The Story of the Pop'n Flow Modular System

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Pop'n Flow Modular System

The pop’n flow modular system is a major step in the evolution of flowtoys, bringing back prop modularity and combining much of what Sean has learned making props since 1996, when he built his first light-up staves with 12v incandescent accent bulbs from radio-shack mounted in tennis balls on shower-curtain rods he found on the street.

In Sean’s words:
I’m not sure “free will” is an illusion, but I am sure that I didn’t make flowtoys out of nothing. I always feel awkward claiming any flowtoys as MY “invention”. It simplifies the story for people, and creates a simple label for me as an “inventor” but as Alan Watts put it: "What you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call "here and now." You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.”

I feel grateful for the modern human world we have collectively built, and which has built and continues to influence me. It is a work in progress with much to improve, but is also full of wonders and the thriving of conscious creatures. I feel driven to contribute to it as effectively as I can. My path has led me to building props for flow and I strive to optimally channel the needs of the community into physical props.

I made my first modular fire staff in 1998 when I was backpacking around the world (to find my place in it). I wanted to use the same tubes and wicks for all my props to fit them in my pack: a long single-staff with 4 wicks spaced out, which could break down into a center-half and two ¼-length ends, with rubber bicycle inner-tube straps that could all be combined and used as short-double staffs, devil-sticks, swinging clubs, and poi. In a way, the 1/4-length ends were the original “spokes” for flow props, and probably not the first in the world. Any kid who’s ever used a modular building kit like “tinker toys” knows where this goes… everything possible, just give it time and human energy :)

In 2004 I founded flowtoys with a modular system of lights, tubes, caps and adapters to enable a wide variety of props, including staff-end “spokes” with poi and nunchaku adapter “hubs".

Modularity has many benefits, some of which were critical for our humble beginnings in a niche market:

  • A single light unit, which requires high-volume manufacturing to produce, can be used in many different props made with low-volume methods, eg. poi, staff, wand, nunchaku etc.
  • If any part of a modular system breaks, it is cheap and easy to replace that single part.
  • If you want to modify or upgrade a modular prop, it is easy to add, remove, or replace parts.
  • It is easy to disassemble for travel.
  • You can reconfigure parts during use when creatively inspired or to enable others.
  • You can assemble a flow toy optimized for you.

There are also down sides to modularity:

  • There is usually some compromise in performance, typically in stiffness, tightness and balance.
  • While maintenance is cheaper and easier, durability might not be as good as there are more parts to fail.
  • It is harder to light up the entire prop.
  • Depending on your prop, there may be more buttons and batteries to handle.

Over the years many flowtoys have become less modular in favor of higher performance, though many parts are still and have always been modular, it’s not so easy to change a staff into poi, or one type of poi into another, or just change the length of your staff, which used to be as simple as swapping out a tube or two.

When I was working on our “vision” juggling club in 2016 I realized the club shaft was essentially a spoke that could be a modular component to make staves, poi, dragon-hubs etc. I did not yet have a way to combine them that met all my requirements: affordable, durable, high performance, but I did design a few versions of the circuit board and some other modular components we could use in a modular way in production to provide all those props and more in dedicated housings.

Developing the vision system into a full range of dedicated props, the covid19 pandemic, and other life events slowed down major new development for a while, but by early 2022 we had made significant improvements to our production and 3D printing capabilities. Some of the flowtoys elves convinced me to focus some of our efforts on “triads” (a niche prop in a niche artform, kinda like a fire-fan, but shaped like a flat tripod with a ring in the middle) and this finally brought me back around to a modular prop made of “spokes” which naturally lead to every other prop we could make with spokes and the “pop’n flow” modular spoke system was born :)

At first I wanted to use the sort of pop-together connection common in toys, tools and building kits, but had my doubts it would be secure enough if it was easy to pop in, and it complicated the design and the flexibility of our 3D printed TPU material had such a good and simple friction fit that I started with that. I found out the hard way that one session baking in the sun while assembled permanently relaxed the plastic, making it too loose, which brought me back to the pop-fit solution, which is not under compression when assembled and so is far more reliable over time. I also discovered that a pop-fit could indeed be secure and easy to use.

Balancing ease of use and the strength and stiffness of the connection was extremely challenging, but 3D printing enables quick and frequent iteration and we were able to refine it to something strong enough for nunchucks, rope dart and poi, and snug enough for a rigid-feeling staff, could be easy enough for most people to “pop’n flow”, so we could finally combine performance and modularity for many props with the Pop’n Flow Modular System and it’s very exciting.

The simple pop-together solution and the form-factor of combining spokes with hubs has brought me back to my building kit days with tinker-toys, legos, k’nex, construx etc. and I look forward to developing hubs and adapters to enable every prop and shape possible :)

In service to flow,
Sean von Stde