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Robots, Drones, And Lego Creations Invade Apple’s iPad Coding Environment For Kids

“What’s better than a kid engaged on an iPad? A kid engaged on an iPad. With a robot.”

Robots, Drones, And Lego Creations Invade Apple’s iPad Coding Environment For Kids
The MeeBot does its thing, thanks to Swift Playgrounds.

At last year’s Apple WWDC conference, the company’s “one more thing” kicker at its keynote wasn’t a headline-grabber–but it was nonetheless intriguing. The company introduced Swift Playgrounds, an iPad app that let kids (and other coding newbies) write their own iOS programs using its Swift language. The goal was to teach coding in a playful, interactive, distinctly Apple-esque way.

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Almost a year later, Apple says that Swift Playgrounds has been downloaded a million times. And on Monday, June 5–the day of this year’s WWDC keynote–the company is releasing Swift Playgrounds 1.5, an update that expands the programming environment’s domain beyond iOS apps by showing kids how to write code to control robots, drones, and other gizmos.

Two critters built with Lego’s Mindstorms EV3.

That’s not an entirely new frontier for Swift Playgrounds: You can already use it to talk to external devices via Bluetooth, a capability that some third parties have adopted to make their offerings Playgrounds-compatible. But now Apple is working with several gadget makers to bring educational materials related to this capability directly into Swift Playgrounds, making it not just technically possible but a core aspect of the programming environment.

That will make Swift Playgrounds more fun–who wouldn’t want to teach a drone to do flips mid-air?–but there’s also a serious aspect to Swift Playgrounds’ mission. “Coding is a lingua franca in the world today,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s VP of product marketing for apps, markets, and services, at a press event the company held to preview the software update. “A lot of the world around is is run by software. We think kids everywhere should have the opportunity to code.”

Though unstated by Apple, there’s also a business case for these kinds of features. Google’s Chromebooks have made enormous inroads in the educational market once dominated by Apple gear, but their cloud-based approach to computing isn’t well suited to writing code to manipulate physical devices in the real world. It’s in Apple’s interest to give the iPad tangible schoolroom capabilities that a Chromebook can’t match.

“What’s better than a kid engaged on an iPad?” Prescott asked. “A kid engaged on an iPad. With a robot.”

Hardware Brigade

Apple’s collaborators in this initiative include Lego (with its Mindstorms robotic building system), Parrot (drones), Sphero (the Sprk+ and BB-8 robots), Ubtech (the Jimu Robot MeeBot robot), Wonder Workshop (the Dash robot), and Skoog (a music-making cube). In each case, Swift Playgrounds 1.5 will include projects that step budding coders through creating something entertaining using the environment’s interface, which puts code on the left-hand side of the iPad’s screen and a preview of what that code accomplishes on the right. For instance, they’ll be able to program a real-world version of Pong that uses a Sprk+ bot as a ball and the feet of two human players as paddles.

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More advanced and ambitious coders will also be able to treat the ability to control these devices via Swift Playgrounds more like a blank sheet of paper, devising their own sequences of commands to accomplish feats entirely of their own imagining. For instance, it’ll be possible to use code to specify a Parrot drone’s yaw, pitch, and roll.

A Parrot drone and iPad Pro in foreground, with other Swift Playgrounds-compatible gadgets behind them.
A Parrot drone and iPad Pro in the foreground, with other Swift Playgrounds-compatible gadgets behind them.

At Apple’s preview event, a couple of teachers who have been working with a pre-release version of Swift Playgrounds 1.5 in their classrooms spoke about their experiences. They echoed the company’s mantra about the importance of teaching young people to code, and said that the software’s new version delivered on its promise. Kelly Croy, a teacher at Oak Harbor Middle School in Oak Harbor, Ohio, added that the school’s computing and robotics programs have been largely separate until now, and Swift Playgrounds is blurring the lines in ways that make it a powerful tool: “It’s giving students a voice in areas they’ve never had before.”

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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