A friend of mine, well into his thirties, remembers going to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Penn., while growing up. There, he and his brothers would play a type of real-life video game — instead of playing with controllers and screens, they had to program robots to navigate through a course to win. Some 30 years later, this kind of technology is no longer reserved for institutions — soon, you’ll be able to take it home.
Play-i launched a crowdfunding campaign on Monday. The company will make two robots, Bo and Yana, which can be used individually or together (both have Bluetooth 4.0). Along with an iPad app, kids as young as 5 years old can learn programming concepts while playing with the robots.
“Tech has to evolve to be accessible and fun,” Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Play-i, says. He explains that young children do not have motor skills and language skills are not developed — and therefore they would not be able to use a keyboard or type letters — but interacting with an iPad is accessible to them — and studies show they can understand programming concepts. That’s why Play-i’s app interface is completely graphical.
But how does that teach kids to program?
“A program is a sequence of instructions,” Gupta said in an interview at Mashable. Music, as well, has a natural sequence, he explained, then cueing Bo to play for me “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the xylophone. Bo has wheels to move around on the floor, and can go forward, backward, turn left and right both sharply and at a curve, as well as play back audio you’ve recorded. These actions can be sequenced together in the app — much like actions are arranged in sequences in a computer program. Perhaps one would program Bo to drive itself from the playroom to Mom’s room on her birthday and sing her a song upon arrival.
But moving further into the realm of programming, Bo can hold off on an action in the sequence until it receives outside feedback. Currently, Bo can sense clapping — so if we can expect Mom will clap after her birthday song, Bo can respond to the clapping action by backing up, turning and heading down the hallway to the kitchen, where Mom’s birthday gift is waiting. This sequence — responding to outside actions — mimics the if/then statement found in programming languages.
At some point, you might hope kids can translate these concepts to actual skills to be used apart from robots. Play-i plans to allow users to see the actual code behind a sequence they’ve created, sort of like using “view source” in a web browser to see a web page’s HTML.
Making the robots available to as many kids as possible is a core piece of the company’s mission — which is shown in a few ways. First, design decisions were made to ensure both girls and boys found the robots appealing. For a prototype with wheels that were visible, girls would say, “That looks like something my brother would play with,” Gupta says. Therefore, the wheels on Bo are hidden so it’s appealing to both genders.
Secondly, Play-i chose to do its crowdfunding campaign a little different — there are no T-shirts or stickers on the low tiers for people who want to support the cause but do not want to purchase a product. For lesser amounts than the $49 for Yana or $149 for Bo (which will retail at $69 and $199, respectively), people can make donations that will go towards bringing robots to schools and other organizations.
Also behind the Robot Giveaway Program is Code.org, which has collaborated with Play-i.
“We’re thrilled to support Play-i on their Robot Giveaway Program for disadvantaged children, because children at all ages should have the opportunity to learn computer science,” said Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org. “Robots Bo and Yana are great toys who incorporate simple coding into playtime for children.”
And the friend who learned programming from robots almost 30 years ago? He runs a tech startup in Silicon Valley.