What if building and programming a robot could be child’s play? Literally. Roboticist Mat Walker and ICT teacher Dan Warner think that it should be. It’s why they’ve come up with Ohbot — a programmable robot head for kids — and Ohbot2, an updated version that’s just been funded on Kickstarter.
According to its creators, Ohbot is a “kit robot that primary children can assemble in an hour, connect to a computer and bring to life by scripting programs using easy drag-block software modelled on Scratch.”
Coding is becoming a key part of the curriculum in UK schools. My son is only four and he’s already playing around with apps like Lightbot and Kodable, which incorporate basic programming logic into colourful, cartoon puzzles. The Ohbot adopts a similar fun and visual approach to computational thinking.
We played around with the original Ohbot and its Arduino-compatible servo controller earlier this year. While it was initially challenging to set up, my children got to grips with it quickly, delighting in the way that they could make the robot’s head move and program it to speak, just by specifying a few basic commands using the visual interface.
Ohbot can talk, move its head, smile and even frown at you
“Ohbot can do so many things,” explains Mat Walker. “It can talk, move its head, smile and frown. You can program its eyes to follow you around the room… But what kids like the most is the way it talks. You tell it what to say and its lips synchronise automatically with the words you’ve given it. I’ve seen so many children make Ohbot tell their parents to behave!”
Since the original Ohbot launched in March 2015, Mat and Dan have delivered hundreds of robots to children, teachers, academics and enthusiasts across the world.
“Through the summer of 2015 we continued to sell kits from the website,” says Mat, “switching to wooden laser cut parts, and we also appeared at science fairs all over the country including BBC Make it Digital in Bristol, Cardiff, London and Hull.”
The Ohbot2 (above) aims to take their idea further, improving it and making it more accessible. The upgraded robot will use plastic moulded parts, making it easier to assemble. It will also come with a new Arduino controller board, a more expressive mouth (with two lips), deeper eyelids, plus an expanded range of software instruction blocks, including calls to web services (like Wikipedia) and network messaging.
The Ohbot2 is priced at £149 for a ready-made model or £99 for a build-it-yourself kit. An upgrade will also be available for £49, enabling existing Ohbot1 owners to upgrade their robo-heads to the new, more expressive Ohbot2.
“We’re continually surprised by how much children achieve in half an hour at the fairs,” says Mat, “including getting stuck in to variables and face tracking. Children who have never used Scratch before [usually] get Ohbot moving and talking in half an hour.”