Targeting children five and up, these educational robot toys introduce basic programming concepts to children through the use of music and art. One app lets children program the robot to play notes on a xylophone accessory, and is a good way to introduce them to basic programming loops.

Another app involves drawing. “Kids can draw a path that the robot will follow, and then along that path they can draw instructions for the the robots to do. That gives them a sense of how sequencing instructions can work,” Gupta explains. “We wove together programming and play, so that kids don’t feel like they’re programming but are drawn into it in a visual manner.”

The firm had to make some innovative design decisions when prototyping the unit. It began with a modular robot that kids could snap together into different configurations, but it abandoned that idea after the projected price skyrocketed.

Gupta’s team also decided early on to ditch the idea of an internal ‘brain’ for the device. Instead, it relies on the tablet to do most of the computational heavy lifting.

“We can leverage the computer capabilities of an iPad and not have to pay the price of the expensive brain on the robot,” says Gupta. “That helped us to bring the price down because we don’t have to have a lot of memory.”

This decision freed the design team to concentrate on the sensors and actuators for the robot toys. These include distance sensors at the front and back to help them avoid running into walls, and transceivers to detect other robots nearby. It will also sense when you pick it up.

From point and poke to Objective C

The iPad is also the interface for programming the robot. Kids use a visual programming language to guide the unit around, making it suitable for children from five and up. But Gupta also wanted the robot to last longer than just a couple of years, growing with children as they began to expand their programming capabilities. The idea is to introduce other programming languages that are more text-driven, and include more sophisticated concepts, such as object orientation.

Kids from 5-8 can play with the visual programming apps, graduating to Google’s Blockly from 8-12. After that, things open up even more.

”The applications that we’re developing are built using the same API that we are giving to developers,” Gupta says, meaning that teams can try their hand at developing their own iOS and Android apps to program the devices.

Designing for everyone

A lot of work went into producing a gender-and culture-neutral design, Gupta explains. “It’s not a shape that seen elsewhere on the planet. It moves around, and it has one eye rather than two, so it looks different to things that you’d normally see,” he explains. This enables kids to interpret it in their own way without bringing any external baggage to the table.

The baggage can show up in unexpected ways. Gunter says that in early focus group work, Dot had wheels outside its chassis to help it move around. However, young girls were put off by the idea, seeing the devices as robot toys for boys, because they were too car-like.

When the designers integrated the wheels inside the chassis, girls opened up to the robots, and began to engage with them.

“It becomes anything that kids can imagine it to be,” Gupta says. “It’s not something that we force onto them, and that has helped us reach across age and gender and social economic strata. It doesn’t matter where the kids come from.”

There have been some schools in the mix, but the main target audience is parents, explains Gupta.

“We do work in schools where we work with teachers to develop the materials for these robots, and we do work with them to have the robots in classrooms,” he says. “We’re piloting with some schools in the spring quarter.”

Wonder Workshop is feeling its way around the classroom environment, which presents different learning challenges. After all, it’s unlikely that many schools would ever purchase one of these educational robot toys per child, especially given the $169 price tag – and the need for an additional tablet to control the thing.

“We are not the experts here. We want to learn from the teachers. We want to collaborate with them to see how they would best use it in the classroom,” he says.

With educational pricing not on the radar either, it’ll be a while before Dot and Dash find their way into lots of schools.

Wonder Workshop has just been through a major rebranding campaign, renaming itself from Play-i. Dash and Dot used to be called Bo and Yana. Here’s a pre-rebranding video from the firm: