Play-i is an interesting start-up using robotics to teach programming concepts to children as young as 5 years old.  From the company’s marketing material, here’s the vision:

“In starting Play-i, we set out to create the product we want our children to have. Our mission to make computer programming accessible for every child is bigger than we are.

We need to re-think education. Students are becoming great at retaining facts, but there’s not enough focus on teaching them how to think. We are preparing our children… and your children for the future by inspiring curiosity and igniting a love for learning.”

Details on their system are a bit scarce, but I find their effort fascinating because:

  1. Play-i is designed for young children.  Most commercial robots, even those advertised for education, are unsuitable for younger children.  The robots require assembly, are relatively fragile, and have exposed electronics.  Of course, older or more experienced folks might prefer these things, but the system seems to have sufficient capabilities for both beginner and more advanced learning.
  2. Programming is hands-on and eye-level.  Many other robots require a desktop computer, cables, and software installation.  In contrast, Play-i promises programming with a tablet while sitting on the floor next to the robot.  Hopefully, this system will provide immediate feedback, gratification, and interaction.  The robot will support several programming languages, which should allow the robot to grow and teach a wide variety of skills and ages.  I think the success of the robot will depend on the supporting software, programming interfaces, and curriculum.
  3. The robots have “personalities” and names.  The stories, colors, and shapes associated the robots seem to build an emotional relationship between humans and their robot pets, and I suspect that children will find this anthropomorphism appealing.

I do have some concerns but none ought to block their goals.  Specifically, the hardware is closed and lacks a supported way to “hack the hardware.”  There is an interface for add-ons, but the add-ons appear to be cosmetic or mechanical like an arm, handle, or cape.  I think the closed hardware design is necessary for young children but might limit some types of exploration.

Play-i does promise a developer API, which will likely be key to building a rich, capable software infrastructure and curriculum around the physical robot.  The robot appears to offer quite a bit of capability and flexibility with multiple programming interfaces, options for customization, a decent set of sensors, and a decent set of actuators.

At the moment, Play-i is raising funds with pre-orders for a production run in Summer 2014.  I look forward to seeing their “delightful robots” on my floor.