My cat is pretty unflappable, given that she shares a house with four children. But when a three-wheeled robot trundles into the living room, even Lola can’t belt out of the cat-flap fast enough. Perhaps it’s the barking that spooked her.
The robot is called Dash, and like its smaller, stationary friend Dot, it’s the work of technology startup Wonder Workshop. It’s excellent at yapping cats off the sofa, but its real goal is teaching children to code.
These are all new names. In 2013, Wonder Workshop was called Play-i while Dash and Dot were called Bo and Yana, when the company took $1.5m of pre-orders in a month for its pair of programmable robots.
Nearly two years, $14.6m of venture-capital funding and tens of thousands of sales later, Wonder Workshop is pressing on with its vision for how its robots – sold together for $229.99, although Dash alone costs $169.99 – can get children into computer programming.
“We wanted to build something accessible to a young child. Most robotics kits are geared to much older children, but we wanted to create something that right out of the box was appealing to five-year-olds all the way through to 10 and 11-year-olds,” says chief executive Vikas Gupta.
Dash and Dot are spherical robots rather than humanoids, partly because of costs – Wonder Workshop wanted them to be as affordable as possible – and partly because it wanted to leave more to children’s imagination regarding how they’d be used.
“We wanted to give it a form that children could imagine being anything in their own world: sometimes it could be a monster, or an animal, or a ghost. Whatever they imagine it to be,” he says. “Dash has wheels, but it doesn’t look like a truck or a car, so it’s not just perceived as something for boys.”
This being 2015, there are apps for all that: Dash and Dot are controlled by four free apps for Android and iOS devices – Go, Path, Xylo and Blockly – which connect to the robots via Bluetooth.
Go is the simplest app: children use it to control the bots’ lights, sounds and (in Dash’s case) movement, including recording their own audio. Path is the next step for Dash, getting children to draw an on-screen path with “nodes” for actions and sounds, which the robot then follows in the real world.
But the real meat comes with the fourth app, Blockly, which uses a customised version of Google’s visual-programming tool of the same name to teach children how to create code to make Dash drive, move his head, light up in various patterns, make sounds and respond to obstacles, motion and nearby voices or clapping.
My son sometimes struggles with concentration, but as he worked through the puzzles teaching him the commands in turn – very early on he decided my role in the process would simply be to applaud his success – his focus didn’t waver.
“When kids learn coding, you can focus a lot on screens, but we wanted to use their hands to manipulate things, and see them come to life. It brings concepts to life in physical form, which has a much bigger impact,” says Gupta, when I tell him.
Like other coding-for-kids startups, Wonder Workshop is keen to avoid suggesting that the reason to buy and use its products is purely to set your children off down a programming career path.
“For kids, coding is a tool that gives you the ability to look at the world very differently,” says Gupta. “That ability will be a powerful aspect in whatever a child grows up to be. They don’t have to be a programmer or a computer scientist. They could be an architect, a doctor, anything.”
His company is thinking about how its robots can grow with children’s abilities though: from five and six-year-olds using the simpler Go and Path apps to slightly older children digging in to Blockly – and, ultimately (so it hopes), early teenagers writing their own Android and iOS apps for the bots, using Objective C and Java.
Here, that’s shown in the puzzles: Dash running away from (imaginary) aliens, for example. Each puzzle is not just a programming task, but a miniature story. That’s something that carried over with my son into the sandbox mode where he was creating his own programs from scratch.
He wasn’t trying to move the robot across the floor then shake its head and turn around: he was sending it into a jungle to fight a killer bear, or onto the stage to dance in the robot X Factor. A “building brick connectors” accessory to attach Lego creations has fueled his creativity further.
It is still early days for Wonder Workshop: like Kano, it has to grapple with the challenges of selling hardware to parents (and schools) around the world, while also continuing to develop new apps – and persuade other developers to make software for Dash and Dot too.
The company is building a community around the robots, including a YouTube show for children called The Dash & Dot Show, and publishing resources to help teachers use the devices in the classroom. “The community is just getting started for kids, teachers and parents to share what they’ve created,” says Gupta.
His company has wider aims too: a commitment to donate $1 from the price of every purchase to a partnership with charity Pencils of Promise that builds schools in the developing world.
“It takes about $25k to open a school, and for us, selling 25,000 robots is achievable and sustainable,” says Gupta. “And if we can get to 50,000 robots, that’s two schools and even better. And we have a good partner who is already doing the work of building and running those schools.”
Back at home, even Lola is coming round to Dash and Dot’s charms, gradually. She may not be quite ready to bow to my son’s requests to play aliens or killer bears at a moment’s notice, but she certainly won’t be the last cat learning to live alongside these learning toys.
Courtesy: The Guardian