With PicoCricket, MIT Spinoff is Out to Prove Computer Toys Aren’t Just for Boys

9/14/07Follow @wroush

As a boy growing up in the early 1970s, I owned my share of plastic space toys, robots, ray guns, and construction sets. But one of the toys I remember most fondly was my grandmother’s “Make-It Box,” a picnic basket full of household items such as empty oatmeal cartons, egg crates, paper-towel rolls, pipe cleaners, and electrical tape. Whenever my little brother and I stayed at Grandma’s house, we’d spend hours crafting these throwaway materials into bizarre animals, vehicles, and other fancies.

Yet while the Make-It Box was a wonderful canvas for the imagination, I doubt that it would have held our attention if we had also had access to the Lego Mindstorms robotics kit, which debuted a quarter-century later, in 1998. There’s a reason that Mindstorms—probably the most famous product ever to emerge from the MIT Media Lab—has become Lego’s all-time best-selling toy: the 519-piece kit, which is built around the “NXT Intelligent Brick,” a 32-bit microprocessor that can be programmed to drive three servo motors as well as sensors for sound, touch, and light, is a work of classic young-geek machismo. One glance at the Lego Mindstorms website, which features robotic backhoes and scorpions, shows how unabashedly the product is marketed to bot-obsessed boys (and dads).

PicoCricket KitYet that’s not how the project started out at the Media Lab, and some researchers in the lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, where the intelligent-brick concept was born, have for years held out hopes of marketing a more craft-oriented version of Mindstorms. Last year they finally took the plunge, bringing out a completely re-imagined construction set called the PicoCricket Kit. Remove its core component—the PicoCricket, a programmable mini-brain similar to the NXT brick—and the kit is basically an updated Make-It Box, consisting of pipe cleaners, beads, mini-pom-poms, googly-eyes, Lego bricks, and other items designed to help boys and girls’ imaginations roam.

“Our original idea was about craft, and it was gender-neutral,” says Brian Silverman, president of the Playful Invention Company (PICO), which created PicoCricket. “Lego reinterpreted it, adding the lightning bolts and hard edges and geek colors. They can hardly be criticized—they know their market and they built something that was very appropriate for their market. But we always sort of hoped that we could provide access to these materials to a broader set of kids.”

The main difference between Mindstorms and the PicoCricket Kit? “We tried to make it not scream out ‘little boy,’” says Silverman, who founded the Montreal-based company in 2002 with educational software designer Paula Bonta and Mitchel Resnick, Lego Professor of Learning at the Media Lab and head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group. “We wanted to build something softer, more craft-like, more gender-neutral.” Of course, there’s nothing stopping girls from using Lego Mindstorms. But put an octopoid Lego robot and a tackle box full of beads and pom-poms down in a classroom of second-graders and watch which kids gravitate to which.

The PicoCricket processorPICO has been quietly selling the $250 kit to schools, science museums, and parents through its website and a few international distributors since the summer of 2006. With this “shakedown phase” nearing its end, the company is beginning to think about selling the product more widely, says Silverman. “We’re now quite confident that the design really works,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that what we had was technically solid before we mounted a real marketing campaign.”

A cynical observer might dismiss the PicoCricket Kit as “Mindstorms meets Martha Stewart”—a mere repackaging of the programmable brick idea with cuddlier accessories. But that would miss the point. Silverman argues that the Mindstorms kits, and most other Lego kits, are configured largely to allow customers to build the specific models shown on the boxes. PicoCricket, on the other hand, is about giving kids a chance to build objects out of their imaginations, then program them with interesting behaviors. One example suggested on the activity cards that come with the kit: a cardboard cat equipped with a light sensor that triggers a meowing sound when the user strokes the cat’s back.

“Lego doesn’t see themselves as a brick company; they see themselves as a model company, in that the units they sell are the models, rather than the elements,” Silverman says. “We are more of an elements company. We’re not even really trying to teach kids about programming—it’s about allowing them to use their imaginations.”

Before setting up PICO, Silverman says, he and Resnick pitched the idea for the PicoCricket kit to Lego. But the product didn’t fit into the company’s plans, and all parties eventually agreed that it would be best to develop the toy independently of the Denmark-based giant. “They are friends and they are following us closely, and we keep them informed about what we are doing,” Silverman says.

Interesting, PICO’s coming marketing campaign probably won’t be built around the Christmas holiday, Silverman says. Instead, the company may target the early summer of 2008, when thousands of children will troop off to robotics camps. And it may try harder to get PicoCricket directly into homes. While the company hasn’t done any formal user studies, it’s gathered many anecdotes about families gathering around the kitchen table with the kits.

“More than we expected, it was actually grandmothers doing this with their grandkids,” says Silverman. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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