Bots for Tots


Bo (left) and Yana (right) are robots that fuse play with programming for kids.Image: Play-I

We live in a programmed world, if you haven’t noticed. Never mind the apps and the video games. As we march into the future, there’s hardly an appliance, a transaction, an object, a song, or a movie, that hasn’t in some way been made possible with code.

And yet, “Programming education has only gotten worse, not better, over the years,” says Vikas Gupta. Gupta is the CEO of Play-i, a company that’s about to come out with two programmable robots, Bo and Yana. The pair is meant to give children as young as five their first taste of programming.

“Research from MIT shows that kids at a young age, even preschool, can grasp programming concepts,” says Gupta, who, like his fellow Play-I founders, is a parent. Other skills, arguably less interesting, stand between toddlers and programming glory. “They can’t type well on a keyboard,” notes Gupta.

So Gupta and his team set out to make a fun, interactive robot that could be told what to do without a keyboard. “They don’t start with text or code,” says Gupta. “They start with music, stories, drawings—the kinds of play and language they are familiar with.” For the younger users there’s an interface, in the form of an iPad app, that focuses more on play than problem solving. For example, Bo, the pyramidical bot of the pair, can play a xylophone. Preschoolers can tell it to roll as it taps out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” or make its eye light up, or its arm move between notes.

The robots are for children of all ages to program. There is a different interface for ages 5-8, 8-12 and children over 12. Image:

There’s an order and complexity to music that a child can master, says Gupta. Not so with a chain of commands. To send a robot down a hall and then have it turn around and come back, an adult will likely come up with a simple, several-step solution. ‘Go forward, turn right, then turn right again, then go forward,’ will do the trick. “But for kids, once it’s turned right, its direction has changed,” says Gupta, “It’s not obvious to a child that it needs to make another right turn. The cognitive load on a child after each command gets bigger and bigger. But if you give them a song, they can sing it all day long, with words and a sequence of notes as well. That’s why we switched from purely motion based to music and drawings.”

As the children get older they can start programming the robots with Google’s Blocky or MIT’s Scratch . . . or Java or C++ for that matter.

Programmability for all ages was one problem to solve. Playability, another. The team borrowed some tricks from animation world. The robots, for instance, turn their heads before they make a turn. The gesture gives the machines character and makes them seem alive, but is, of course, unnecessary for completing the turn. Similarly, the team made the robots capable of moving both slow and fast to lend them the illusion of life. They also worked hard to make the robots appeal to both girls and boys. They discovered that when the wheels were visible, girls didn’t want to play with the robots. But with the wheels hidden, girls took to them right away.

The biggest challenge the team face was hitting just the right mark of accessibility, difficulty, and affordability. “One thing we learned from gaming is that you have to keep the right balance of challenge and reward,” he says. They didn’t want Bo and Yana to end up like so many Lego Mindstorm sets—opened once and left in the closet thereafter. “The problem with robots is that the moment they are sophisticated enough to be interesting they become limited to only a few people.”

Watching how children played with the robots answered some of the questions about finding the right balance. Initial prototypes, for example, had more sensors. But Gupta and his colleagues found that what was important to them was not always what was important to kids. Earlier Bos and Yanas had two sound sensors, which would allow them to tell where a sound was coming from. Children didn’t use that feature much, so they ditched one of them to keep the cost down.

Together the pair should cost something like an iPhone. Gupta hopes the playfulness and the price tag will attract parents as much as their children.  “When you open the box it’s a lot of fun to get into. It doesn’t matter what your background is,” he says.

“We’ll have you programming in no time.”

Michael Abrams is an independent writer.

The problem with robots is that the moment they are sophisticated enough to be interesting they become limited to only a few people.

Vikas Gupta,
CEO, Play-i


February 2014

by Michael Abrams,