The Strandbeest Model Kit is a home run in multiple categories. The box says "Ages 8 and up", and that seems about right (adult supervision recommended to make sure you're following all the assembly instructions exactly). It takes about 90 minutes to assemble (I timed it), which is enough to feel like a rewarding journey in itself, and not just an extra thing you have to do after you open the box. The work can be easily split between multiple people to make a family night out of it. The assembly instructions are reasonably clear and actually work. And the finished product actually does what the videos show it doing. (Most demo videos show the Strandbeest moving under the power of an air hose, but it works perfectly fine if you just blow on the fan.) When you can see all of the individual plastic parts moving in concert, it gives such an uncanny impression of an inanimate object come to life, that a few people that I showed the walking Strandbeest to, said that it "creeped them out". Like I said, home run.
And the kit provides a portal into the world of the full-sized Strandbeests, built from PVC pipe and corrugated cardboard by Dutch "kinetic sculptor" Theo Jansen. Of all of the links and videos that we keep sending each other about "amazing things around the world that you've never seen before", how could we have missed this?
Before or after you put the kit together, you and your kids can gorge on the over 20,000 Youtube videos showing the walking creatures. According to the BBC One piece, "Theo Jansen is evolving such clever designs that one day, he hopes they'll be able to leave home, and live permanently in the Dutch sand dunes." In the printed interview that comes with the assembly kit, Jansen says, "My ultimate goal is that the strandbeests stroll, eat, reproduce, and survive as as group on the beach without me," and I can't quite tell if he's kidding. The "reproduce" and "eat" parts are probably impossible, but as for "stroll" and "survive" -- if a future design becomes "smart" enough to change direction when it hit an incline, or to walk across uneven terrain, then couldn't they keep wandering in the sand dunes under the power of the wind, until one of the parts broke? Well, why not? I can imagine the full-size Strandbeests "in the wild" becoming such a tourist draw that they would need human volunteers at the beach just to stop visitors from getting too close and damaging them.
Until then, if you want to go in person to see one of the full-size Strandbeests walking alongside the ocean under the power of the wind, you'll probably have to check Theo Jansen's public event schedule when it ramps up again in the summer of 2014. According to his website, the studio is also open to the public year-round, where you can operate one of the non-wind-powered full-sized Strandbeests which has to be pushed or pulled manually. I'd be willing to go quite far out of my way to see one of these things up close, next time I'm anywhere in or near Holland.
The kit to build your own mini-beest is $35 from ThinkGeek. (When I wrote my gift guide last year, some people accused me of shilling for ThinkGeek, Slashdot's corporate cousin, but this year, they're owned by different parent companies, so suck it haterz.) Earlier versions of the kit cost about $70 and came only with Japanese instructions. Adam Savage from Mythbusters put one together in 45 minutes just from reading the diagrams, since he doesn't speak Japanese, but the rest of us will probably do better with the English version that is now finally available.
The kit comes with a "science and history guide" which, along with the interview with Jansen, describes the successive "generations" of Strandbeests he has built, and the new features that were added over the years, The models are described eerily like living creatures:
"Animals that can utilize wind energy to live do not need to eat food. This type of creature can dominate sandy beaches where there is an abundance of wind but not very much nutrients. This is a tremendous advantage to the strandbeests since they do not need to compete with the other animals in the nature."
In the "Vaporum period", Jansen added the ability for Strandbeests to harness energy from the wind and store it in the form of compressed air in plastic bottles attached to the bodies, which he calls "muscles". In the most recent "Cerebrum period", Jansen added the ability for different parts of the body to communicate using compressed air in polyurethane tubes, which he calls "nerves":
"When a sensory appendage, a polyurethane tube dragged behind on the ground, touches water, the beest turns itself around and walks away from the water, saving itself from drowning in the ocean. Furthermore, the beest is built with a step counter and a system to record its experience. From the second time around, the beest stops three steps in front of the memorized water line and turns itself around before its antenna hits the water."
To a steampunk fan, this must sound like one of their dreams come to life.
(Apparently a $60 coffee table book by Theo Jansen, describing the evolution of his designs and including a DVD with more video footage, also exists, but is currently out of stock.)
If you get hooked after putting your first Strandbeest together, there is at least one other model available, the mini Rhinoceros, currently only with Japanese assembly instructions. If the first English-language assembly kit is a hit, hopefully the instructions for the mini Rhinoceros kit will be translated into English some time in the next year.
In fact, judging from the quality of the "Engrish" on the box and in the "science and history" guide (presumably translated from Dutch by way of Japan), it looks as if the English-language translation was probably rushed in order to make the Christmas 2013 selling deadline -- the right decision, no doubt. (The assembly instructions, on the other hand, were clearly written by a native English speaker, and are easy to understand all the way through.) At first I the broken English detracted from the quality of the product, but now I kind of like the effect, since the writing gives the eerie feeling that the brilliantly designed object in your hands is a touchstone to a foreign culture much smarter than ours. All your beest are belong to us!