In the previous post I wrote about the challenge of catching and holding peoples’ attention with electronics and programming activities – if you’ve seen DEMO: The Movie you’ll know I’m quite big on attention.
The Arduino microcontroller platform is a terrific tool, but it’s hard to present a project which is both immediately appealing and instructive. Projects tend to be fun but complex, or useful-but-dry tutorials. As with many fields of life, I suspect the answer is: robots.
Lots of robots.
The first thing I programmed, as a kid, wasn’t a ZX81. It was a car. Which took as input – wait for it – punched cards. Woohoo. It was completely mesmerising, and the sense of control and authority over an animate object blew my six year-old mind. The following year BigTrak came out, but it was damned expensive – which explains my reaction to the ride-on version from Hitchin Hackspace.
Now, robots won’t work for everyone. There’s no universal answer to “What’s interesting for a child?”, let alone the absurdly general question “What’s interesting for children?” But robots can be a starting point, and for the last few years I’ve been cruising Maker Faire looking for the right robot. There are plenty out there which are impressive platforms, but they don’t necessarily do very much out-of-the-box. Or they need complex programming to get started with. Or they’re impressive, but higher-than-BigTrak-level costly.
I quite like the look of the Raspberry Pi-based Pizazz, but what caught my eye at Maker Faire UK the other week was what, to me, really does look like the right robot:
I think this gets several things right, and I might have gone a bit fanboy-gushy about it with creator Ben Pirt. I think he’s made smart decisions about:
- Decent price. Initial production run, via Kickstarter, £50 (in kit form: £60 with a pre-soldered board). Could doubtless be cheaper if mass-produced.
- Small, cute enough: visual appeal isn’t everything, but it helps.
- Built-in wifi access point. You don’t need to cable it into a laptop to give it instructions. You don’t even need an existing network.
- Built-in web server. You don’t need the Arduino development environment to program it, you can assemble simple stuff right in your web browser. Hence, it’s very quick from power-up to running your first code.
- Line-drawing, turtle graphics, and all that. Fun.
- Arduino-based, open hardware and software: so, extensible. It’s still a platform on which you can build.
To my mind, this thing is both immediately appealing and a terrific starting point. Moreover, it’s no accident that Mirobot is like this: Ben’s thinking seems clear and insightful. For example, it would be easy to criticise Mirobot because it’s arguably not a robot at all: in its current form it has no autonomy. Ben’s first stretch goal for his Kickstarter campaign, however, would address that directly. Smart.
Mirobot is currently on Kickstarter, already funded, and is closing in on stretch goals. The early-access units have all gone, but I’ve happily plunked down for one from the first production run, in the autumn. If you’re interested in this stuff I’d highly recommend you do the same. You have fifteen days to comply.
[update 13th May: the Mirobot Kickstarter has passed its first stretch goal, which means Ben will now try to develop a collision detection sensor. With 10 days to go, there’s a decent chance the next stretch goal of a line-following add-on being reached, too.]