...PicoCricket Kit... Provides a High-Tech Spin on Crafts
By Michel Marriott
THE NEW YORK TIMES
At first blush, the PicoCricket Kit resembles a plastic box of arts and crafts supplies, crammed with colored felt, pipe cleaners, cotton and Styrofoam balls.
But this is a craft kit for the digital age. It includes electronic sensors, motors, sound boxes, connecting cables and a palm-size, battery-powered, programmable computer.
By combining the traditional materials with high-tech ones, children as young as 9 can invent interactive jewelry, fanciful creatures that dance, musical sculptures and more, said Mitchel Resnick, an assistant professor of learning research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.
Resnick, whose work with children and learning at the Media Lab helped the Lego Group create its highly successful Mindstorms robotic construction kits in 1998, said he wanted to produce something in which the emphasis was not on the building of mechanical objects.
Instead, he said he was more interested in encouraging the creation of something artistic, and delivering a technology and programming language that would let young people take more control of how their creations would behave.
“The hope is to get people started with simple projects and let their imaginations run wild,” Resnick said. “I do think young people are very quick to dive in and experiment.” The PicoCricket Kits, he said, “are designed to encourage that sort of experimentation.”
One of the PicoCricket guides, for instance, instructs users on how to turn a birthday cake made mostly of felt, cardboard and drinking straws into an ingeniously interactive one, a cake that can be programmed to shut off the lights in its electrical candles when someone blows on them.
With a few adjustments in the cake’s programming, its artificial candles will even flicker before they go out. With more programming tweaks, the cake can play birthday tunes or be joined with another homemade contraption that will toss confetti into the air.
The $250 kit is the first effort of the Playful Invention Co., or PICO, a Montreal-based company of which Resnick is a co-founder; Lego is a financial backer. (The kit will be available next month from www.picocricket.com, where orders are now being accepted.)
Besides all the parts, the kit includes building guides printed on double-sided placemats, but little more in terms of instructions.
Its central tool is PicoBlocks software, a point-and-click, drop-and-drag programming language. It appears like colored puzzle pieces that can be arranged and combined on a computer screen (PC and Mac) with a mouse. Stringing the labeled pieces together into interlocking sequences can create simple or complex commands.
A USB “beamer,” which is plugged into the computer, transmits the commands to the PicoCricket computer through a series of flashing lights. Motors and sensors are plugged into the PicoCricket, which then performs according to the programming stored in its solid-state memory.
The PicoCricket’s core technology, Resnick said, dates from the 1980s, when MIT and Lego were developing the programmable Lego brick, which led to Mindstorms.
“Putting kids in control is what’s so important to us,” Resnick said, noting that girls as well as boys are drawn to the kit’s creative engineering, according to MIT’s research and workshops globally.
Other developers, too, are producing more open-ended building kits aimed at letting young people create and program their own computerized designs.
The Vex Robotics Design System, developed last year by Innovation First and RadioShack, was created to spur young people to have fun while being inventive. Along the way, many are given hands-on lessons in how mathematics, physics and computer programming can be useful and practical, said Joel Carter, vice president for marketing at Innovation First, a robotics company in Greenville, Texas.
Vex robot kits include instructions, but they encourage young people — generally high school age and older — to tackle problems. “Talk to the average high school students, they are a lot smarter,” Carter said. “They like open-ended problems, and a lot like to take the tools that are available to solve open-ended problems.”
The Vex starter kit, which costs $300, includes more than 500 parts, enough to build remote-controlled robots as well as programmable ones, Carter noted. Programming, he said, is written in easyC, a graphical variant on the C language used by professional programmers.
“It is a cool tool that works with Vex,” he said of easyC, which works on Windows-based personal computers. “It makes Vex accessible and demystifies programming. Relatively young kids can program robots to get them to do what they want them to.”
The programming is transferred to the robot’s microprocessor by way of a serial cable plugged into the computer.
VexLabs systems, which offers more than 20 accessories (including the easyC programming kit, sold separately for $99), have recently been acquired by Innovation First (www.vexlabs.com). This means, Carter said, that the robotics kits will not be sold exclusively in RadioShack stores, but also through other channels.
He also noted that Carnegie Mellon University had developed a curriculum that uses Vex robotics to teach math and sciences.
David Greenbaum, owner of Robot Village, a robotics store and workshop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said the attraction of young people to robotics was only natural.
“These are such exciting times for kids when they can see robots all around them doing things like exploring the oceans and outer space, and helping the sick and elderly in hospitals,” he said. “They want to be a part of that. Learning robotics technology skills gives them a big advantage in unlocking their future possibilities.”
Homemade robots have become such a hot topic lately that Mark Frauenfelder, editor in chief of Make magazine, said much of the magazine’s latest issue was devoted to guiding readers in building their own.
“One thing that really made a big difference is the kits,” Frauenfelder said about the rising popularity in designing, building and programming personal creations. “They have whetted people’s appetites. They see them online, other people home-brewing these really cool robots.”
One robot featured in Make is a “soccer-bot” made from a Lego Mindstorms kit that can be programmed to chase a ping-pong ball and bump it into a goal.
Caleb Chung and Bob Christopher, the co-founders of Ugobe, a robotic technology company in Emeryville, Calif., said they were developing an infant robotic dinosaur, Pleo, that they say will behave so believably that it will invite a relationship as much as play. (Chung was co-inventor of the Furby, the interactive plush toy.)