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Play-i uses adorable robots to teach children programming, and it might be the future of educational play

This past May we reported about Play-i, a startup by former Google and Apple employees that was seeking to make programmable educational robots for children. The robots would teach children as young as five years old how to code, with a scaling difficulty that would teach kids new programming concepts as they grew older. Play-i is now at the tail end of its crowdsourced funding drive, and with only 16 days left to go they company has already funded its project at 164% of what it was initially looking for.

Recently I was able to speak with Play-i's founder and CEO Vikas Gupta about Bo and Yana, the two robots the company sees as the future of teaching programming to children. When I first reported about Play-i back in May I was a little bit cynical about how realistic their goals were -- could you actually teach a child to program using robots? While we haven't been able to spend any hands on time with Bo and Yana -- much to my sadness -- speaking with Gupta and seeing the company's development philosophy has turned my doubts to excitement.

Considering there are already child-friendly programming languages out there, why did Play-i feel the need to build robots to teach these concepts? Gupta explained their philosophy and motives to me simply:

The focus is on getting very young children to learn programming, and do it in a way that's a lot of fun, and doesn't feel challenging or intimidating to the point where they don't meet their goals. That's why we created robots. All the research we've read shows that tangible products make those concepts of programming accessible to children in a very concrete way. We've also found the Robots, Bo and Yana, are fun for kids to play with, so it engages children in a very different way than other products, like online tutorials, typically do.

With Bo we were making a robot that is engaging. Motion is a key aspect of the Bo robot. Bo has a lot of character that is conveyed through its motion and head, which moves independently of the body. Yana lacks motion, but keeps the same emotional expression through its eye ring, lights, and sounds.

Each robot comes with its own different sensors and options that help it provide a unique experience for play. Bo is obviously the star of the line, with motorized wheels for movement, a moveable head that can pan and tilt, an eye light-ring for emotions, full color ear lights, a headlight, tail light, speaker, and IR beacons for making itself known to other robots. It also features front and back sensors to detect obstacles, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and IR detectors for communicating with other robots. It even has six attachment points for attaching toys and even musical instruments.

All that could easily over shadow Yana, its largely stationary sibling, but don't discount the static bot yet. Yana comes with a eye light-ring for expressing itself, a speaker, and IR beacons for letting other robots know that it's around. In addition it has an accelerometer and a button, with three multi-function attachment points for accessories.

The eye light-ring is a special part of what allows the robots to clearly communicate with children. The 16 multicolor LED lights allow Bo and Yana to be programmed to smile, frown, flash red when they're frustrated or blink blue when they solve a problem. It gives the bots a remarkable range of emotion. If a child sees that Yana is upset, it can program the bot to calm down when its motion sensor is petted, turning the eye back to its happy setting. Yana has remarkable awareness that could easily ignite the imaginations of children, even if it can't move like Bo.

This is where the genius of the programming idea shines. Children can start small with Yana by coding it to make a simple smile but, as they get more comfortable with the concepts of programming, can eventually teach it more complex emotional responses.

The robots present challenges out of the box that encourage kids to get started with programming. Gupta explained to me how the robot's initial lack of knowledge out of the box is designed to teach kids how to code and solve problems. For example, when you first turn on Bo, the robot doesn't know how to avoid walls.

When you open Bo it won't know how to avoid walls. So when it encounters a wall it doesn't know to stop or turn, so it just runs into the wall. But it knows when it runs into a wall. So it can be programmed so that when it runs into a wall it backs up, and shakes its head. The next step for the child is to think "we need to train Bo to be good at avoiding walls."

Play-i is still fine-tuning the robot's tablet/smartphone interface, but it will work with any Bluetooth enabled device. Regardless of the platform you use, Play-i has an exciting way to introduce programming concepts out of the box to children.

The robots come with "Missions" designed to teach children lessons, like the aforementioned "how to avoid walls". The missions are designed to teach children the basics of programming, while still encouraging them to find their own solutions. There isn't one correct way to code Bo to react to running into a wall. One child may want Bo to immediately back up, frown, and shake its head whenever it encounters an obstacle. Another may program it to smile and turn in a circle. What's great is that both approaches are perfectly valid.

The company's goal was to have children as young as five be able to learn a programming language. To do this the company built its own visual programming interface that would engage young children. There are child-friendly languages out there, such as Scratch or Blockly, but they aren't intuitive for very young children who can't read yet.

The difference in the age groups is cognitive ability. For example at age 5 we've found they're not very good at written or spoken language. They have weak motor skills. They can't write very well. But their cognitive ability to grasp programming concepts is actually quite advanced. So we've developed these interfaces thinking about what is developmentally appropriate for a child at this age.

Play-i's interface for 5 to 8 year olds uses a mix of music, story telling, and animation to teach young children how to tweak the code of their robots.

For 8 to 12 year olds the interface becomes more complicated, using Scratch and Blockly to program the robots with the help of included tutorials. For children 12 and up, the Play-i app aims to teach how to write actual code, with the goal of teaching kids how to build iOS and Android apps using the company's API. In the meantime, kids are using their now advanced coding skills to make the robot even more fun to play with.

The company is planning to release an online sharing program to allow users to upload their own code and help other users learn. If you want to teach Yana to dance you'll be able to look online and see how other users coded their robot to dance.

By giving children the ability to share their programming with other kids, Play-i is providing a layer of support beyond their helpful age-appropriate interfaces. Peer support and interaction is an important part of play and creativity, and it helps children to see how their peers have succeeded in overcoming the challenges that are currently frustrating them.

As of press time, Bo and Yana are expected to start shipping in Summer of 2014. Shipping is free in the United States, and there's a charge of $20 for international shipping to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the EU. Bo and Yana are priced at $149 and $49 respectively during the funding campaign, reduced from the retail price of $199 and $69.

The company has already met its first stretch goal for the fundraising campaign, allowing pre-orderers to add an accessories pack to their purchase. The pack comes with a pusher bar and tow hook for Bo, and bunny ears and a tail for whichever robot you feels needs to be more adorable. If the company passes its goal of $500K, it will make attachments that allow children to connect their pre-existing building block toys (think Legos) to their robots. At $700K the company will release a custom-designed Xylophone for Bo, complete with a full programming stack for making him play sweet, sweet music.

Play-i has come a long way since May, and the results are incredible. While it will still be awhile before the robots hit your doorstep, the discounted price of early ordering should make this an easy choice for interested parents or 20-something tech bloggers. You can watch Play-i's demo video below. We simply can't wait to try these robots out. Head over to Play-i for more information and to pre-order if you're enchanted.

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