Root’s app has three levels of gamified coding. In the first level, kids build programs by using colorful “blocks” that represent code. As they progress, they unlock more of these modules and can make the robot perform more actions. The robot comes with a scanner on the bottom that can detect colors, and it also lights up with colors, makes noises, and holds a pen or marker so that it can draw as it moves. Once students are advanced enough, the code begins to look less like blocks and more like actual programming.
“We came up with the blocks because we decided on the core functions on the robot, and then we turned those into blocks,” explained Root cofounder and CEO Zee Dubrovsky during a hands-on demo. “Everything you see here are events and actions.”
Dubrovsky showed me how to create loops — for instance, commanding Root to continually flash between four colors — and how to make win conditions for a mini-game. In the example game, the player must tap the robot when the lights are green, which stops the lights from flashing and triggers a little victory sound.
In another example, a foldable whiteboard that comes with Root can become a race course. The robot performs various actions when it encounters different colored lines.
“Maybe the robot speeds up or slows down or drives backwards,” said Dubrovsky. “So the game experience introduces these new fun things you do with the robot, and then it takes you through that coding experience, how to implement them in code.”
Root Robotics crowdfunded nearly $400,000 in a Kickstarter campaign in October, and it’s also raised $2.5 million so far in a seed round led by the investment firm TLP. Coding & Play, which has 50 locations in South Korea, also invested, as did the Tokyo-based business development firm Dream Incubator.
“We’re very much about investing in children’s health issues and also in educational elements,” said TLP’s director of business development Carl Traynor in an interview with GamesBeat. “We see this gap with STEM and STEAM related to having tools for teachers to use in classrooms. It just happens to be that in the Asian market, parents are really acutely aware of that gap, and they’re taking an active interest in fixing that gap.”
After-school tutoring is enormously popular in Asia. The market is projected to reach $165 billion by 2021 in China alone, according to Bloomberg. It’s prime territory for something like Root, which a learning center like Coding & Play could tout as giving its students a competitive edge — and in fact its partnership with Root gives it exclusive distribution rights in South Korea. But Traynor thinks that the coding robot will see success in the U.S. as well, particularly in extracurricular programs that specialize in teaching students how to program.
“We see the early adopters being the coding camps. There are two major coding camps in the U.S.,” said Traynor. “We can’t discuss this right now, but we’re actively involved in negotiations about this tool for their coding camps. We see it being a short step from those coding camps into the curricula for schools and other programs.”