When Vikas Gupta, former head of consumer payments at Google, had a daughter in 2012, he spent a lot of time thinking about how kids process and learn things as they grow up. One day, he happened upon an article about how all children in Estonia are mandated to learn programming in the first grade, and after doing more research, he found that kids as young as preschoolers are capable of grasping programming concepts. So, he began to wonder what kind of learning tools were available in the U.S. Turns out, there weren’t that many, so he took things into his own hands.
Gupta, along with his co-founders Mikal Greaves, formerly of Frog Design, and Saurabh Gupta, who led the iPod software team, started Play-i, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup creating robots that help teach kids between the ages of 5 and 12 how to code. They chose robots because they found tangible, physical interaction is a great way to engage with kids, and after launching a crowdfunding campaign last year that raised $1.5 million, the company is preparing to ship its first robots, Yana and Bo, in October.
Today, at the Code Conference, Gupta and Gupta brought Bo onstage to demonstrate for the first time how the spherical robot can detect objects in its path, push around a cardboard brick and play the Star Wars theme song on the xylophone.
The team also unveiled a singing Walt Mossberg head built from a bunch of Legos (though it was difficult to hear during the demo).
“If you want to have any shot of making it a success, you have to make programming come alive for children,” Vikas Gupta said onstage.
“Coding is an essential skills for kids to learn in this day and age,” he added later.
All programming is done using mobile devices, such as the iPad or an Android tablet, which are connected to the robots via Bluetooth 4.0. There are several different apps kids can use to program the robots.
For younger children between the ages of 5 and 8, there’s an icon-based, drag-and-drop visual programming interface, where the focus is more on understanding concepts rather than actually learning programming language. One example Vikas Gupta showed me before the conference was selecting a bunch of different-colored notes to get Yana to play a song on an accessory xylophone.
Meanwhile, children ages 8 to 12 can use an app called Blockly to drag and drop different pieces of code to get the robots to perform certain actions. (Blockly is a programming language and editor developed by Google, and is also used by Code.org.) This app is a little more complex and dedicated to teaching students the fundamentals of coding. There are lessons kids must complete, tutorials and a library of other resources.
In an earlier interview, Vikas Gupta said Play-i is currently working with more than 200 schools nationwide to use its robots and Blockly to teach students how to code. The first pilot programs will launch in January.
Also at Code, Play-i demoed how it’s working to inject personality into the robots to make the characters of Yana and Bo even more engaging for kids. For example, Yana might spin around or nod its head excitedly after a child has accomplished a goal, or it might droop its head if they’re tired after a long day of coding.
Play-i is currently taking preorders for Bo and Yana for $169 and $59, respectively. After the launch, the robots will be sold for $199 and $69 on the company’s website. Yana and Bo can work together or independently.
Play-i first raised $1 million in seed funding from Google Ventures, Madrona Venture Group and individual private investors in May 2013. In March, the company received $8 million in series A funding from Madrona Venture Group and Charles Rivers Partners.
Additional reporting by James Temple.
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