While this may sound like the trailer for an upcoming sci-fi flick, it’s actually the brainchild of a tiny Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup packed with dads who just happen to be former execs from the likes of Google Inc. and Apple Inc.
Calling itself Play-i Inc., the seven-person team is on a mission to make computer programming fun and easy. The team has spent the past year or so refining its vision, printing out robot prototypes on its 3-D printer, and scooping up $1 million in venture backing from Google Ventures, Madrona Venture Group and others along the way.
Monday the company launches a crowdfunding campaign to see whether its initial target is the best focus. The company has spent the past few weeks quietly introducing the robots and companion mobile app around Silicon Valley, presenting to early-adopter types and parents working at Yahoo Inc., Google, Facebook Inc., LinkedIn Corp., Apple, Cisco Systems Inc., eBay Inc. and RocketFuel Inc.
Play-i hopes to raise $250,000 from customers ordering either the $49 Yana robot or the $149 robot so it can go into production and begin shipping the first batch by June 2014.
“Our goal is to show customer demand,” said Play-i Chief Executive Vikas Gupta, a father who sold his previous startup to Google with the product ultimately becoming Google Wallet.
Mr. Gupta teamed with former Apple iPad designer Sarabh Gupta (no relation) and other industry execs after reading reports about first graders in Estonia learning to code as part of their basic school curriculum. He said that served as a wake-up call and made him start thinking how to best teach children, including his two-year-old, the basics of what ultimately is a fairly complex undertaking.
So, the team started with pretty icons and friendly looking robots.
Kids as young as five years old are advanced enough to understand coding concepts, Vikas Gupta said.
Kids download the Play-i app which prompts them to choose between a series of icons to create a command series. For example, if a child dragged and dropped a picture of an airplane, a front arrow and red lights, the robot would make the noise of airplane taking off, glide forward and then flash its red lights.
The experience teaches a few things, like causality, sequencing interactions, code re-usability and loops, and sets the stage for them to begin building their own actions using actual code with visual programs including Scratch and Blockly.
To that end, Play-i has opened up its API. The idea is that over time, kids will begin building their own more complex actions and sequences for the robots to undertake and then share them with the larger Play-i community.
Mr. Gupta said along with teaching kids a new process for problem solving it also marks what he hopes will be a permanent shift in the way the next generation interacts with technology.
“They will be the creators and directors not just the consumers,” he said.
The app is available now on iOS with Android planned in the near future. Recent versions of the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch all run the app with the robot connecting to the device wirelessly using Bluetooth 4.0.
Play-i has created two versions of the orange and blue robots so far. Yana (‘You Are Not Alone’) is an orb with sensors, lights and microphones. Bo, which has three of those orbs stacked into a super pyramid, of sorts, has wheels so it can be programmed to move, gather toys on the floor and perform other functions.
The final form of the robot may continue to evolve based on customer feedback. Some of the initial prototypes, which were more rugged, were tossed after girls didn’t want to play with them.
“We hid the wheels and instantly, she [an early tester] was interested,” Mr.Gupta said.