. It’s smaller than the Wii remote and, in addition to motion sensing, one of the two bundled controllers also has an infra red camera. Haptic feedback is provided by the ubiquitous vibration or “rumble” effect. 

So What Exactly is LABO? Learning to Code by Making.

Labo is a combination of interactive software experiences, cardboard model construction kit and interactive programming application.  Nintendo designed Labo as a way to teach principles of engineering and basic programming. Labo was born out of experiments by in-house teams to find ways of extending the uses of the console and controllers.

Joy-Con controller and Switch console combine with cardboard models to create various Toy-Con constructions. 

The Joy-Con’s full network or sensory inputs and outputs are brought to play in the Labo Toy-Con constructions. The modest size of the controllers leads to them becoming embedded within the cardboard structures in order to sense user interactions. The Toy-Con connect with on screen experiences to become augmented toys.

labo box contents

All ready for our maker experience!

Initial Experiences 

The design of the software to help guide you through the construction processes is clear. You can easily rewind & fast forward through the more obvious steps where even the kids have worked out that you need to crease and fold the next few tabs and folds. The ability to spin, zoom and pan the 3D pieces around on screen is also a welcome feature to help clarify what to do next. It makes you wish that the Nintendo Labo team would take out the IKEA team for lunch and show them how to do instructions! Would make my life easier the next time I have to assemble the latest “Blerg” coffee table 🙂

As for the cardboard models themselves – the design intent is clear – use as little extra materials as possible and no gluing or cutting – in that respect they have very intelligent cardboard engineers on board. The models are just about as solid as they could be considering it is cardboard. Everything folds together with fastening tabs to slot into various points which means no messy glue near an expensive console, no fiddly cutting out – big plus points in my book.

Cardboard may have an aura of ‘cheapness’ and raise questions about longevity and durability but it has plus sides too. You can fix it yourself, more easily than you could if it were a kit of plastic parts. It’s also easier to paint decorate, customise and put your own creative ‘stamp’ on to cardboard. It has a more fun and less serious feel to it – “It’s just cardboard” after all and this makes it less precious, less scary, there’s less pressure that you are going to mess up the construction of some expensive model. This lends itself to the Tinkering philosophy and encourages a more friendly, growth mindset.

As an introduction to the larger projects the software starts with a simple warm up exercise. In this case it is a very quick build to assemble a holder for a Joy-Con controller. 

Joy-Con Holder

Warming up our Maker skills with a Joy-Con holder build exercise.

Tip: After the 1st tutorial start your building experiences with the remote-controlled “Car” Toy-Con. It’s a simpler model, quicker to build and you’ll get to the play phase before younger people get bored. You’re effectively constructing a large, cardboard HexBug. The cleverness is extending it to include a remote controller to drive your car and the ability to remotely view on-board camera footage from the car.  This simple project proved to be a big hit. Our team were playing with the car for hours after the build. 

In at the Deep End – Building the Fishing Rod

Labo fishing rod

Cardboard engineering at its very best.

The cleverly engineered fishing rod Toy-Con becomes a controller for a fishing video game. The sense of physical interaction does enhance the user experience when playing the game. It is a more lengthy, complex build and three out of five stages in to building the fishing rod and my twelve year old was yawning quite profusely, which isn’t anything unusual for a twelve year old admittedly, but the complexity of the model and the sheer number of folds and tucks and repeated steps starts to wear down the enthusiasm a little. You may need to break up your more complex builds into multiple stages. But, in the following days they did ask to build more parts from the kit so the process clearly captivated them enough to want to return for more.

The Piano

Next we tackled the Piano. Once again the complexity scaled up. Having experience from the previous builds helped to carry us along. Repeating familiar techniques to fold and fix sped up our progress but the sheer number of parts to assemble with the piano led us to span our build over two days. The piano Toy-Con uses the IR camera of the Joy-Con controller in combination with reflective stickers to enable the model to interface with the software. It is sheer genius. Such a simple principle done very well. it means you can have lots of what are effectively switches without the need for complex wiring to connect them all together with the console. The piano keys use this technique to play notes and voices can be changed using plug-in keys which each have a custom sticker pattern. Further buttons allow for jumping up or down an octave and even playback/record functions. Lastly the piano has a slot on the top into which you can place one of a set of cards with waveform shapes on allowing you to change the character of the sound produced. You can even create your own waveform cards to experiment. These cards are also scanned by the Toy-Con’s IR camera!

Labo Piano

Our finished Toy-Con piano .


Labo Piano Parts

The ingenious voice changing key controllers which you insert into the piano to change the sound.

Each subsequent Toy-Con we built came with its own interactive gaming experiences such as the racing game for the motorcycle handlebars and cartoon playhouse scenes for the house. What’s more interesting is how many of the how to sections in the Discover area fully explain how all the various technical systems work and also how you can effectively Hack these to create further experiments.  One such example is using the motorbike Toy-Con as a musical instrument.

Tip: The PDF templates for all current Labo kits are freely available online via the Nintendo Japan Website. This appears to be a clear nod to the openness of the Maker community and a gesture that is appreciated. 

The Toy-Con GARAGE: Visual Coding

The Toy-Con GARAGE is where you can truly weave your own magic. It’s a full on interactive authoring application. Here you can design custom Labo experiences, coding interactions between the embedded Joy Con controllers, your own cardboard models and the software to both sense and respond to the physical world. Its a great blend of interaction design, coding, craft, making ,engineering, media authoring and play. You visually code your own interactive experiences by joining “nodes” together using connections between them as either inputs or outputs. It starts out with one of the most simple of coding principles – “If this, then do that”. An input node acting as an if this is connected by a line to an output node acting as a then do that. It all builds from there.

Visually the GARAGE is a rather austere interface and has the feeling that it’s somewhat of a prototype itself and looking at some of the designs for more complex software interactions it can get a bit messy and cluttered when your detailed software build is a big collection of white lines and boxes on the screen. Maybe Nintendo will address this UX limitation as time moves on. 

One clever area of the Toy-Con GARAGE  is the instructional sections. These how to guides are presented as a kind of message thread with speech bubbles, embedded images and videos and you can choose your responses to move on or ask them to repeat the information. It’s all done with a witty tone of voice and good humour. The fact that they’ve livened up what could be a very dry section by identifying how much young people are comfortable using apps like WhatsApp and have such a technical fluency with them is a mark of Nintendo’s cleverness and attention to detail. The conversational style represents an interesting way to deliver instructional content and brings to mind recent developments in chatbots. Maybe this interactive narrative could be a more responsive, user led way of imparting information where the student drives the process through conversation and inquiring questions. A ‘dialogue of discovery’ as it were.

The mark of a truly exciting innovation is the way it captivates the collective imagination, sparking yet more creative responses. This is already starting to happen with ideas like Vimal Patel’s recreations of some of the Toy-Cons using Lego as a more durable medium.

There are plenty of helpful videos on the Nintendo YouTube channels and the news section of the Nintendo Switch home screen. Guides on how to use the Toy-Con Garage software, ideas for new things to make and showcases of the best custom creations from around the world. New content is being added weekly.

Which leads me nicely on to Nintendo’s own competition, the Nintendo Labo Creators Contest. It’s great to see Nintendo encouraging users to continue on their tinkering and experimenting journey by offering exclusive prizes. I hope these competitions happen regularly to maintain the creative momentum.

We are just at the start of this creative journey but I feel the Labo ecosystem has potential and hope that Nintendo nurtures this with regular updates, fresh content, continued development of the software side and it’s also important that they support the community of users. MIT Professor Mitchel Resnik, creator of Scratch, says that having a network of peers is one of the five key pillars of creative learning, supporting each other with shared ideas and encouragement.

From my own perspective I can see ideas for how to build classroom activities using the Labo software and Joy-Con controllers. The emphasis on motion sensing and hacking together out of simple materials like cardboard and other junk modelling resources has the potential for dynamic, engaging, physical and expressive forms of creative learning in a classroom context. I can clearly see its potential for physical computing, immersive learning and STEAM experiences.

Who would have thought that one of the most promising technological developments of the year would be made out of cardboard? I still chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the idea but well done Nintendo for continuing to push the boundaries of interactive entertainment and striving to find fresh perspectives.