Play-i's friendly robots teach kids about programming

Robots are coming for your children.

Don’t worry—it’s not in the menacing “Take us to your leader” sense. These robots are cute and friendly, looking vaguely like they just rolled out of a Pixar movie. Their names are Bo and Yana. And they’re designed to teach programming concepts to kids of all ages, even kids who can’t read yet.

Meet Bo and Yana. Admit it, you want to play with them already. Your kids will too.

Play-i developed Bo and Yana as robot buddies for kids, who control their movements with a touchscreen app on a smartphone or tablet. Each robot has a friendly light-up eye, Bluetooth 4.0, an accelerometer, and a proximity sensor. It's really easy to have fun with this—just pair either robot to your tablet with Bluetooth, and start tapping different buttons in the controller app to see what happens.

Wheeled Bo can roll around, pick up toys, dance, and interact with accessories like a special xylophone. Yana doesn’t have wheels, but she can light up and make sound effects as kids move and shake her, letting you tell stories with Yana playing different characters, like a fire engine or a helicopter. The robots can even interact with each other—they’re playing hide-and-seek in the photo at the top of this article.

Bo can pull your toys around thanks to a little towing hitch in the accessory pack.

Play-i is in the final days of its crowdfunding campaign, just hitting its $1 million stretch goal. That means the $29 accessories pack will have an extra piece: a smartphone mount that will let Bo roll around holding up your phone, while you control them both from a tablet. Using the phone’s camera, Bo will be able to record video, stream it to the tablet, and even recognize objects, opening up tons of extra possibilities.

Kids can program

Play-i cofounder and CEO Vikas Gupta believes that little kids are ready for programming much earlier than we’re teaching it in school—if it’s taught at all. A program is just a sequence, he explained in a visit to TechHive, the same as singing a song or telling a story.

Where the robots excel is at showing kids the results of their commands, so kids can see the context for the next command. For example, if you want Bo to go forward, turn around, and come back, you’ll have to tell him to make two right turns that add up to 180 degrees.

Since kids might not be able to visualize that without seeing it happen, Bo executes each command as he receives it, so you can see once he makes that first turn, he’ll need to make a second turn before you have him come back.

A song is a sequence, just like a computer program, and Bo can be programmed to play his xylophone add-on.

The software gets more complicated as kids get older—the most basic, all-visual interface is designed for kids ages 5 to 8, to just play and have fun. Kids 8 to 12 can level up to visual programming languages Scratch and Blockly to create more advanced sequences, and older kids and adults can use the API to code their own iOS and Android apps that interface with the robots.

During the crowdfunding campaign, you can preorder Bo for $149 and Yana for $49, as well as various accessory packs. Play-i says retail prices will be higher. The robots are scheduled to start shipping in the summer of 2014.

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