Coding isn't a very kid-friendly subject.
It's painstaking, requires tonnes of memorisation, and usually results in a lot of time spent sitting in front of a computer. But it doesn't have to be that way - or at least that's what Google believes.
The Mountain View-based company is taking a page from Apple's playbook. Apple recently announced a Swift Playgrounds app that teaches kids how to code in a fun and easy way through the iPad. When you first open the app, you will see several basic coding lessons and challenges. It's all very reminiscent to Codecademy, but it's much more visual with loads of graphics and games and other playful features.
Not to be outdone by Apple, Google is launching an initiative called Project Bloks. Instead of using an app, it's a system of toy blocks. Kids can connect these blocks to not only learn the fundamentals of coding but ultimately control other toys. They can arrange Bloks toys into a specific pattern in order to, for instance, make a connected robot draw lines on paper. This simple task teaches basic coding.
Google Project Bloks: What is it?
Project Bloks is basic coding put in to a playful, physical form. It's a toy system can take on different form factors and be made out of different materials, but the entire purpose is to help kids develop computational thinking and learn basic coding skills.
Google has published two videos - available above and below - to explain Project Bloks and how it works. In the videos, Google gives a number of examples for what kind of toys can be made with Bloks. We saw a pencil-holding robot that kids can command to draw on paper. We also saw a Bluetooth speaker that can be programmed to play music. Keep in mind Project Bloks isn't the first initiative to use toys for coding.
Fisher-Price has developed toys with the same goal - and they're already on sale. But Google said it hopes Project Bloks can go much further. It wants Project Bloks to make coding toys cheaper and easier to make, thus making the ability to learn coding at a young age much more accessible/widely available.
Google Project Bloks: How does it work?
Project Bloks is made up of three components: Puck, Base Board, and Brain Board. When connected, they instruct connected devices - whether that be toys, speakers, or tablets - over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Pucks can be programmed with different instructions (turn on or off, move left, jump, etc), and they can take the shape of many different interactive forms (switches, dials, buttons, etc). They don't feature any active electronic components, meaning they're cheap and easy to make, and, in fact, all you'd need to make a puck is a piece of paper and some conductive ink.
Base Boards are able to read a Puck’s instruction through a capacitive sensor. They act as a conduit for a Puck’s command to the Brain Board. They are modular and can be connected in a variety of sequences to create different programming flows. Each Base Board features a haptic motor and LEDs that can provide real-time feedback. They can also trigger audio feedback from the Brain Board’s built-in speaker.
The Brain Board is a processing unit, built on a Raspberry Pi Zero. It provides the Base Boards with power. It also features an application program interface (API), enabling it to receive and send data to the Base Boards. It even delivers the Base Boards’ instructions to any device with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity and an API.
Google Project Bloks: When will it be available?
Project Bloks isn't available yet. The project is still in development, as a collaboration between Research at Google, Google Creative Lab, the design firm Ideo, and researchers from Stanford and Chiang Mai University. Google first began developing Project Bloks in 2013. It has unveiled the project now in order to generate interest, find partners, and, perhaps, show how it can contend with Apple's Swift Playgrounds app.
Google doesn't want to become a toymaker. It's introducing Project Bloks as an open-source platform. Google has created most of the technology and coding behind the toys, but it's going to let interested partners - like toymakers - actually develop the toys that'll use its Bloks coding technology. Think of it like Android. Google makes Android, and then it lets phone makers build phones that use the mobile OS.
Toymakers have the experience and resources to create a wide variety of Bloks toys that can be put into the market. We don't know when the first Bloks toys will go on sale, but we'll update this piece over time.
Want to know more?
Check out Google's blog post for more details.