Say hello to Yana and Bo, two robots who want to teach your five-year-old to write code. The newly crowdfunded Play-i system uses music, animation, and stories to teach kids ages 5 to 12+ to program their new robot friends—and have fun in the process. The learning and storytelling platform combines bots designed for interactive play with a visual programming interface that can be accessed on a phone or tablet. It's so simple, it doesn't even require reading or writing skills. With a few intuitive commands, inquisitive kids can control Yana and Bo's motion, regulate their sounds and lights, and even make them interact with the world around them. The pair—whose names are derived from "Robot" and "You Are Not Alone"—even detect each other, playing games like hide-and-seek on command.
"The inspiration came from my then one-year-old daughter. I read a report that said it’s mandatory in Estonia for first graders to learn to program. Then I found reports about countries like Vietnam and China, where every high schooler graduates with a computer science education," says Vikas Gupta, cofounder and CEO of Play-i and former head of consumer payments at Google. "This got me thinking: Why are these countries investing their time and money training their future generations in computer programming? And where is the U.S. in this scenario?"
The answer is, "nowhere." Nonprofit Code.org—which works to bring computer science education to schools—reports that less than 2.4% of all U.S. college graduates complete a degree in that area of study. But with computer programming jobs growing at twice the national average, by 2020, there will be a million more gigs available than there will be people qualified to fill them. Why? The lack of exposure starts young. Only 10% of American high schools even offer the subject, making crucial early training difficult to come by.
But Gupta hopes to change that for the next generation. After doing enough research to convince himself that kids as young as five can actually grasp programming concepts, he gathered a team—founding members include Mikal Greaves, who led design and development of consumer products for Flextronics, and Saurabh Gupta, who led the iPod software team at Apple—that could create a tangible product that would make abstract concepts concrete. It was also key that the system be truly innovative; a survey of the field showed that existing products didn't work for the youngest among us, were intimidating for the average consumer, and were priced too high to have mass appeal.
The design process began in February of this year and centered around extensive research and testing, while actively prototyping multiple concepts until they arrived at one that worked. "We started with a modular construction approach to robots. But as we tested with children, we realized that approach did not meet our goals for innovation," Gupta says. "As we moved to a more consolidated robot platform, we designed and tested different parts in parallel: the looks, the physical capabilities, and the interactions with a touch device. As each aspect evolved, it came together in the shape of Bo and Yana."
The company turned to crowdfunding in October to solicit production money, and blew past its $250,000 goal in just three days, pre-selling 10,994 robots and raising more than $1.4 million. And the process was useful beyond the cash infusion. "It has been a great learning tool. We're now in touch with thousands of people who believe in our mission, and are the part of our larger team working to get the product to market. We have received requests for specific features, API, and platforms—some of which we have decided to incorporate, like opening up to Android," Gupta says.
Yana (now $69) and fuller-featured Bo ($199) will start shipping this summer to thousands of future coders.