How Google Ventures-backed Play-i plans to use robots to help kids learn to code

Learning the basics of programming doesn’t have to involve staring at a computer screen, stringing together lines of code. If  Play-i has its way, kids as young as five years old could learn the concepts behind by coding by playing with a simple spherical robot and an iPad.

Created by a group of former Apple (s AAPL), Google (s GOOG) and Frog Design executives, Play-i launched in late 2012 with the goal of finding an affordable, fun way to get young kids interested in programming. On Monday, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which has already raised a seed round from Google Ventures, Madrona Venture Group and others, launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring its products to market.

YanaOver the past few years, several companies like Codecademy and Treehouse have popped up to teach people to code online. And, more recently, other startups, including Kuato Studios, Hopscotch and Tynker, debuted to introduce elementary school aged kids to technical skills with mobile games and visual programming languages. Companies like Sphero similarly use robotics to teach programming and mathematics. But Play-i hopes to reach kids who are even younger by making abstract programming concepts more concrete with the help of robots.

“To make it accessible to kids, it needs to be tangible,” said Vikas Gupta, company co-founder and CEO. “We want to empower kids to do amazing things. If the reward we can give kids an be huge, then we can get them to do more with computer science.”

Meet Bo and Yana

The company’s first two robots, Bo and Yana, come ready to play with out of the box. By using an app on an iPad(s aapl) or other touchscreen device, parents and kids can tap on a series of illustrated icons to “program,” or direct, the robots to execute a series of commands.

Bo pulls your toys 2For example, a child could instruct Bo to move in any direction or she could string together a set of commands to program the robot to follow a specific path. The company is also making attachments that would enable the robots to pull other items or carry items around.

Bo can even be programmed to play “Twinkle, Twinkle” on the xylophone or to “wake up” at a specific time to sing “Happy Birthday” to family member.

Yana, a simpler robot, can’t move around but kids can program it to enhance storytelling, Gupta said. For example, they could program the device to roar like a lion when it’s tapped or sound like a helicopter or airplane when it’s shaken or rotated.

Bo plays the xylophone 2 Gupta said young kids often have difficulty grasping sequences that include more than two or three steps. But by programming actions that match up with stories and music, he said, they’re able to help kids construct more sophisticated sequences. The hope, he said, is that the experience will lead to more interest and open the doors to future studies in more formal, established programming languages.

Designing for boys and girls

He also added that the company took special care in designing the robots to ensure that they appealed to both boys and girls. The one blinking eye gives the robots an expressive, human-like quality, but he said that an earlier version of Bo that included visible wheels turned off girls who thought it was too boyish. Once the wheels were hidden, Gupta said, girls immediately gravitated to it, thinking that it could be like a “pet.”

To enable a wide range of actions, the robots (especially Bo) include several sensors, including distance sensors, sound sensors (for voice commands), proximity sensors (to detect its distance from walls), beacon sensors (to sense other robots so that kids can program their robots to play with each other) and accelerometers. But Gupta said the sensors were made in-house to keep costs down.

The company aims to start selling its robots next summer: during the campaign, they’ll be priced at $149 and $49 (for Bo and Yana respectively), and then retail at $199 and $69.
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Play-i – Delightful Robots for Children to Program from Play-i on Vimeo.