For Play-i co-founder and CEO Vikas Gupta, coming up with the mission for his company—to make programming fun and accessible for every child—wasn’t the hard part of building the business. The computer scientist and veteran of Amazon and Google could see the need for better programming education, particularly as other countries started to outpace the U.S. in their computer education requirements. “Estonia mandates that fourth graders learn to program,” Gupta says. “It’s a well documented fact. That got me thinking on a few levels. Once you do enough research, you can see there’s clearly a problem.”
Gupta knew he wanted to create something to help kids learn computer languages, but wasn’t sure what age to target. “I found there’s a lot of research from MIT and Tufts showing that kids as young as five can grasp programming concepts,” he says. “It’s about the tools that are accessible to them.”
The hard part was figuring out how to build those tools. “We had a lot of moments in the last year where we would come up with the right answer, and believe that it would work for kids,” he says. “But then we’d completely to back to a blank canvas in the middle of the design process.” The company’s first concept was a modular robot construction and programming kit, but tests showed it didn’t engage kids for very long.
Eventually, Gupta and cofounders Saurabh Gupta, Imran Khan, and Mikal Greaves, formerly of Frog Design, settled on learning robots Bo and Yana. Kids can use an iPad app with a kid-friendly programming language to tell the robots what to do. The co-founders came up with the idea for Bo first; he can be programmed for movement, eye and ear lights, and sound.
Play-i was happy with Bo, but were looking to give their kid-testers something that engaged their imaginations a little more. They wanted to give them a robot that could transform as they moved it around.
“If you give children a very abstract thing to do, like make [the robot] go around in a square, if you give that to five or six-year old, they have a lot of trouble making it happen,” Gupta says. “If it doesn’t happen, they say well, so what. It’s not very rewarding. “
So they added a second robot named Yana, who could be programmed to take on the personae of different characters. Using sound, movement, and light cues, kids can decide they want Yana to sound like a helicopter and flash her lights when they shake her, or have her become a new character every time they turn a page in a book.
“What we’re trying to do with Yana is give stories as context for programming,” Gupta says. “You can bring that character life with gestures, shaking, tapping, bouncing. It’s a way for us to draw children into that world.”
The programming for both robots is all done wirelessly, through a tablet app that communicates with the bots using the Bluetooth low energy standard. So far, the company has built an iOS app, and it’s currently working on an Android version. They expect to have it completed by the time the toys are released in the summer of 2014.
The robots are aimed at children between 5 and 12 or so, with staggered activities so that kids across that age range can get something out of them. Children between 5 and 8 can learn by tweaking code behind the app’s visual interface. Eight to 12 year-olds can follow tutorials and use a programming language called Scratch and a programming editor called Blockly to program the bots. Older kids can simply write code to build applications using the company’s application programming interface (API).
Once the designs for the robots were settled, the next big challenge for the Mountain View, CA-based company was to convince investors and manufacturers that there was really enough interest to bring the toys to market. The company had already raised a $1 million seed round from Google Ventures and Madrona Venture Group back in May, but they wanted proof of concept for other potential investors.
So Play-I launched a crowd funding campaign in October, giving “early backers” the opportunity to reserve their robots in advance. Bo cost $149, Yana $49, and for $499, backers could get both robots and access to the so-far unreleased API.
The company was hoping to sign up $250,000 worth of early orders. They hit their goal in less than a week, and have now raised more than $790,000, with 6 days to go, and about 1,000 slots left in the campaign. “We were hopeful this would happen,” Gupta says. “We were talking about customers ahead of time, people who had tested with the group and wanted to talk to other people [about the toys]. We thought we would get a good start, but we never really knew how successful it would be.”
For Gupta, the initial interest has been great, but the most fun has been watching his daughter, who is only 2, play around with the Bo and Yana. “As a parent, more than anything else, it’s been heartening to see that when you’re building something for all children, your child likes it too.”
Here’s a video about Bo and Yana from Play-i.