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What Happened When I Tried To Learn Coding From A Robot

Whether you’re a beginning coder or learning more advanced programming, there’s a coding robot for you.

Over the past few years, I’ve wanted to learn more about coding, beyond my basic understanding of HTML and CSS. I started out on Codecademy learning basic front-end web stuff, then got into learning a bit about the Command Line on Mac, then briefly into Python and JavaScript.

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But it wasn’t enough, so I decided I needed a classroom setting and I enrolled in evening front-end web classes at General Assembly in Austin, where I live. After making it through a month and a half of a three-month course and bottoming out, I started thinking that the best way for me to really learn to code would be to enroll in an immersive, full-time coding course. But I’m already maxed out time-wise and don’t have the luxury of going to school full-time. After a month or two of not working on coding, other than dealing with random HTML errors on stories during the day, I more or less gave up for a while. I still wanted to learn more, but I had reached a sort of impasse. I knew I would eventually return to coding again, though.

Wonder Workshop cofounder and CEO Vikas Gupta [Photo: courtesy of Wonder Workshop]
So when I started hearing about a new way to learn–through coding robots–my interest was reignited. Although many such robots are geared toward kids and STEM education, adults with limited coding knowledge can also have fun while learning coding with them. But the difference is that adults aren’t normally in daily classroom settings that teach coding like kids are.

Wonder Workshop’s Cue: A Great Entry Into JavaScript

During Fast Company‘s recent Innovation Festival, I met Vikas Gupta, the CEO and founder of Wonder Workshop, makers of the Dash and Dot robots and the new Cue. The Dash and Dot teaches kids the basics of block programming on the app that you control the robot with, and the Cue allows you to open up a full JavaScript command prompt in the Cue app once you progress through several demo challenges. Wonder Workshop sent me a Cue to test-drive, and I have been working and playing with it for a while now. The Cue uses a block-style programming language called Blockly, which is a JavaScript-based drag-and-drop language that allows you to arrange preset actions for the Cue to perform on your phone or tablet, such as motion, color, and sound, and voice parameters.

As you unlock various demo levels on the Cue’s Coding palette, you eventually open up the full JavaScript command palette, and can work with functions and variables. By starting simple and working up to more complex actions, you naturally start learning the basics of JavaScript programming. But once you unlock those demo levels and get to full JavaScript, you will still need outside help to progress further into JavaScript, either online or in a classroom setting.

Sphero’s Mini Robot: Fun To Play With And Room To Grow

Another company that uses block-style programming on its robots is Sphero, which produces the Sphero, BB-8 and other Star Wars-themed robots, and the new Mini. The Mini is a tiny ball with motion and light activators that you can control with the app using the Mini app, and go into coding with the Sphero Edu app. Sphero sent me a Mini, and it’s really fun to play with, but I wanted to know how in-depth you could go with the coding. The coding palette is very similar to Wonder Workshop’s Cue app, with a preloaded, block-style, drag-and-drop program built on JavaScript you can tweak, such as distance moved and color, but there is access to an SDK (software developer kit) that allows you to build apps for the Sphero bots. As with the Wonder Workshop Cue, you will eventually need outside help if you want to progress further with coding with Sphero bots.

Cozmo [Photo: courtesy of Anki]

Anki’s Cozmo Robot: SDK Access In The App

Anki, maker of Cozmo, the “gifted little guy with a mind of his own,” has recently launched what it calls “a feature-packed expansion to Code Lab,” its programming environment for the Cozmo robot. The coding interface also uses block-style programming (this one is called Scratch). Cozmo also has its own SDK for developers that is accessible for download via the Anki site (and which can be accessed via Code Lab on the app). Once again you will need outside help to get deeper into coding on Cozmo.

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Deeper Levels Of Coding With Vincross’s Hexa

The final robot I worked with was Vincross’s HEXA. The HEXA is a spider-like bot with six legs that can climb, dance, and do other actions. I recently spoke with Vincross’s COO, Andy Xu, who explained that Vincross was established in 2014 with the idea that the next area for coders and innovation going forward is in robotics, and the HEXA is their first entry into the robotics world for both beginners and established coders.

Andy Xu [Photo: courtesy of Vincross]
Instead of coding on the app, which is really just a controller for the HEXA’s actions, you build “Skills” (or HEXA functions) in the HEXA SDK on the Command Line on your computer, which would be the Command Prompt on Windows, the Terminal application on Mac, and the Command Line on Linux.

Vincross calls its developer platform MIND and gives users access to the Vincross developer platform, where developers share some very cool things they have built for HEXA, such as the “Fire Marshall Rob” Arduino flame detector.

This time I decided to go for it and download and install the MIND SDK from the Vincross CDN (content delivery network). I have been working on using the “Build Your First Skill” tutorial. This is fairly challenging and took me several tries to figure out how to open MIND in Terminal. But the tutorial is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. Once you build your first Skill, if your computer is on the same network as the HEXA, you can upload the Skill to the HEXA.

Back At Square One After My Robot Journey

Overall my experience with working with these robots was fun, exciting, and engaging. Being able to tweak coding parameters in the apps to control the bots in different ways gives you immediate gratification that you can actually “program” something. All of the above robots except the Wonder Workshop Cue give you access to an SDK and developer network so you can go deeper and further into coding. If I were to recommend which direction to go in, get your hands on at least two of the robots such as the Cue and the Cozmo, learn as much as you can in the app and the bot, then eventually get the HEXA and either teach yourself or have someone teach you how to code in the SDK. The more toylike robots (Cue, Mini, Cozmo) are cute and seem designed to thrill and excite the user, while the HEXA seems more serious and closer to more advanced robots such as robots from Boston Dynamics.

Having said all of this, I’ve decided that this year I’ll save some money and return to General Assembly here in downtown Austin. I’ve had my eye on their data science course, which has a heavy focus on Python. I know that eventually I’ll move to the next level with my coding, as long as I keep grinding away at it.

About the author

David Penick is the senior copy editor for Fast Company's digital team. Penick formerly worked as the deputy copy chief at Entertainment Weekly and as the copy editor for Gawker Media's Gizmodo and Lifehacker sites.

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