A Day with Bo & Yana (educational robots)

I work in the Computer Science Department at the University of Maryland. Sometimes, robots come for a play date 🙂

As I walk into the Maryland Computer Science Department undergraduate lounge, what appears to be a pile of blue balls bumps into my foot. I look down. The top ball on the pile blinks.

I have just met Yana, an educational robot created by the Play-i company. An undergraduate student stands across the room from me holding an iPad. He laughs and apologizes for bumping my foot before pressing the iPad screen with his index finger. Yana rolls away from me. He presses the screen again and she turns left, before blinking and stopping in front of Maryland Computer Science Department Research Scientist Vibha Sazawal. Dr. Sazawal reaches down and scoops up Yana, placing her on a table in front of a small xylophone. Taking the iPad from Yana’s previous controller, Dr. Sazawal swipes the screen a few times. Yana begins to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the xylophone before her.

Dr. Sazawal is an advisor to Play-i, specifically in their development of Yana and Bo (a smaller, immobile version of Yana). Dr. Sazawal’s work on tools for children’s programming, done with CS students and colleagues from other parts of campus, have helped her provide advice and feedback to Play-I as they develop their commercial product, she says. With help from Dr. Sazawal and other advisors, Bo & Yana are being developed to be easily programmable through a child friendly user interface. The interface is completely visual and controlled by touch, which will allow children as young as 5 years old and children who lack to the ability to read and write to play with Bo & Yana. The ultimate goal is for the robots to teach programming fundamentals and computational thinking skills in a fun, interactive way.

Bo & Yana are intended to provide fun for children of all ages, not just kindergarteners. To this end, Play-i plans to leave the API open so that older children and even adults can use any language to develop programs for Bo & Yana. Although Bo & Yana are still in development, Play-i launched a crowd funding campaign to produce these robots earlier this month. The campaign offers the robots at a discounted price and has already reached its initial goal of $250,000 and has 1,220 backers. They hope to meet their stretch goal of $350,000 by the end of the month.

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