01 Jun Making Fiction Into Science. Photon – a Robot That Teaches Kids to Code
It all began with a single call. Bunch of IT obsessed engineers and programmers from Bialystok (a city in northwestern Poland) had a crazy idea and wanted to share it with us. They intended to build a robotic teacher that introduces kids into the world of programming. They had great talent and ideas but needed a really good design. Something that would make the robot stand out and acquire personality. The task felt challenging, but that’s the kind we love the most. In a matter of days the deal was made, and we began our magic.
The Idea For Photon
According to more and more studies conducted all over the world most required and top paying jobs belong to so called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). In four years there will be a gap of over a million computing jobs and candidates available for grabbing.
Martin, Michael, Mike, Chris and Maciej, four students and a single lecturer from Bialystok University of Technology had a mission. They wanted to take part in closing that gap and proving that with a proper set of tools even a six year old can successfully learn how to code.
How Does it Work
First, a few words about the robot himself.
- Adventure with Photon begins right after taking him out of the box and installing his paired application.
- The child learns that the robot crashed while landing on earth and his spaceship is in shambles. Robot asks his owner to aid him in collecting ship parts and soon begins to give out first coding related tasks through the app.
- The programming language used here is inspired by Google Blockly and Scratch.
- Robot keeps on providing the children with new challenges and daily tasks. He speaks to them using their language and incorporates their love for discovery into all activities. As kids love to experiment with their world, they can easily identify with the robot and help him with learning about his new surroundings.
- Robot comes equipped with a proximity sensor, a light sensor, a microphone, encoders, a pair of programmable LED eyes, a touch sensor, loudspeaker and a mouth. A set of tires grants him the ability to move around freely, while sensors make him aware of his surroundings.
Our Little Revolution Begins!
The idea sounded great on paper. Intelligent toy, that one can befriend and learn useful stuff with sounds incredible. But children have very refined tastes. They won’t accept just any toy. Here’s when our job begun. We dashed to our office’s whiteboard and wrote down most basic goals regarding the design.
The robot had to:
- Look friendly
- Move on two wheels
- Feel unique and far from most people consider as a stereotypical “robot”
- Have a design accenting his curiosity and smartness
- Be appealing for both girls and boys
- Feel like a cartoon or comic hero
Breaking the Stereotypes
Breaking the stereotypes is our main goal when approaching any design. That’s why we thought, that making a classical robot would be boring and not engaging enough. Robots are often associated with B class flicks where all they do is beeping and clanking. That doesn’t sound too appealing, even if it may be a tad funny.
Mike P., who spends most of his time between working for us drawing comics, ended up as a lead designer of the project. He made all the team collect ideas, listed their favorite childhood heroes and cartoon characters and spent weeks researching the topic with the help of the entire team. We wanted Photon to be a hero figure. Mysterious visitor from outer space that ended up on earth by an unfortunate string of events. Our team created hundreds of sketches, until we found one that appealed to children the most. Sketches quickly turned to 3D models and printed prototypes.
Space theming had a huge impact on the design. That’s why Photon looks like an alien. His straight-line eyes and head antennae accent it the most. He’s even more entertaining when powered on, as said elements can glow in dozens of colors. The theme is also included in the packaging design. Cubic cardboard box looks like a spaceship and plays integral part in the entire story.
Tailoring the App
We were also tasked with designing the layout of the mobile app. It plays crucial role in the entire project as kids use it to communicate with the robot, complete programming tasks and develop Photon similarly to an RPG character. Testing the initial version with kids made us realize that they need lots of visual hints to understand everything. We started moving from a text based UI to something relying on colors, shapes and cartoony creatures. Thanks to that: a big part of the app can be used without even knowing how to read.
Testing with Professionals
And by these we mean our kindergarten specialists. Each step of the design process was consulted with kids. We showed it to children of our friends and took it co kindergartens, orphanages and other similar places. Kids had final decisions on which characters to use or what quality of life improvements can be done to the design.