Talking tech since 2003

My brother has two adorable little girls, aged four and two, and they have lots of toys. When it comes time to give gifts for birthdays and holidays, I often draw a blank. So when I heard about the crowd-funding effort for Play-i, a pair of programmable toy robots that might help teach kids the basics behind computer programming, I took notice. This might be the perfect addition to my brother’s tech-infused house, and might be more than just another set of building blocks to litter the floor.

Take a look at the preview video:

A few words about my dear old bro before we continue. I happen to write for a site called BestTechie (as, by now, you should be aware). But as far as the “best techie” in the family’s concerned, there’s no contest. My brother runs his own tech consulting firm in New York, and has accessories in his home to match. If there’s a new and cool gadget out there, you can be sure you’ll probably get to try it out when you go to visit. His garbage can has motion sensors so it opens up when it sees you have trash to throw out. His older daughter has her own Kindle Fire. As I mentioned above—she’s four. My sister-in-law once said of when she agreed to marry him: “I didn’t know I’d gotten engaged to George Jetson.”

My point is that my nieces—whether they’re interested or not—are living in a test bed for the future. Any new, exciting innovation that takes place in tech will likely end up in their house one way or another. So that’s where the Play-I robots come in. It’d be great to give those little girls the tools they might need to keep up with their dad as the world becomes more like his home.

The idea behind the robots comes from recent studies that show how capable kids are of learning the basics of programming. It’s a well-known fact that kids are better at learning new languages while they’re still young. Brains are malleable; linguistic chains are still forming. While it’s not a language anyone would speak vocally, programming works the same way, and helping to instill the basics of programming and logical structures early on will better prepare kids for a future ruled and run by computers. A post on the Verge about the Play-i robots offers up a quote from the company’s founder and CEO, Vikas Gupta, who explains the rationale behind the toys:

“Thinking back on my own life, I began learning computer science at 14. I couldn’t imagine absorbing those programming concepts, at least the way I was taught them, at an early age. But research from MIT and Tufts showed pre-schoolers can grasp programming concepts, most just don’t have the right tools or framework provided to them.”

Kids can program the robots with a simple tablet-based interface. And given how proficient my four-year-old niece already is with her Kindle Fire, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that she’d take to using the Play-i robots like a duck takes to water. The two-year-old still likes to just break stuff, so she might be a tougher sell, but I have a feeling that these robots could really prove to be a hit at my brother’s house.

The two little robots—named Yana and Bo—cost $49 and $149 respectively through Play-i’s crowdfunding effort, which has already earned over $50,000 of its $250,000 goal in one day. The prices will go up after the official launch, which makes sense, and they’ll be shipping in the summer of 2014. That’s too late for the holidays…but it might not matter. The only trick? Making sure that my brother doesn’t buy these for his kids before I get the chance to.


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