When former Google executive Vikas Gupta had a daughter two years ago, he wanted to get her interested as early as possible in computer programming, a skill that a growing contingent of educators believes should be taught to kids alongside reading and math.
But while there are a number of efforts to teach coding in elementary school, Gupta wanted to educate even younger kids. That’s why he set out to build his own product, recruiting two former top Apple and Frog Design engineers to join his effort.
Now the fruits of months of product development at their company, called Play-i, debuted in a pre-order crowdfunding campaign. "We learned that in order to make programming of interest to young children, it has to be a tangible product. It can’t be just software," says Gupta. "We started building in ways that kids can have fun with."
Bo and Yana are two expressive robots that even a 5-year-old (or younger for true overachievers) can learn to program through an iOS app that features a drag-and-drop interface. The idea is to first to introduce kids to the very basic concept that the work they do can "control an object on the outside," Gupta says. Next, the kids act to deliver a sequence of instructions. There is no need to learn difficult and boring syntax, which is usually where other kid-aimed programming languages start.
The product team spent time figuring out how to get kids to stay engaged with the toy. For Gupta and his daughter, an important part of that was making sure the robots appealed to both boys and girls. For awhile, the team couldn’t get girls to be as interested in the product as boys. But they kept tinkering and eventually tried covering up the wheels that made Bo look like a vehicle.
"The very instant we made that change, it suddenly became a toy girls wanted to play with," Gupta says. "I can’t tell you why. That’s a question for others," he says, "but that was an example where we could do something in design that makes it accessible to a bigger audience."
While Bo is an "explorer" that can travel around and dance, Yana is more of a creative type that can’t move on its own. Yana was designed to match the imaginations of children who wanted to make robots fly like a plane or leap like a lion. Since that’s not possible, Yana can be programmed to make sounds and flash lights to facilitate kids’ creative storytelling instead.
Gupta eventually hopes to see the robots, for now available at an introductory price of $49 and $149, in stores, schools, and homes. The company has developed an API, so kids can use more advanced programming languages to interact with the robot once they get older. It's also working on giving the robots to underprivileged schools and developing a curriculum.
Play-i’s product launch arrives in the middle of the ongoing debate of whether everyone should learn to code—whether it is a specialized skill, like learning a foreign language, or fundamental, like learning multiplication tables.
Gupta clearly believes the latter, that programming ability is a literacy that matters even if kids don’t grow up to be software engineers—just like most people use math even if they don’t become engineers. "Being able to understand how software works around you will allow you to be more capable in everything you do," he says. "The question is: Do we want kids to grow up as consumers of technology, or do we want them to be creators with what we put in their hands?"