It’s often easy to get lost in Google I/O and the ‘Big’ announcements which are as often as not consumer facing. At its core though, Google I/O is a developer conference and part of that, Google believes, is getting the next generation involved. Prior to Google I/O kicking off, a ‘Youth I/O’ was held, with over 120 third-to-eighth graders from local Bay Area schools attending to learn about coding, robotics and more.
Youth IO is an outreach program designed to engage students in hands-on activities divided into three parts – starting with designing a custom robotic monster and then bringing it to life. Students also designed a 3D monster mobile, and created a digital cartoon to tell their monster’s unique story.
The event was keynoted by Brent Bushnell CEO of two Bit Circus an engineering and Entertainment company based out of Los Angeles, who builds fun projects that engage and entertain audiences using a number of platforms.
Mr Bushnell imparted a number of words of wisdom to the crowd, who were very attentive given the age group he was talking to.
He spoke about how he is proud of being a nerd and how he believes there has never been a better time in history of being a nerd – wise words being spoken in Silicon Valley, a hub of ‘new money’, where the average house price hovers around $1 million USD, and being a nerd can certainly get you on the way to an income where that’s ‘affordable’.
He focused on the change in what ‘nerd’ means, moving on from the pale geek hunched over a computer to a broader more complete person, even referencing Da Vinci as a ‘cool’ nerd.
Challenges are important part of being a nerd he said, he and his partner challenge themselves to building a new project every month. One of his projects have included a 6-person table top arcade machine which encourages group interactions – he encouraged group projects as finding friends to work on things with makes everything more fun. This feeds into the final two pieces of advice he had for the budding nerds:
- Carry a notebook, write anything you don’t understand down and look it up later.
- Find a friend – find a friend who likes to build stuff, because stuff is better when you build with a friend.
Dotted around the tent housing Youth IO were snack stations for the kids and beanbags to rest if they wanted – sort of like how Google’s HQs are set up at Mountain View, in Sydney and indeed around the world. The various design and activity areas were setup to help the kids achieve their goals throughout the day with 3D-printers, and plenty of other resources including lego to help get the day going.
Easily the coolest project the students got to partake in was the building of a robotic character. The design was fairly straight-forward with designs of pre-fab cutouts laid out for picking and choosing for the students to make a robot monster . The designs were provided by Nintendo who also brought along Pikachu for the day.
Once the creative part of the monster design was completed, the actual body of the monster was inserted into the shell. The body, designed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a plastic robotic unit with movable arms, and wheels on the base to move it around. There’s also a bunch of touch sensors and accelerometer inside and multi-coloured LEDs.
Once the kids assembled them, they learned to program them using Scratch, an application also developed by MIT. The application is actually Scratch Junior, a new app they built for Android with Blockly – A drag and drop language made by Google. It’s a simple interface on a tablet that lets them chain actions together and then have the robot play them back – lift one, or both arms, roll around, blink the LEDs etc. There was also a phone app with pre-defined text commands that the budding engineers could type in commands such as ‘Act like a monkey’ and have the bot respond appropriately.
The bot is built, dressed and programmed, so it’s obviously time to let it loose. Google was showing off the results of the Youth I/O experiments in their Kids Sandbox and here it is:
At this stage, this is just a prototype, there’s no plans to release these bots as a viable product for sale – but looking at them I wish they would.