Making Code Real


by Keith Ostfeld -

Okay, we're not really "making code." But, we are working to add in a coding aspect to our Invention Convention exhibition. This exhibition currently allows families to make and tinker with common objects in order to solve challenges as well as learn and apply techniques in a more focused setting in our Inventors' Workshop and Maker Annex spaces. What we want to add is an opportunity for kids to tinker and make things happen with computer programming. 

To this end, in 2013, I helped fund a Kickstarter campaign for a group called Play-i (now called Wonder Workshop) and their Bo and Yana robots that would allow kids to program them. In December 2014, I received our robots - now called Dash and Dot - and they were all I hoped they would be and more. 

I am very fortunate to have two prototype testers at home (my daughters, age 6 and 7 1/2), so I took home Dash (the robot that you can program to move around) and turned it over to them in order to understand how actual visitors may use it when they come up to them. I should mention that they are used to prototyping with me, where I refuse to help them or interact with them, and are used this sort of behavior from me, so they don’t take offense (although there is an understanding that I will later interact with them after I have had some initial questions answered). Also, for full disclosure, both of my girls did Hour of Code this past year (my older actually doing multiple sets of Hour of Code while my younger just did the Frozen version with my help). So, the first app they tested with Dash was the Blockly coding language.

So, I sat back and watched them interact with it. They both readily recognized the similarity between Hour of Code block programming and Blockly and dove into it, with my older daughter starting off with the first program, then each taking turns writing more programs. They were so much more into this than even the Frozen Hour of code, mostly because the robot was real – they were actually writing programs that had impact on the real world.

The second app I had them test was the Go! App which provides a “remote control” for the robot. This was also popular with them, but they had to struggle/experiment with it a bit more to realize there were multiple tabs to control multiple aspects of the robot. After several minutes of remote control, they did go back to the Blockly program to try to emulate what they were doing using remote control.

I can also report that the robot has some serious durability. After quietly watching the robot move around for about 15 minutes, my 80lb. black lab attacked it (playfully, but still gave it a solid knock) and it was still working! Not that I would recommend this sort of behavior on a regular basis… 

They have also received very good reviews in Entrepreneur and New York Times.

So, our next steps are to create an “arena” for Dash and Dot with a mounted iPad interface on the outside. Our plan is that visitors can program them to move around the arena. To help more advanced visitors, we would provide objects in the arena with which they can have the robots interact and challenges for them to try to complete. We plan to change these out regularly so repeat visitors have different interactions. I’ll keep everyone posted on our progress!