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E.T. comes home

A 'toy' robot developed by an Israeli firm is taking on more 'adult' roles
Robots in the 'standard platform' division compete at the RoboCup championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands, on June 27, 2013.  (photo credit: AP/Toby Sterling)
Robots in the 'standard platform' division compete at the RoboCup championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands, on June 27, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Toby Sterling)

Meet Robit, the spinning, spying, singing robot that can wake you up, find your keys, and teach your kids how to code at breakfast.


Brothers Shlomo and Elazar Schwarcz came up with the idea last year when they were trying to teach their children about programing. ‘It wasn’t going well,’ says Shlomo. ‘My son only wanted to play with the iPad.’ Such is the defeat that most parents encounter when they try to introduce their children to anything less animated than Smurf’s Village. ‘He just wasn’t interested in the basic programming games that I was.’ Shlomo, by contrast, taught himself to program at the age of eight.

Tablets and smartphones have evolved into on-demand child entertainment for parents in need of a little adult time. However, the slickness of design and the ease of interface cover up the backend. ‘Kids [and adults for that matter] have no idea what’s inside or how it works.’ But, Shlomo insists, they should.

‘When I asked my son what kind of computer program he would like to design, he said he wanted dinosaurs fighting.’ To create a game with roaring reptiles and exploding volcanos, Shlomo figured his son would need years of programming experience. ‘Let’s talk when you graduate university,’ Shlomo said to himself.

That’s when he realised that kids need to see the fruit of their labour. ‘Writing a lot of code to move a line across the page doesn’t exactly cut it.’

So Shlomo, who runs his own software firm, and Elazar, a Technion-trained mechanical engineer, decided that in the evenings, after a full day’s work, they would build an interactive learning program, so that for each line of code, there would be a visible result.

Brothers Shlomo and Elazar Schwarcz at work with Robit.
Brothers Shlomo and Elazar Schwarcz at work with Robit.

Within a few months, Robit began to take shape. At first, the progeny was just a Raspberry Pi 2 single board computer on a set of wheels. The little one rolled around the lab (as in Shlomo’s garage in Netanya), and was controlled by a smartphone app. Yet Robit did not look like anything that Shlomo’s son would have played with, nor did the creature have any personality. So the brothers brought in Ilya Kaplun, an industrial designer from Bezalel Academy to give Robit some more humanoid features. After months of design testing, and 70 hours of labour on a something3D printer out came Robit, a possible distant relation of E.T.

The resemblance is not only in looks. With ultrasonic sensors stored in his chest, Robit sees the way radars do; with a hidden microphone, Robit hears; and with an open source software brain, Robit thinks.

A jack of all trades, Robit can be trained to run into bowling pins, speak foreign languages, stream music, read stories, and chase cats – or your neighbour’s cat, in particular. Kids can download and install programs from Robit’s Developers Site or they can write their own apps with Python (the simplest of computer code out there). The idea is that kids will be able to program something that moves and grooves just like they do. ‘And the more the child learns to code, the more Robit does.’

More than just a toy for children, Robit is able to find misplaced items, video record live events, keep appointments and read out the latest news headlines. Robit even has the potential to assist blind people, and à la Waze, announce hazards ahead.

Robots have been used for years in the military and in manufacturing plants, but now they are coming home. As MIT Robotics Professor Cynthia Breazeal explains, mobile computing is now so ubiquitous that ‘it’s possible to build a sophisticated social robot at a mass consumer price point.’ Breazeal has developed and crowdsourced her own, perhaps competing, social robot called Jibo. Priced at $749, Jibo is designed as a domestic robot that can take pictures, keep appointments and entertain children. Meanwhile, LEGO has successfully marketed Mindstorms, a toy robot for $599. At the higher end, Aldebaran Robotics has released a humanoid metre-tall robot named Pepper, who for $1586, keeps people happy with its emotion recognition technology.

The Schwarczs aren’t phased by the competition. Priced under $350, Robit is the only social robot that can teach kids to code. Though LEGO’s Mindstorms can be programed, they come with more than 500 LEGO pieces. With the help of a 12 year old boy and 16 year old girl, one reviewer built a Mindstorm robot in three hours. Robit wants to get kids programing much earlier.

In line with the ‘Hour of Code’ initiative from and the MIT-led Scratch program, the Schwarczs believe that girls and boys can learn to program before the age of ten. Shlomo’s daughter is six and she programs Robit just as well as her eight year old brother. Perhaps Robit could also help bridge the gender gap in Computer Sciences.

President Obama pushes for Computer Science in early education.

After winning 3rd place in the Tel Aviv University Startup Innovation Contest, the Schwarczs and Robit are getting ready to launch their first crowd-funding campaign, in which they hope to raise $70,000. Still buzzing around the garage, Robit will soon cruise into a playroom near you.

About the Author
Lauren Blanchard is an International Relations graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Since moving to Israel, she has developed a habit of long distance beach running, dropping bits of wearable technology into the sea, and writing about start-ups and society.
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